Archive for the ‘olympics’ Category

Team Canada continues its medal quest tonight with a game against Slovakia, starting at 6:30 Pacific Time. Once again, we’ll be live-blogging the festivities over here, and everyone’s welcome to pop in and join the live blog:

With an off-day yesterday, we had some time to consider the Slovaks, and we’ve done so. We evaluated their roster, and it looks pretty good; there is a lot of NHL experience in this group. We also looked at their tournament statistics so far, and concluded that the one area where the Slovaks have been demonstrably superior to Canada is on special teams.

I don’t know what more there is to say. Canada has the talent to win this game; they should win this game. Slovakia, on the other hand, has both the goaltending and a unique combination of talent which gives them a legitimate shot at an upset. The winner plays for gold. The loser plays for bronze. Like every game since the opening three, there are high stakes involved here.

I’m very excited about this game. As an Oilers fan, I haven’t really cared about hockey that matters since 2006, and this has been a welcome change.

Statistics over a short time span are always unreliable, and thus it would be foolish to make any grand assumptions based upon them, but they can help give us an idea of how two teams compare, in this case Canada and Slovakia.

The tables below are the offensive and defensive statistics for each team.

Offensive Statistics

  Goals PPG EVG Shots PP% SH% Pen. Drawn
Canada 29 6 23 215 27.3 13.5 22
Slovakia 17 7 10 159 36.8 10.7 19

Defensive Statistics

  GA PPGA EVGA ShotsA PK% SV% Pen. Taken
Canada 12 2 10 111 87.5 0.924 16
Slovakia 10 1 9 130 94.7 0.923 19

Note: For save percentage I used only the numbers of the goaltenders playing (Luongo, Halak) as it made no sense to drag Canada’s numbers down with Brodeur’s save percentage given that Brodeur will be on the bench.

We get an interesting picture of these two teams. Canada has been incredibly dominant by any measure; they may have a 29 to 12 goals advantage but that’s backed up by their shot totals, as they’ve averaged 21 shots more per game than their opponents. As we’ve seen, those huge shot advantages can lead to success (Russia, Germany) or to cursing the opposition goalie (United States, Switzerland) but they do show a team that has been territorially dominant.

The Canadians have been good but not great on special teams, have limited shots against, and have drawn far more penalties than they’ve taken (as territorially dominant teams tend to do). They have an offensive capability that no team in the tournament can match. At even-strength, nobody can touch them, and that tends to slant the special teams situation in their favour.

The Slovakians have been pretty good. They’ve averaged six more shots per game than their opponents and they’ve done a good job of limiting shots against, but their even-strength offence doesn’t come close to competing with Canada’s (Canada has outscored Slovakia 23-10 at even-strength). By the numbers, their team has three key strengths:

  • Team defence
  • Jaroslav Halak
  • Special teams

They haven’t been a very good team at 5-on-5, just breaking even, but even if they were they couldn’t hope to compete with Canada. Instead, they’ll try and outlast the Canadians through a combination of strong defensive play and reliance on their goalie, and then use their special teams edge to give them a chance at winning.

If they played this game 100 times, Canada would win the series easily. But the Slovakians only need one win and it’s entirely plausible that they’ll surprise everyone and get it here.

Slovakia!

As was the case in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Sweden was a gold medal favourite heading into action against Slovakia last night. They’d won every game of the preliminaries and shutout Finland 3-0 in their most challenging game, and were poised for a top-four finish if they could get a victory over a relatively easy opponent.

The magnitude of their loss to Slovakia last night is not in the same ballpark as the infamous 2002 loss to Belarus, because Slovakia is a much more respectable opponent. That said, Friday’s matchup just got a little easier for Canada, who could have been considered the underdogs in a game against the Swedes.

By winning last night and guaranteeing a top-four slot, the Slovakians have already made Olympic history for their nation, whose best ever finish came in Turin where they placed fifth. They’ve had some success at the World Championships (winning three medals in four years between 2000 and 2003) but are coming off a disappointing 10th-place finish in last year’s tournament.

