The winner of Group A will be decided in tonight’s game between Canada and the United States, and for the first time in the tournament (sorry, Switzerland) each team will be playing against a gold medal contender. Both teams escaped with narrow victories against the Swiss, and both teams hammered on Norway. The winner gets a bye to the semi-finals, while the loser plays a quarterfinal game against one of the tournament’s lower seeded teams.
We noted yesterday that Martin Brodeur will be between the pipes for Canada, and that’s the safe choice for Mike Babcock. There’s also been a bit of line juggling, as Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards will play left wing on the first line, joining Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash, who moves to the right side. On defence, once again Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will not be playing together, and according to Babcock Shea Weber – who leads Canada in time on ice with an average of 23:12 per game – will likely continue as the team’s number one defenceman. I like Weber as much as the next guy, but I’ll admit I didn’t see him as the best defenceman on the team.
On the American side, Ron Wilson says he doesn’t plan to match any particular unit against Sidney Crosby, though it’s entirely possible that he’s being disingenuous. On the other hand, when the opposition’s top three centres are Crosby, Thronton and Getzlaf, line matching almost becomes a moot point. Wilson already has his shootout guys picked, based on who has had the most success against Brodeur.
Don’t forget to check out Steve Kouleas’ pre-game take:
With Martin Brodeur expected to get the start in Canada’s most meaningful game to date – Sunday against the United States – it appears that head coach Mike Babcock has made his goaltending decision.
It’s certainly the expected choice, and the choice that the majority of people will support. Brodeur has rewritten the NHL record book, and given the number of championships he’s been involved in – three with the New Jersey Devils, and two previously with Team Canada (2002 Olympics, 2004 World Cup), it’s difficult to present an argument that this was the wrong decision.
Here’s something for you: Just in case you’re tempted to let Luongo’s sweet save percentages (a neat .920 in 2008-09, for one thing) get to you. Here is Luongo’s career playoff record after nine NHL seasons: 11 wins and 11 losses. Brodeur’s won about nine times that many postseason games. He’s won 15 in Stanley Cup finals alone. Marc-Andre Fleury, Canada’s third goalie, has 31 playoff wins. Luongo hasn’t had anything like the caliber of teams in front of him that Brodeur and Fleury have had, but still: 11 and 11.
I can’t believe we’re even talking about this. These are Martin Brodeur’s Games. Today. On Sunday. All next week and right through the medal round. That’s it.
It’s a perspective many will undoubtedly agree with. I don’t think wins is a relevant statistic for goaltenders, each of whom is one player on a 23-man roster, and I’ve said so many times. However, let’s assume I take Kennedy’s perspective: that wins matter, but team strength is obviously a factor. If I took that point of view, I’d say the fair comparison would be Luongo’s time in Vancouver vs. Brodeur over the same period in New Jersey. After all, the Florida Panthers’ inability to make the playoffs wasn’t Luongo’s fault, and since 2006-07 when he joined the Canucks his team and New Jersey have been pretty comparable: two division titles each and two 100-point seasons each. With those somewhat comparable teams in front of them, how have Luongo and Brodeur fared in the playoffs?
Brodeur’s low winning percentage here is as good a demonstration of why winning percentage is an idiotic statistic when it comes to showing goaltender worth; despite strong play on his part (as evidenced by his .922 save percentage) Brodeur has won less than 40% of his games since 2006-07. In fact, since his last cup win Brodeur has won just 15 of 37 contests – and 37 contests is more playoff games than many an NHL goalie will play in his career.
Despite what it may sound like, this isn’t an argument that Luongo should start because Brodeur has lost his ability to win when the games really matter. It’s an argument that when comparing goalies, quoting wins is just about the least relevant thing a person can do, because so many other factors go into a win that are completely unconnected to goaltender ability.
As always, anything less than gold will be regarded as a failure for the Canadian hockey team.
The rewards of success are many. A gold medal win will reaffirm that Canada is indeed the world’s dominant hockey nation, and everyone on the team will bask in reflected glory. Steve Yzerman will be praised for his managerial genius. We will be regaled with tales of Mike Babcock’s coaching prowess. The offensive stars will be feted. The players who don’t put on an offensive show will be praised for either their defensive game or their willingness to buy into the team concept at the expense of personal glory. ‘The way they did it in Vancouver’ will be held up as a model for every team, be it international or NHL.
The perils of failure are as extreme. A loss will spark soul-searching in the columns of newspapers nationwide. Questions will arise as to whether Canada really is the world’s first nation of hockey. Yzerman’s strategy will be dissected and second guessed; questions about youth, character and the value of chemistry will abound. Every decision made by Babcock will come under intense scrutiny, and he’ll invariably be found wanting for mistakes real or imagined. The players involved will be questioned: the young ones for their inexperience, and the old ones for their age. Any San Jose Sharks forward will see their character judged harshly, yet again. Whichever narrative gets set upon as the team’s chief failing will be brought up in four years – ‘remember when they did ______ in Vancouver? They can’t do that again.’
