Regarding Last Night: Real Talk for the American and Canadian Olympic Men's Teams

With last night's U.S.A.-Canada game being the object of much discussion, I figure it's warrants further commentary.  This isn't to take away from the Russia's 5-2 win over the Czech Republic or Sweden's 3-0 shutout of Finland. Those were important games as well. However, being based in North America, people are still talking about this U.S.A.-Canada game.  Canadians, Americans, hockey fans in general, and people who otherwise wouldn't watch hockey were watching U.S.A.-Canada despite it being on MSNBC in inglorious SD instead of on NBC in glorious HD.    It was a fantastically intense and exciting game; playoff-style hockey for 60 minutes to end the preliminary round-robin part of the tournament.

Now, the game is over, the result was set 5-3 to the Americans.  As soon as it was over, the initial criticism is coming out for Canada - it's pretty much Martin Brodeur's fault, as exemplified by this rushed piece by Greg Wyshynski*  - and the euphoria continues for United States fans. In fact, my fellow America supporters, please feel free to purchase and rock this shirt anytime some chump claims that hockey is Canada's game.   Of course, it is now available in the ILWT Apparel store.

Hockey_is_america_medium

Still, at this juncture, I feel both teams need some Real Talk before their next games on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.  *(I'm not picking on Puck Daddy specifically, just that he had one of the first pieces up on the criticism.)

 

REAL TALK FOR USA HOCKEY

Congratulations to you all, Ron Wilson and the American players, for your win over Canada in Vancouver. You clearly watched the Switzerland-Canada game for an approach to playing the Canadians and the aggressive, physical play worked out for the most part. That said, the performance revealed some issues among the Americans.  A medal is certainly possible at this juncture.  Yet, if the goal is the gold - and why shouldn't it be for any team? - then these issues need to be addressed post haste.

  • This was not a Miracle on Ice.  The only miracle out there was a few - and I do mean a few - of Ryan Miller's saves.  America kept the game up tempo at their own risk and stayed in Canada's faces for 60 minutes and it worked out.  Don't discount the effort.
  • That said, the U.S. made this game a lot harder on themselves unnecessarily. Why?  Clearances! So many of them weren't hard enough or fired up the wrong end, just difficult to watch at times.  Canada put 45 shots on net (and, I would guess, at least 15 wide or high of the net) in the game, and a lot of those came from extended offensive pressure by Canada. Why? Because their defensemen stopped a lot of soft clearing attempts at the point, keeping the attack alive for Canada and keeping American players out on the ice longer. 

    Granted, an extended shift only burned the U.S. once (Heatley's goal, though I question whether that itself was the problem?); but imagine how many fewer shots Miller would have had to stop if the puck was cleared more consistently.  Those clearing attempts have to clear the zone more often.  Canada didn't capitalize too much on them, but other teams will.

  • While playing aggressive hockey benefited the Americans in terms of hitting and momentum; the U.S. absolutely needs to be more patient on the puck.  Too many times the U.S. would get the puck in the neutral zone or on offense and they make an immediate decision or attempt a shot instead of trying to hold onto the puck. I'm not asking that the U.S. play keep-away with a lead, but it resulted in their offense being limited to quick rushes with little set-up for stretches of the game.  Of course, more possession would have led to fewer chances for Canada to attack and a less sloppy game overall.
  • Ryan Miller played fantastic in net; but he's got to watch his 5-hole.  Not so much on the first goal against, that was a brilliant deflection by Eric Staal.  But where was the stick on that late power play goal conceded to Sidney Crosby. I know it was a point-blank shot, but that was a gaping space between the legs. Why wasn't the stick there, Miller? Why weren't you in a butterfly position?  As impressive as it was, stopping 40+ shots doesn't excuse a bad goal against.  Fortunately, the U.S. escaped a Canada comeback, thanks largely to Miller and Canada.
  • The Zach Parise-Paul Statsny-Jamie Langenbrunner line looked great, and Brian Rafalski was excellent with the puck.  It would have been great if the other forwards contributed as much on offense. Granted, this issue relates to the lack of patience with the puck, so I would think one would lead to the other.
  • I know your minutes were limited, but aren't you supposed to be a game-changer, Phil Kessel? Chris Drury contributed more than you.  Chris. Drury.
  • Moreover, I hope American fans take this lesson as well: you cannot expect a goalie to be brilliant in every game.   If the gameplan for future games requires Miller to be jaw-droppingly amazing, then America will deservedly not go far.
  • Lastly, the Miracle on Ice in 1980 was the Semifinals.  The US had to beat Finland to get gold at Lake Placid.  My point? You're not done yet and if you think you are and don't sharpen up these other issues, you soon will be.  And that's Real Talk.