The strength of their roster starts in net, where Jaroslav Halak gives the nation its best-ever goaltender, but it doesn’t stop there. The defence has some formidable names, and every single player on the team has NHL experience. We’ll take a more detailed look at their roster below.

Goaltending

Jaroslav Halak has been splendid for Montreal this season, single-handedly winning some games and threatening to push Carey Price out of the team’s long-term plans. His even-strength save percentage this season is tied for fourth in the NHL with Miikka Kiprusoff, one point back of Roberto Luongo and one ahead of Ryan Miller. He can steal a win at any time, and the Canadians should be worried about him. He’s also been brilliant in the shootout over his career, with a 7-2 record and .800 SV%. This season he’s been perfect, with a 3-0 record and no goals against.

Backups Peter Budaj and Rastislav Stana have not played so much as a minute in net.

Defence

Zdeno Chara – The team captain is a two-way threat at the NHL level, but it’s not his offence the Slovaks will be relying on here. He’ll be counted on to shut down the Canadian offence and counter their physical game.
Lubomir Visnovsky – The Edmonton Oilers’ best defenceman is brilliant offensively, a poised puck mover at even-strength and lethal on the power play. He’s a high-end player who is used to neutralizing top NHL forwards through speed and smarts.
Andrej Meszaros – Meszaros has struggled since leaving Ottawa for Tampa Bay. He’s been relied on to handle a shutdown role and he’s okay at it but still represents a drop-off from the top end of this unit. He does add some needed size, however.
Milan Jurcina and Andrej Sekera are both NHL depth players, albeit ones with divergent skill-sets. Jurcina’s a big stay-at-home type who plays a disciplined game, while Sekera is a smallish puck-mover who does a good job in the role but doesn’t generally play against good players or in tough situations.
Martin Strbak is a high-end two-way player in the KHL and probably could have had an NHL career; he played very well for Pittsburgh in 2003-04 before heading overseas during the lockout and then staying there. Ivan Baranka is WHL-trained and had a few nice seasons in the AHL as well as one game with the Rangers. He wasn’t initially named to the team, but has had a breakout KHL campaign and made it as an injury replacement.

Forwards

Six current NHL’ers form the nucleus of the Slovakian offence, but they’re augmented with long-time Slovak stars now playing in various European leagues. It’s not a group of the same calibre as the Canadians or the Swedes, but then again they beat Sweden last night and cannot be taken lightly.

There are some high-end offensive players on this team. Marian Gaborik, when healthy, is one of the NHL’s most dynamic goal scorers. He has just four points in five games, but leads the team with three goals – two of them on Slovakia’s dynamic power play. Marian Hossa is tied for the team points lead with seven and is always a threat. Vancouver fans will be thrilled to know that Pavol Demitra seems to have made it back to his pre-injury form in a big hurry: he’s tied with Hossa for the team scoring lead. Michal Handzus has played very well and Miroslav Satan and Tomas Kopecky round out the NHL contingent.

Zigmund Palffy leads the top Slovak league with 52 goals and 99 points in 53 games, and I don’t imagine anyone’s forgotten the six-time 30+ NHL goal-scorer in North America either. Jozef Stumpel sits just shy of the 1000-game mark in the NHL but for two seasons has been one of the top offensive threats in the KHL. Richard Zednik is another longtime NHL’er, and while he’s had a disappointing KHL season offensively he’s a capable two-way player. Branko Radivojevic was a pretty good offensive player in junior but emerged as a solid defensive specialist in the NHL; he’s recaptured his offence in Moscow and is just below a point-per-game pace in the KHL.Lubos Bartecko had a couple of fairly good seasons (with St. Louis and Atlanta) early in the decade and has spent the last few years bouncing around Europe, posting good numbers in Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Marcel Hossa was never able to find success at the NHL level despite flashes of potential but he’s another player who has flourished in Russia. Rounding out the forward corps is Martin Cibak, who adds a physical element but not much else. He had a 154-game stint with the Tampa Bay Lightining and plays the role of spare forward for the Slovaks, averaging just over 6:00 minutes per game.

