Ranking the Biggest Mismatches in the 2014 Olympic Hockey Semifinals

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IFebruary 20, 2014

Ranking the Biggest Mismatches in the 2014 Olympic Hockey Semifinals

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Which tilted matchups are most likely to determine the outcome of the Olympic hockey semi-finals? Each game can be broken down into a series of matchups of different kinds and in different situations, and each of the remaining national teams have distinct advantages in one or more of them. These will be the critical sub-games to watch this Friday.

    Using analytics, we broke down the various aspects of each team's games into sub-components, and then scored them against their opponents. Special teams, faceoffs, shootouts and goaltending, for example, all examined in different potential line combinations.

    Overall there was very little difference in goaltending in either game, and very few differences period in the USA/Canada matchup. There were, however, some very specific instances where certain lines could face each other in certain situations where one team had a noticeable edge over the other.

    What follows is our review of the top ten most significant semi-final mismatches, what each team brings to the table, and the potential impact of the favored team's advantage.

    Line combinations sourced from Daily Faceoff, basic NHL statistics from NHL.com, Olympic statistics from Extra Skater, and all other advanced NHL statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.


10. Hitting: USA vs Canada

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    Martin Rose/Getty Images

    What U.S.A. Brings: While Olympic games are known for skill and finesse, it is helpful to have the ability to get under an opposing team's skin.

    Dustin Brown is often among the NHL's league leaders in hits, and currently ranks fifth with 187. David Backes isn't far behind with 179. Ryan Callahan and Ryan Kesler are also known to play a highly physical game.

    On the blue line, Brooks Orpik is 10th in the NHL with 145 hits.

    What Canada Brings: Canada is actually the taller and bigger team, according to the data at Elite Prospects.

    But does that translate into physical play? Their tallest defensive pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo have just 40 hits combined in the NHL this year. Rick Nash, another one of their physically largest players, has just eight hits so far this season.

    While hits aren't always accurately and/or consistently recorded in the NHL, their leading hitter up front is Chris Kunitz, with 125 hits on the year. They do have some tough cookies on the blue line in Shea Weber (114 hits) and Drew Doughty (134 hits), but generally don't pose much of a physical threat.

    Impact: One of the reasons Canada throws so few hits could be because they have the puck all the time.

    The Chicago Blackhawks consistently rank at the bottom of the league in hits thrown, and they've won two Stanley Cups in the last four years. How important is physical play, especially in the Olympics? 

    While the importance of hitting is up for debate, the team with the physical advantage is not. Expect the Americans to throw their weight around and try to knock the Canadians off their game.

9. Canada's Power Play

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Canada Brings: Canada has only two power play goals, but they haven't had a lot of opportunities either. This is a team that could potentially explode for several goals, if given the man advantage frequently enough.

    Chris Kunitz is second in the NHL to Alexander Ovechkin with 12 power play goals, and his linemate Sidney Crosby second to Nicklas Backstrom with 28 power play points. They're bound to connect eventually.

    Canada's real advantage is on the blue line. Shea Weber, who was in on both power play goals, leads NHL defencemen with nine power play goals, with only Zdeno Chara topping six. He also led the way with 10 in 2011-12.

    Weber's not the only Canadian on the blue line leaderboard. Duncan Keith is eighth with 18 power play points, Pietrangelo is 11th with 16, and Drew Doughty, who has also been in on both goals, is 15th with 15. It's no wonder the Canadians feel comfortable sitting P.K. Subban, arguably the game's best power play quarterback.

    What U.S.A. Brings: Americans have an effective penalty kill which has allowed only a single goal so far, which is tied with Canada and two other teams for the fewest.

    Most of that credit goes to their blue line. Ryan Suter leads the defence, which should try to include John Carlson more often, who leads American NHL defencemen with an average of almost four minutes of penalty-killing time per game. Brooks Orpik, Cam Fowler, Paul Martin and Suter's partner Ryan McDonagh are all being used instead, and with great success.