It happened after Nagano in 1998, with the chief blame going to coach Marc Crawford for leaving Wayne Gretzky on the bench for the shootout, a decision that still resonates. “You win with your best,” said one commentator after Sidney Crosby scored against Switzerland last night, evoking memories of Crawford’s perceived blunder. Honourable mention goes to Rob Zamuner, a surprise selection as defensive specialist and a player who continually finds his way into stories which caution against bringing anything less than the best available players.
It happened in 2002, after Canada won gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics. That veteran group (half of whom have since retired) was praised for their savvy, and the memory of their lackluster start has almost faded completely – although the memory of Gretzky trying to deflect attention away from the team during an emotional press conference remains. It was well for Gretzky that things went the way they did; he’d gambled heavily on a few players, particularly Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury and it would have went very badly for him had things worked out otherwise.
It happened in 2006. Gretzky employed the same strategy in 2006 that he had in 2002, bringing aboard a mostly veteran group that once again included a major reclamation project (Todd Bertuzzi) and a role player (Kris Draper). In hindsight we’ve come to regard “veteran” as code for “old” and the omission of Sidney Crosby (then an 18-year old only halfway through his first professional season) is held up as a great error.
While this bipolar view of Team Canada can be lauded as all that matters, and has the virtue of simplicity, it isn’t a reasonable way to assess the work done by Steve Yzerman and the selection group. Any team can win one game, as we’ve seen time and time again. Consider, for instance, the 2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes, a plucky underdog team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they won just a single game before being eliminated by the vastly superior Detroit Red Wings. The game they won was the first game of the series – in other words, if the Stanley Cup final was decided like the gold medal game is, we might be looking back at two cups for Carolina, and the simpleminded could continue to argue that Dominik Hasek wasn’t a great goalie because he never won a Cup.
Olympic history tells us this too, and not just Canadian history. In 2006, both the United States and Russia fell to defeat at the hands of Finland – the Russian game was particularly embarrassing, a 4-0 shutout loss to Antero Niittymaki and a dogged but inferior Finnish squad. In 2002, Canada’s road to gold was paved in part by a humiliating loss for Sweden. Early in the tournament, the Swedes were regarded as the favourites (they beat Canada 5-2 in the first game for both teams), and faced a woefully inadequate Belarusian team, fresh off an 8-1 defeat at the hands of the United States. Belarus. Somehow, Sweden lost 4-3, and the winning goal destroyed Tommy Salo’s reputation (though not, as widely thought, his career):
I don’t think Steve Yzerman selected a perfect team, but he did select a very good one, a team I’d be very confident in over a set of seven-game series. I don’t think Mike Babcock’s a perfect coach, but he’s proved time and again that he’s a very good one. But certainly, looking at history, we can allow that even if both of these men were perfect at their jobs, it’s completely possible that Canada wouldn’t come away with a gold medal. The reverse is also true: it’s completely possible that even if these two men were bad at their jobs, Canada has enough talent that they could win gold.
Despite the movies, despite the stories, despite conventional wisdom, the best and most deserving team does not always win. The losing team is not always deficient in character or talent. That isn’t to say that the victors don’t deserve credit, or that the losing team shouldn’t attempt to find their errors and learn from them (because there are always errors, however small). But chance is involved, and whichever way the tournament eventually goes to Canada, we will almost certainly overreact in one direction or the other.
Two games into Team Canada’s schedule at the Olympics, I could possibly be forgiven for believing that Sidney Crosby’s biggest flaw is that he doesn’t shoot enough. Veteran commentator Pierre McGuire has repeated this statement over and over again, praising Crosby’s shot (when he elects to use it), and reminding us that Crosby has 42 goals in the NHL this year and he didn’t get those by passing the puck.
Personally, I haven’t seen any problems with Crosby’s willingness to shoot the puck, and the more McGuire talks about it the more I mentally file him in with that group of fans who scream “Shoot!” at the top of their lungs for three quarters of every power play. Now, it’s possible that my eyes are deceiving me, so I’m going to do some quick comparisons.
The first comparison I’m going to make is between Crosby and his wingers. Crosby has played a total of 35:20 so far in the tournament, and has nine shots. Rick Nash has played 31:52 and has eight shots. The combination of Patrice Bergeron and Jarome Iginla have played 43:47 and have seven shots. Or, to break things down a little further, here are the shots per minute ratios of each of these four players:
These aren’t exactly hesitant shooters Crosby is lining up with, particularly not the top two players. Rick Nash has a ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy in his collection and is coming off a 40-goal season. Jarome Iginla has two of those, and has 35-or-more goals in each of the last seven seasons.