Canada Vs. Russia Postgame

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If anything could exorcise the fears of Canadian hockey fans after a middling start to the Olympics, it would be a sound thrashing of the Soviets Russians.  And against all odds, that was what happened last night, as Canada skated out to a 4-1 lead and finished the game off in convincing fashion with a 7-3 win over the Communist threat their long-time rivals.

Entering the game, Evgeni Nabokov had not been bad for Russia.  The San Jose Sharks starter had a .911 SV%, which while not lovely was okay, but which wasn’t nearly as good as backup Ilya Bryzgalov (.939 SV%).  Nabokov struggled against Canada, and while the defence didn’t help him out all that much he was the team’s biggest problem, and he ended up allowing six goals on 23 shots (.739 SV%).  Bryzgalov was brought in far too late by head coach Vyacheslav Bykov, and although he shut the door (.947 SV% on 19 shots) it was already over.

The Canadians also did a good job of containing the Russian stars, particularly Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin who combined for just one assist and a minus-4 rating, but it was the offence that stole the show tonight, peppering Russia with 46 shots, and with some unlikely players standing: in fact every one of tonight’s three stars had been having lacklustre tournaments.  Some familiar faces also continued to perform well; Jonathan Toews recorded two assists as did Duncan Keith while Shea Weber scored another goal.  Once again, Luongo was more okay than brilliant, although he managed some solid saves.

The bottom line in all of this is that Canada can now finish no worse than fourth and is much closer to the gold medal game than they were just one day ago.  The disaster that would have been finishing out of the top four has been averted, and the national soul-searching can be deferred to the Russian Federation.

Three Stars

 

1.  Dan Boyle.  The Sharks defenceman has not been especially good in this tournament, but all of that changed tonight as he scored a highlight reel goal, added two assists and led the team with a plus-3 rating.  He looked every inch the veteran puck-moving defenceman that Steve Yzerman thought he had named to the team.

2. Ryan Getzlaf.  Another player who had his best game of the tournament, Getzlaf opened the scoring just over two minutes in.  He finished the night with three points, and threw a huge hit on Anton Volchenkov after the Russian defenceman knocked Eric Staal head-first into the boards.

3. Corey Perry.  Two goals for Perry go a long ways towards making up for a brutal effort on Ryan Kesler’s empty net goal in Canada’s loss to the United States.

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On the heels of a lop-sided 8-2 victory over Germany, Team Canada continues its quest for gold tonight with a quarterfinal game against Russia at 4:30 Pacific Time.

I chose the photo above because it’s a fine representation of Canada’s dominance against Germany, but also because of the player on the far right: Jonathan Toews.  Prior to the tournament I quibbled with the selection of Toews; I was willing to admit he was a fine player but I didn’t think he deserved to be on this team over some of the other options.

I was wrong about that.  Toews has been excellent despite rather limited ice-time, and he currently leads Canada in plus/minus with a plus-7 rating.  He also has five points (all assists) which puts him behind only Dany Heatley and Sidney Crosby for the team lead.  I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be surprised if he wasn’t Canada’s best scorer relative to ice-time.

I hope he gets more ice-time against the Russians, who could end Canada’s medal hopes.  There are some players – mostly veterans – underperforming, and Toews would seem a logical choice to move up the line-up if one of them gets shuttled down.

In net, Roberto Luongo didn’t shut the critics up with a perfect game (and in honesty, even in a perfect game he would have heard ‘it’s just Germany’) but he’ll have his best chance to do so tonight.  His game against the Germans wasn’t bad – the goals scored against were the result of some ugly defensive breakdowns, particularly the last one, a 2-on-0 breakaway.  The true measurement of him – and indeed, the rest of Team Canada -  will start being taken tonight.

As with yesterday, we’ll be live-blogging the festivities, and I invite everyone to join us.

Team Canada Shootout Record

Mike Babcock raised the ire of a lot of people last night by deferring to Sidney Crosby rather than Rick Nash on a penalty shot last night. I understood the logic behind his choice: the guy with the best shooting record should take the shot. It wasn’t favouritism (despite an argument I had with a co-worker this morning), it was adherence to a sensible plan. I’m also unimpressed with the idea that Nash needed the shot to get going; the fact that he drew the shot and the fact that he scored against the Germans later in the game make that a non-issue.

