Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Olympic Hockey Quarterfinal: Canada 2, Latvia 1

The Olympic hockey tournament has been an eye-opener for me.  I was expecting a much better style of hockey, more fan-friendly and wide-open, based not only on the bigger ice surface, but also the higher talent level of the top teams involved.  Who didn't expect a couple of blowouts from the Russian team, with names like Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk among the forwards? 

Instead, we've watched boring games, with a stifling brand of hockey played by outclassed teams grimly trying to hang on, hoping that the talent nullification provided by the bad ice will keep the game close and maybe let them get to an overtime period or a shootout when anything can happen.  It's anti-hockey abetted by the international cross-pollination of systems, by aggressive coaching and training tools, by rigourous physical conditioning for players, and by the steady downward spiral of refereeing standards.  The trap lives because refs have to let the multitude of little slashes and trips and hooks and holds and obstructions slide, since they have in the past, and slowly their tolerance increases and more gets by and now Norway and Latvia can give Canada a close game, if not a good one.

Some quick thoughts on today's 'victory':

1)  Is Chris Kunitz destined to become the Rob Zamuner or the Kris Draper of this team, the miscast undertalented role player selected to the national team roster for a specific reason but who doesn't deliver the goods?  He was brought on because of his purported chemistry with Sidney Crosby, and the only way he could justify that decision was by picking up at least a point a game on goals scored by his line.  Instead he looks ungainly, sluggish.  He muffed a perfect setup in the first period, clanging an open look on net off the crossbar.  Sure, he came close, but he wasn't brought on to come close, like Mathieu Darche or Dale Weise.  He's on the team to convert some of Sidney's magic.

Equally damning is how, while the Latvians were hitting everything that moved, and ran around unabated mostly during the whole game, he didn't respond physically.  I couldn't help but notice how on a forecheck in the second period, he was hot on the heels of a Latvian player who managed to clear the puck out of his zone.  However, instead of crunching him into the boards and 'finishing' his check, like the Latvian team were doing, and how the referees were benignly allowing them to do very late after the puck was gone, Mr. Kunitz breezed by, barely brushing the Latvian player.  Based on the standards being set in this game, he would have had plenty of leeway to deliver a good hit and continue on his way.

If he's not contributing on the scoreboard, he should at least be trying to chip in some other way, any way.  He could have made a few Latvian players take note of him after a good solid check, put their heads on a swivel, make them hurry their play the next time they held the puck.  He wasn't the only one who chose to play a finesse game on the Canadian roster, but I think the coaching staff will pause the video during their game review session, and scratch their heads as to why he didn't deliver a hit on this specific instance, when the situation cried out for it.

2)  Rick Nash isn't Rick Nash anymore.  He used to be this crazy freak, with huge size and speed and amazing hands who'd dazzle you, but tonight he looked big and lethargic, and I'd say that's been mostly true the entire tournament so far.  I don't second-guess his inclusion on the roster, he's kind of impossible to ignore based on his résumé and past production, and his service to Team Canada at multiple World Championships, but I can't help but think that this slump of a season he's in isn't necessarily an anomaly anymore, but maybe the new normal for him.

3)  The Canadian defence is really good.  That Duncan Keith-Shea Weber pairing is amazing, and Drew Doughty can carry anyone, he might as well be playing with Josh Gorges, it wouldn't make a difference.

I was wondering during the game if Mike Babcock was regretting not having P.K. Subban on his bench as an ace up his sleeve, how in such a tight game he might have made a difference, but I couldn't convince myself that he was.  It's not like he wasn't getting an offensive component from his defence corps.  They were first on the puck and they moved it up the ice but quick and jumped in the play and got chances.  I don't think he's concerned with his d-men at all, he's probably going to focus on his impotent forward group from now until Friday.

4)  Carey Price had a thankless task, being asked to stand idle for big chunks of the game, but then be razor sharp on a few occasions, since he didn't have any sort of cushion.  Good job by him holding the fort.

Meanwhile, as good as the Latvian goalie was, I got frustrated with his flopping and histrionics really early.  Dude, if you want that much attention and have to collapse in exhaustion so often, maybe you should take up soccer, you'd fit right in.

5)  Unfortunate that John Tavares was injured and will not play on Friday, but I don't think it's that worrisome.  You have Matt Duchene as a reserve, ready to go, there's no need to cry in our corn flakes, we just plug that guy in the roster and keep rolling.

Of course, this line of thinking applies to Team Canada and its supporters.  If however you're the New York Islanders, then please, be my guest, go ahead and worry.

6)  Not to beat on Chris Kunitz too much, but I was idly wondering during the game how well a Taylor Hall skating and hitting with abandon might have fared on Sidney's left wing.

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