REAL TALK FOR TEAM CANADA

However, the U.S. succeeded in spite of some of the above issues.  How Canada lost should enrage Canadians.  Me? I'd like to congratulate Team Canada. You pulled out of a tight game against Switzerland and seemingly didn't learn much of anything from that game. That's certainly impressive in a way.   Enjoy some Real Talk.

  • Above all, Canadians should be livid that with a roster of skaters this talented and productive in the NHL, they played well below their talent level on offense.  Had they even done what they are capable, they win last night's game decisively. Instead, they botched the game.
  • Canada missed numerous shots they should have put on net over and over.  The shots were hard, but the accuracy was so poor.  I think Canada woke up the whole East Coast with all of their shots hitting the end-boards.  Seriously, I get that the  
  • When Canada they got the puck in below the circles, they looked for a pass when they should have shot it, and so forth.  In fact, Canada missed at least two wide-open nets; the most egregious of one by Rick Nash in the third period - putting a puck right across the crease on a sharp angle shot.  I know it's a tough shout; but you're Rick Nash! A goalscorer who scores tough goals!  Don't you score that goal in Columbus?  But he's just an example. Canada in general wasted good-to-downright-glorious scoring chances to put themselves ahead or get an earlier equalizer in the game. They ultimately paid for it.  Given the scorers they have on the roster, that's rather disappointing.
  • Moreover, I'd like to bring up Canada's second and third goals.  Heatley scored off a rebound right at the crease. Crosby scored right on the door-step of Miller. Yet, most of Canada's shots were not up-close. Canada did not take it to the net as often as America attempted.  Why? I don't know, they got some success with it in the game.  Maybe that required too much work?  Canadian fans should be demanding why this wasn't done by the players and why the coaches haven't demanded it.
  • Those same fans should be demanding how come the Canadians are playing without this concept of screening the goalie.  Ryan Miller saw a lot of those 45 shots against last night, clearly helping Miller's performance. Hey, Canadians, how do you think America scored 3 of it's 4 goals? Two involved screens (Rafalski's second, Langenbrunner's first) and one was a shallow screen that drew Crosby, leaving his stick in the perfect place to re-direct Rafalski's first shot of the game. My point?  Screens work.  Yet, Canada has played like they don't need to do dirty work like that.
  • You know where screens could have been especially good?  The power play. It's been a problem for most teams in the Olympics since players have been thrown together and teams are still figuring out which players work well with each other (apparently 4 Sharks on a unit isn't the answer).

    That being said, Canada is currently 4 for 16 on the PP in the Olympics.  Mind you, that's not bad overall. Not at all. Then again, 13 of them came against those hockey powers Norway (2/6) and Switzerland (1/7).  Moreover, the Canadian power plays have been either feast or famine; either Canada has set everything up well to create a good shot or Canada has problems just to keep it in the offensive zone.  Power plays are chances to build offense, yet Canada has struggled - leaving more wasted opportunities on the ice.

  • Canada also feels they are too good for trying to clear out said screens.  Jamie Langenbrunner isn't small, but he's not particularly big either.  Yet, he was able to stand right in front of Martin Brodeur en route to two goals for the Red, White, and Blue.  Where was the defense? Where was anyone on Canada to even attempt moving #15 on the U.S. of A?
  • Speaking of big defenders not doing their job; I offer congratulations to you, Mr. Chris Pronger.  It wasn't enough to look like a chump in comparison to, say, Luca Sbisa in the Switzerland game; you managed to act as a pylon in a big game against America and apparently took out Corey Perry in your own zone. With performances like that, I'm sure Flyer fans are throwing up in their mouths. Meanwhile, Caps fans are smugly asking "Why not Mike Green?"  Why not, indeed?