That said, Crosby’s shootout numbers over his career are so similar to Nash’s that I’m not sure it mattered. The table below is the career numbers for every player on the Canadian team with more than 10 attempts. We’re still dealing with small numbers here, but this is a slightly better sample than just using this past season’s numbers.

Player 2009-10 2008-09 2007-08 2006-07 2005-06 Attempts Percentage
Jonathan Toews 7/12 6/10 0/2     24 0.542
Sidney Crosby 6/8 3/10 2/7 5/15 2/6 46 0.391
Brendan Morrow 0/2 2/7 1/1   1/1 11 0.364
Ryan Getzlaf 3/7 5/9 2/12 5/12 0/2 42 0.357
Rick Nash 4/11 4/11 4/10 1/5 3/8 45 0.356
Corey Perry 1/8 5/10 4/7 1/6 0/2 33 0.333
Mike Richards 1/4 4/10 2/6 0/3 3/7 30 0.333
Patrick Marleau 2/7 1/2 4/8 0/1 0/5 23 0.304
Jarome Iginla 0/3 0/5 3/5 3/4 1/9 26 0.269
Patrice Bergeron 3/13 0/7 0/1 6/11 2/9 41 0.268
Dan Boyle 2/8 2/7   0/1   16 0.250
Dany Heatley 1/5 0/3 0/4 1/4 2/8 24 0.167
Eric Staal 0/1 0/2 1/2 0/3 1/4 12 0.167

Of players not listed, three have scored goals. Joe Thornton is 2/9 on his career, while Drew Doughty has gone 2/5 and Brent Seabrook is 1/1.

Based on the numbers above and Babcock’s selections against Switzerland, it appears that he’s running from this year’s record rather than career, which strikes me as a foolish thing to do given the size of the numbers involved. This blog seems to be transitioning into a Jonathan Toews love-fest, but I think it’s clear that he should be the number one option with a bullet on the power play (particularly given his international shootout record), followed by Crosby and then Getzlaf, with Morrow and Nash getting looks later on if one of the above isn’t getting the job done. Olympic rules being what they are, I can’t see a reason to use anyone outside that group of five.

Today marks Canada’s first elimination game: a qualifying match against Germany at 4:30 Pacific Time.  If Canada wins, they’ll continue on to play a quarterfinal game against Russia tomorrow; of course if they lose the tournament ends here.  Join us in the Live Blog:

Roberto Luongo has been confirmed as Canada’s starter, replacing Martin Brodeur, whose two month slide in NHL play has carried over to the Olympics.  The one bright spot in the transition is that it is occurring now: had Brodeur put in an effort similar to the one against the United States on Sunday during an elimination game, the tournament would already be over.  Despite a shaky final NHL game against Minnesota, Luongo’s been very good since January and made some good stops en route to a shutout win over Norway in Canada’s first game.

Despite where the Canadians are, I don’t think wholesale changes are needed: the goalie switch was the most important adjustment to the lineup, and other minor moves will be needed, and this game against the Germans is a good opportunity to get one last run at finding where players fit.

Despite the switch in Canada’s net, the most important player in this game is Thomas Greiss, the 24 year-old backup goaltender from the San Jose Sharks.  Germany cannot compete with Canada either up front or on the back end, and like both Switzerland and the United States will need its goalie to steal the game for them.  Greiss has been impressive in limited minutes for the Sharks but has an uninspiring track record in the AHL and isn’t close to being as consistently good as a Jonas Hiller or Ryan Miller, but he can get hot and this is the biggest game of his career.  If he stands on his head and the Germans can get some offence – most likely from one of Marco Sturm, Jochen Hecht or Marcel Goc up front, or Christian Ehrhoff on the power play – they have some chance of upsetting Canada.

It’s up to the Canadians to deny them that opportunity.  The individual talents on this roster are undeniable, and there can be no quarter shown, just a continual, merciless offensive onslaught from the forwards.  Players like Chris Pronger and Eric Staal need to play with discipline, eschewing the careless penalties that have plagued the Canadians.  Luongo needs to be the best goaltender on the ice.