It’s also well above Crosby’s NHL pace, as we might expect given that his opponents haven’t exactly been of NHL calibre. With Pittsburgh this season, Crosby has managed 0.170 shots per minute, a drop-off of one-third from his Olympic shot rate.
In my opinion, when a commentator like McGuire moans that Crosby needs to shoot more, it’s a null statement. His job is to fill the air, and that is what he is doing, even if it means spewing nonsense. In this case, he’s latched on to the perception of Crosby as a playmaker and twisted it into a negative so that he has something to talk about.
I don’t think this is a terribly surprising statement: Crosby’s currently tied for the NHL lead in goals, led the league in playoff goals last season and has never scored fewer than 33 over the course of an entire season. He knows when to shoot.
Canada’s 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland was an odd game.
Despite the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the close score in this contest, the Canadians were far and away the better team. They were. A whole lot of Jonas Hiller, a little bit of luck, and the fact that the Swiss made the most of their chances all combined to send the game to a shootout, but the vast majority of the time I’d guess this game is much less close.
Hiller was brilliant, easily the best player on the ice, stopping chance after chance. The Swiss defence valiantly tried to weather the storm but surrendered scoring opportunities in both quantity and quality and Hiller was the difference maker.
At the other end of the rink, Martin Brodeur wasn’t bad. His puck-handling was brilliant, and reminded me why I hate the trapezoid rule, and he had a few big saves. The two goals that beat him came off a perfect shot from near the faceoff circle, and a deflection of a teammate’s skate. His performance wasn’t quite up to Luongo’s perfect standard against Norway, but it was still pretty good and gusted to excellent in the shootout.
Dany Heatley was Canada’s premiere offensive force and so far looks like the best scoring forward in the tournament, although the entire Sharks’ line was dangerous. Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner on his second attempt, and Canada’s other goal came courtesy of Patrick Marleau (on the power play, an area everyone seems to be concerned about).
The team was much more disciplined then they were against Norway; the only penalty of the game for Canada came on a Brendan Morrow hold, as opposed to six penalties for the Swiss. Actually, that isn’t entirely accurate; Switzerland’s second goal came on a delayed call against Chris Pronger, who indulged in a bit of petty brutality against the boards.
Switzerland’s first goal was the result of an odd-man rush caused by an ill-advised Drew Doughty pinch; for the second night in a row Doughty looked exposed against some very subpar forwards, and while it’s still early I suspect Canada may regret taking the very young defenceman. He alternated with Brent Seabrook in the doghouse.
I’m not worried about this team. If they play like they played tonight they’re going to win far more often than not, although it will be interesting to see if they can maintain their dominance against better opposition.
1. Jonas Hiller. The Swiss goaltender was the game’s biggest difference maker tonight, and remains the team’s best hope if they wish to pull off an upset. It doesn’t take much offence to give this team a chance to win as long as he’s in net.
2. Dany Heatley. Heatley scored one goal and his play in front of the net was instrumental in Canada’s second goal as well. He’s been an offensive threat every time he steps on the ice.
3. Patrick Marleau. One goal, one assist, and eight shots on net (to lead the team) is a solid night’s work for anybody. The Canadians have had some problems, but the San Jose trio has not been one of them.
After a convincing 8-0 win over Norway on Tuesday, Team Canada will face a stiffer test tonight when they play Switzerland. The Swiss fared well in their first game, losing 3-1 to the Americans, but they still aren’t an especially compelling opponent for Canada.
The Swiss are built from the back end out, and their best player is goaltender Jonas Hiller, who will make Canada work for their goals. Hiller’s an elite NHL goaltender and a significant step up from carpenter-by-day Pal Grotnes, the Norwegians’ most effective goaltender. Unfortunately, after that things get really thin. Mark Streit is the team’s best skater, and aside from him the roster is really short on decent players. Hnat Domenichelli, who once represented Canada at the World Juniors and had a brief career thanks to NHL expansion, is perhaps their most dangerous forward.
Basically, the Swiss are a slightly upgraded version of Norway except with far, far better goaltending.
For Canada, today’s game will be Martin Brodeur’s first of the tournament. Brodeur was the expected starter going in but coach Mike Babcock has yet to announce whether it will be Brodeur or Roberto Luongo who gets the call when the games get serious. Tonight’s game probably won’t provide a definitive answer.
On defence, Babcock has indicated that the team probably won’t keep using seven defencemen regularly, and one of the team’s right-handed shots may see his ice-time cut.
“We wanted to play all seven and we wanted to get them going. We ended up playing three lefts and four rights and I don’t think that will continue, but we wanted to use everybody.”
Drew Doughty and Dan Boyle are probably the guys on the bubble, but Brent Seabrook didn’t play much against Norway either. Shea Weber is the team’s other right-handed defenceman.
As far as expectations go, the things to watch for will be a shutout from Brodeur, and more goals then the Americans scored on Tuesday but fewer than Canada managed against Norway.