Saturday, 18 May 2013

World Hockey Championships Quarterfinals: Canada 2, Sweden 3 (SO)

Not that Sweden is ever a pushover in international competition, on Olympic-sized ice, at home, but the final score for this World Hockey Championship quarterfinal game is surprising.  We saw a Canadian team that was neck deep in scoring talent at forward manage only two goals.  Meanwhile, the goaltending was solid, as was expected at the start of the tournament, and Mike Smith was large in net, confident, moved the puck well, and acquitted himself of the task honourably.

My focus was on the defence corps, a definite weakness at the start of the tourney, replete as it was with Luke Schenns and Brendan Dillons and Jay Harrisons.  Not to exaggerate, but my first take when the roster was announced was that it was definitely underwhelming, and that it wouldn't even be a very strong unit on an NHL team.  Later, Steve Yzerman added Dan Hamhuis, who's a capable, mobile defensively-oriented piece, but not necessarily what the team needed, then publicly stated he was going to stand pat with the team he had, unless injuries struck.

Now, the elephant in the room, certainly in Montréal and online media, was that P.K. Subban was an available offensive force from the blue line yet didn't receive a call.  Historically, Team Canada has been built from professional players eliminated from Stanley Cup contention.  Some teams, especially in the eighties and nineties if memory serves, would start with a skeleton roster, picking the best of the worst, the pearls from the teams who didn't make the playoffs.  They'd try to muddle through until some stronger teams which were bounced from the first round had more players to offer, and then stock up on some of those goodies.  What was found was that while the pieces were more impressive, the teams were not cohesive and didn't add up to the sum of their parts.  The jetlagged, dejected players from eliminated NHL teams who were added at the last minute didn't have a chance to adapt to the ice surface, their teammates, the style of play, etc.  They didn't provide punch they were expected to.

So Team Canada moved away from this practice, and tended lately to mostly fill out its roster with eager younger players and add a deluxe piece or three later on, and this seemed to work out better.  The team worked better as a unit, its players were more committed.  The team gelled.

Which this year seemed to point towards the addition of P.K. Subban.  After the Canadiens were eliminated, it was spoken of as a 'fait accompli'.  Why the hesitation?  Did Steve Yzerman worry about team chemistry, with P.K.'s strong personality a concern?  Did his lack of discipline from last season, and a noteworthy lapse in the late-season game against Pittsburgh on national television, tinge the esteem the management team had for him?  How can there not be room on the blueline for one of this year's Norris Trophy candidates?  Did Steve Yzerman relent when Lindy Ruff advocated for his inclusion, knowing full well from facing the Canadiens the last couple of years what an impact P.K. could make on this D-corps?

In any case, P.K. was added to the roster, got a practice in, and then played a regular shift in this game.  He seemed to know what was expected of him, since he played hard and tough, but also spent a lot of time skating up the puck and rushing into the Sweden zone.  He was the can-opener to their defence, as it was, the Swedish players having a tough time keeping up to his skating and figuring out his dekes.  He managed to score a goal, but unfortunately after the second period buzzer had sounded.  Eventually, P.K. wasn't the difference maker, Team Canada falling short due to a surprising lack of offence from the elite forward corps.

At the start of this season, I thought P.K. had to play very hard, disciplined hockey and keep his nose clean both on and off the ice to merit inclusion on the Sochi Olympics team.  I thought he'd done a remarkable job of that, despite a couple of blips, and had gone from a darkhorse candidate to one who was routinely mentioned by prognosticators as a sure thing, on the strength of his offensive explosion and stellar play.  Now it seems the battle isn't quite won.  He'll have to be excellent in the first couple of months of next season to cement his participation on Team Canada.  Of course, now, so will Carey Price.

In any case, the real lowlight of this game though was the inexplicable act committed by Alex Edler on Eric Staal.  For a reason that I and numerous other commentators can't understand, Mr. Edler rushed at Eric Staal and collided knee-on-knee with him, with the latter suffering an injury.  Mr. Edler was ejected from the game, and will suffer additional sanctions from the IIHF.

What Mr. Edler was trying to accomplish is baffling.  He didn't play or attempt to play the puck, holding his stick to his left side while he crashed into Mr. Staal with his right knee.  He didn't try to bodycheck the Canadian player, actually veering away from him slightly at the moment of impact.  Was he trying to avoid hitting his head, since Mr. Staal was leaning forward at the time?  That's the best I can come up with, and that's really stretching it.

Most knee-on-knee collisions occur when a player is 'on the train tracks' in his attempt to bodycheck an opponent, and the opponent senses this and veers away.  The checker is committed and unwilling to let the 'checkee' slide by, and tends to react by sticking out a knee or sometimes an elbow.  Now, this is an explanation but not an excuse.  The player trying to deliver the check is responsible for not targeting the head or, in this case, deliver a knee-on-knee hit.  If he miscalculates and the opportunity to deliver a clean check disappears, he has to adapt, he has to let the player go, and in the future adjust his strategy, be aware that if he commits he needs to hit his target square on, or risk letting him go entirely.

In this case, Alex Edler could have stayed at the blue line.  He could have poke-checked the puck, to himself for a relatively clear path to the net, or a teammate.  He could have bodychecked, either to wrest the puck away, or harder, to cream Eric Staal.  What he did instead is still bewildering.

The thing is Alex Edler is not a tough or dirty player.  He's a slick puck-mover who quarterbacks the Canucks' powerplay.  He has size and can play the body, but has enough hockey sense and puck skill that he's not chained to that option, a thuggish one-trick pony.

The 'good news' is that Eric Staal doesn't have a blown ACL, but rather a third-degree tear of his MCL.  While this is still a grave injury, it usually doesn't require surgery.  It's hoped that three months of rehab will stabilize the joint and he'll be ready to resume skating.  It doesn't mitigate however the brain-deadness of the act, and the severity of the transgression.

An unfortunate incident in a disappointing game and end of tournament for Team Canada at the Worlds, which is going home without a game in the medal round for the fourth straight year.

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