    Incidentally, Mike Babcock keeping Pronger to less than 4 minutes of ice time in the third period was the smartest thing he did all game.  Which says a lot about his coaching, last night.  It's more than just looking surly on the bench, Mr. Babcock.

  • Going back to Canadian players who disappointed, can someone tell me where Jarome Iginla, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, and Mike Richards were last night? The boxscore says they were there, had a few shots, but the made such little impact on the game that I have to wonder where they were.  At least Sidney Crosby scored one goal for Canada (and one against, though that wasn't intentional). To be frank about it, if you're not going to show up for a rivalry game in a must-win round robin game in the Olympics, then when are you going to show up?  Last night's game is more fuel for the fire raging from those who felt that Steve Stamkos or Martin St. Louis should have been called up to represent Canada.   (Aside: I was going to include Corey Perry, but all Americans remember him as the guy Ryan Kesler outhustled to score the game-icing empty net goal.)
  • Want a second opinion on this?  OK. I asked Tibbs what he thought of the game, since he stayed up to watch this real late (he's in France, mind you). Consider this supplemental Real Talk:

    I can't believe how bad Canada has been. I haven't seen the whole game but where is the offense? and where is the defense? are the two things that come to mind. Marty sure looked shaky while playing the puck, but he got little support from his defense. They all looked so slow and not too concerned. The US worked hard and got rewarded for it. The Canadian offense was so frustrating to watch. Fancy plays all over the ice, individual efforts at times. Not a lot of work on Miller. I don't care what people say about a goaltender stealing a game, when you are Canada and have the firepower they have, you should convert more out of 45 shots! The game against Switzerland wasn't an accident. They can put Luongo if they want but that won't change a thing unless they change their style and work ethics!

  • Lastly, I want the Canadian fans and the media, to understand that playing Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury, Brodeur at 10 years younger, Brodeur with 20 less games (or so) this season, Yann Danis, or whichever Canadian goaltender you like does not change any of the above points or Canada's general performance in the game.  Not one bit.

    I'm not saying Brodeur was great last night; he definitely wasn't on the third goal (a problem compounded by Pronger's hurf-durf approach to defending in these Olympics). His normally fantastic stickhandling wasn't a factor but a hindrance at times. Yet, a new goalie isn't going to make Canada's problems go away, resolve the team's issues, have them play much better hockey, or even would have won Sunday's game.  Still, let's quickly review the Canadian goals against: a deflection by Crosby in the slot, a screen by Langenbrunner, no one picking up Drury in the slot, and a deflection off a screen by Langenbrunner. I honestly don't see how Luongo or Fleury or anyone else could have done any better on the deflections or screens.  Unless you're going to some how convince me they can see through players and handle pucks changing direction on them in less than a second's time to react. 

    If you're going to tell me otherwise, please also try to explain to me that it really is raining while peeing on my leg.

  • Regardless, whoever in net isn't going to have Canada shoot better, actually have consistently effective power plays, not waste scoring chances, and have their defense play with some kind of cohesion when the other team attacks.  Blaming or changing the goalie won't fix that. That's the  hard reality for two straight games now and it doomed them against the Americans.  Since their fans probably won't, Team Canada better recognize their situation, and sort it out against Germany en route to earning 4 straight wins, or the only gold they'll be seeing will be on someone else's neck.  Just like most of the 2010 Winter Olympics so far.  Say what you want about that, but that's some  Real Talk.

Tomorrow begins the playoff qualification games.  The United States, Sweden, Russia, and Finland will all get breaks and won't play until the Quarterfinals on Wednesday.  Canada will play Germany tomorrow and probably will win regardless if they learned anything from the Swiss or U.S. games.  Something that will work against them when they play an aggressive and physical Russian team in the Quarterfinals.  As for the U.S., they get two days to think about it, play the winner of Switzerland/Belarus which is only easy on paper.

Lessons have to be learned quickly, issues have to be resolved, and play for both teams need to be taken the proverbial next level if either wants to go for the gold.  Ultimately, that's Real Talk.   Thanks for reading.  Let me know what you think in the comments about this commentary and/or the new shirt in ILWT stores.

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