If I can be faulted for anything aside from barely hiding my Canadian bias in my Olympic hockey team previews, it was probably beating the horse that was the expression “single-elimination tournament” a few too many times after it had clearly kicked the bucket. We get it. Upsets can happen.
But, upsets do happen, so I tried to emphasize that point to get out ahead of the garbage conversations I’m going to have to have if Canada drops their quarterfinal hockey game to Trinidad & Tobago (or whoever) and everyone in Canada thinks we need to overhaul our minor hockey system and strap Steve Yzerman to a catapult aimed at Nunavut and cut the strings.
Canada probably beats a team like their group-mate Norway 19 times out of 20, but that still leaves a five percent chance that the Canadians become the recipients of a different type of metal after hockey at the Olympics. Like maybe hammers-and-shovels type metals when the angry mob catches up to them.
Sometimes things just go wrong. You hit six posts, you get jobbed on a call and your star player contracts boneitis in warmups. The momentum starts to go the other way, guys get down on the bench, and holy applesauce-on-pancakes, we just lost to Belarus.
So, how can it go wrong for your team when you’re that much better than your opponent?
Basically…sometimes hockey just happens.
Hockey’s a little like poker in that you don’t have to be dealt a great hand to win, but it sure helps. Some games everything just falls your way – the rebounds get kicked out to your tape, it hops over the opposing d-man’s stick as you’re rushing out to defend his shot, and all the passes you see land flat. Some other games you get dealt a two-seven off-suit, and every pass is a pin-less grenade flying towards you at ankle height.
Take one of the most jaw-dropping Olympic upsets outside anything with “Miracle” in its label: the 2002 Belarussian upset of the heavily-favored Swedes.
How many times does Tommy Salo make this save on a 70-foot shot out of 100? 99, right? 98.5?
Said Salo after the game:
“The shot hit me somewhere around my neck, and I thought I could get a glove on it. I didn’t feel it hit my back, but somehow it went in.”
Sometimes the puck just hits you in the neck funny (words to live by, those). And while you have to plan for some of those things to happen occasionally given the nature of hockey, they can pile up against you quick in a tournament with a format like the Olympics. It doesn’t make you a bad team. But it can take you out of the medals.
Here’s a goal from the NHL this year that happened in overtime and was caught by cameras, yet wasn’t ruled a goal because hey…sometimes the calls just don’t go your way.
Regardless of what you think of the call above, most fans can name a call that didn’t go their teams’ way that drastically altered the outcome of the game. Like, say, if you’re a Leafs fan…actually I can’t think of one for them, the Leafs almost always get great officiating. I can’t think think of a call or non-call that stands out in the minds of their fans.
Anyways, refs are human and doing their best, but the sheer magnitude of hockey at the Olympics doesn’t seem like it would decrease the amount of their oopsies-per-game (OPG).
Momentum, pressure and forcing it
I’ve read game stories from that Belarus/Sweden game that talk about when Sweden noticed the game had moved from “rough start” to “running out of time.” With under eight minutes left Mats Sundin scored to tie the game up at three, and while Sweden had noticeably put the hammer down, trying harder doesn’t guarantee even the best teams goals when the clock is winding down.
It’s around this point in the game where the underdog starts to get a sniff. There it is, that faint fragrance of actual hope. This isn’t a joke. FOCUS. Unfavored teams like Belarus play to keep it close early on in the hopes of getting into a “next goal wins” situation, because hey, you read the first couple sections – one goofy hop and poof, the last grains of sand fall through the hourglass and a miracle’s been achieved. So, they ramp up their play as best they can (usually more of a mental commitment than a physical one), and now things start to get real difficult for the favorites.
As the better team, you stop looking for the right play, and start trying to force the first one you see, because timetimetime is on your mind - every second counts. And so the blocked shot brigade falls in line while the shots pour in, and the lesser team is now the cat from that “Hang in there, baby!” poster.
Tough little guy, that cat.
It’s out of your hands
In hockey, as frustrating as it is, you can only do so much. You can create chances and put shots in the most dangerous parts of the net as hard as you can, as often as you can. But you’re directly challenging another player – here, stop this. And with the momentum and confidence that comes for players on the fun side of a building upset, it’s possible you may run into that guy’s best day.
It’s just not like basketball where you can call for the ball, run a play, and be guaranteed that your Stamkos or Ovehckin is going to get the big shot. It’s not like golf where Tiger Woods has the chance to do what he does best when the chips are on the line. The puck may just never come to your team’s Tiger. When you don’t come out and play hard and you let it get that far you can find yourself with a towel over your head in the dressing room listening to hooting and hollering from down the hall. Those first 40 are absolutely key, because the final 20 runs by in fast-forward when you’re behind in a big game to a lesser opponent.
The point of writing this as the men’s Olympic hockey tournament gets under way isn’t to provide a cop-out for a team when the event is over. It’s not to say a seven game sample isn’t worth casting some judgement on either – if a team is unimpressive over that time, “upsets happen” isn’t a catch-all safety net. It’s just a reminder that upsets are the clear and present danger of Olympic hockey, and one could very well be coming for some team with high hopes.
It’s not just two or three teams who have a shot at gold, and the ones that don’t would love to do their country proud and play spoiler. This is all part of what makes hockey so fun.