    The Americans are a great defensive team up front, but that doesn't always translate to the penalty kill. They do have one weapon, former Selke winner and elite penalty killer Ryan Kesler, the only forward chosen for this roster who currently averages more than two minutes a game killing penalties in the NHL.

    Impact: This matchup would rank higher if the Canadian power play wasn't so cold, and if the Americans weren't so solid and experienced on the blue line.

    As it stands the Americans should avoid tempting fate, should stay disciplined, and avoid being penalized in the first place. That especially includes David Backes and Ryan Kesler themselves, two of the top ten NHL penalty minute leaders among American forwards this year.

8. Sweden vs Finland's Top Pairing

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Sweden Brings: Few would dispute the fact that Erik Karlsson is without an offensive blue line equal.

    Karlsson currently leads all NHL defencemen in scoring with 55 points, seven more than Duncan Keith and 14 more than the next blue liner. In 2011-12 he led NHL defencemen with 78 points on his way to a Norris trophy, which was 25 points more than second place Brian Campbell. He currently leads Sweden with three goals and seven points in four games.

    Karlsson is also developing defensively. He has been top three among Ottawa's defencemen in quality of competition for four years, and is starting to take a turn on the secondary penalty kill for the past two.

    Rather than toiling away with a partner like Jared Cowen or Marc Methot, as he does for the Senators, Karlsson is often playing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, one of the NHL's most underrated two-way defencemen. Ekman-Larsson takes on Phoenix's toughest minutes alongside Zbynek Michalek, and could easily develop into a Norris contender in his own right some day.

    Neither defenceman has been scored against thus far in this tournament.

    What Finland Brings: Finland's top pairing is 38-year-old two-way veteran Kimmo Timonen and 19-year-old offensive-minded rookie Olli Maatta.

    Despite his age, Timonen remains a legitimate top pairing NHL defenceman, and currently ranks second on the Flyers blue line in terms of average ice time (21:41) and points (19). He may not be the consistent 40-point scorer he was for about a decade, but he's still solid.

    Injuries forced Pittsburgh to speed their 2012 first round draft choice into the line-up, and occasionally into the top four. Maatta has responded with 23 points in 57 games, surprisingly close to the 35-point pace he set in the OHL. He's also tied with Sami Vatanen for the team's lead in defencemen scoring with four points.

    If there are concerns about Karlsson's defence, they apply doubly so for Maatta. He ranks seventh on Pittsburgh's blue line in ice-time per game at both even-strength and killing penalties, and sixth in quality of competition according to Behind the Net. Opponents have scored three even-strength goals against Maatta, the highest total on Team Finland.

    Impact: Sweden has a notable advantage in the top pairing, an advantage that only gets wider when they're facing a unit further down the depth chart.

    Defencemen don't target each other directly, but Sweden's ability to move the puck up the ice quickly will put additional pressure on the Finnish blue line.

    As for Timonen and Maatta, they won't have any more luck against the rest of the Swedish blue line, which is so solid that they felt comfortable leaving the likes of Victor Hedman and Jonas Brodin at home.

7. Sweden vs Lepisto and Hietanen

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Sweden Brings: Thanks to two players in particular, Sweden's offence is solid, but not necessarily the best.

    Their nine even-strength goals in four games is one back of Canada for third, and their 124 shots is tied for fifth, ahead of only the Americans among the semi-finalists.

    Most of their offence is centered around elite puck-moving defenceman Erik Karlsson, who leads the team with three goals and seven points.

    His goal is to get the puck onto the sticks of the team's top scorers, which primarily includes Alexander Steen, whose 28 goals is tied with Sidney Crosby for sixth in the NHL.

    Steen leads the Swedes with 17 shots, far more than the nine shots managed by Patrik Berglund and Loui Eriksson, but has scored only a single goal.

    What Finland Brings: Finland's risky third pairing features the puck-moving pair of Sami Lepisto and 5'9" Juuso Hietanen, who are both leading their respective KHL team's blue lines in scoring this season.

    In the Olympics they are averaging just under 14 minutes per game, and have actually allowed only a single goal so far.

    We last saw Lepisto in the NHL in 2011-12 as a sheltered replacement-level depth option for the Blackhawks. Despite being an offensive-minded player, his career high was just 16 points in 70 games split between Phoenix and Columbus in 2010-11.

    Lepisto is not a strong skater, nor a strong defensive player, and is prone to turnovers. He was used very carefully in the NHL, more exclusively in the offensive zone and against secondary lines only. Alarmingly, he is probably the better blue liner of the two.

    Impact: Sweden may not be the most explosive offensive team in the tournament, but they will be dangerous against anyone outside Finland's top four. This threat would have ranked higher if the Swedes could offer up more than two highly dangerous scoring lines.

    The Finns will need to shorten their bench, which may mean assigning over 20 minutes each to two players aged 38 and over (Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo) and two NHL rookies (Olli Maatta and Sami Vatanen). This tiring exercise will be especially tough in the second period, when they have the long change.

    Since Olympic rules allow teams to dress 20 skaters as opposed to the 18 in the NHL, Finland has used their two extra spots to dress two additional defencemen, former NHLers Lasse Kukkonen and Ossi Vaananen.

6. Faceoffs: Finland vs Sweden

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Finland Brings: Finland has two especially strong KHL faceoff artists.

    The Finns may only have one NHL center, but Olli Jokinen is actually their worst option in the faceoff circle. He has a 46.7 percent faceoff winning percentage for the Winnipeg Jets this year.

    Among Finland's other options, who all play in the KHL, two have faceoff winning percentages over 60 percent, Jarrko Immonen (63.6 percent) and Jori Lehtera (61.3 percent). Petri Kontiola has a 53.1 percent winning percentage.

    What Sweden Brings: Marcus Kruger is the only Swedish center with a faceoff winning percentage above 50 percent this year, and he's only on the fourth line.

    Top line center Patrik Berglund has a disappointing 48.7 percent faceoff winning percentage for the Blues this year, Nicklas Backstrom is a dead even 50.0 percent for the Capitals, and Marcus Johansson is a terrible 34.0 percent.

    Impact: Faceoffs aren't that critical on the whole, but rather on a moment-by-moment basis. Getting possession on a key draw can sometimes decide games.

    Right now Finland has the greater ability to get the puck on to their sticks, and deny the same to their opponents.

5. Canada vs USA's Top Lines

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Canada Brings: There's one thing that the Canadians have that the Americans don't, and that's Sidney Crosby. He may only have two points in four games, but Crosby is the greatest threat the Americans will be facing in the semi-final. Is there anyone the Americans wouldn't trade in exchange?

    There's no need to quote statistics, because it's clear how "Sid the Kid" has scored at a higher rate than any other player, and against the best opponents in the world practically mugging him every second of the way.

    Pittsburgh linemate Chris Kunitz was selected for this team specifically to bring out Crosby's best. They are joined by Patrice Bergeron, who is perhaps the best two-way forward in the league.

    Don't be fooled by their lack of scoring thus far in the tournament, this line is extremely dangerous.

    What U.S.A. Brings: Ryan Kesler is a fantastic two-way player and former Selke winner. His likely left winger Zach Parise is another great two-way force, and they've been scored against only once apiece so far in Sochi.

    The only potential weak link defensively is Patrick Kane on the right side, but he poses a significant offensive risk that the Canadians must defend against.

    Kane leads the Americans with four assists, and is second to Phil Kessel with 11 shots. He's fifth in the NHL scoring race with 63 points in 59 games, exactly where he finished last season with 55 points in 47 games.

    It's actually quite hard to craft a better line than this to face Crosby, but they're still likely to be outmatched.

    Impact: Will Canada and the U.S.A. opt for a power-versus-power match up like this? The alternative is to allow Crosby to line up against one of their secondary lines, which could potentially tilt the ice in his favor that much more.

    The outcome of the game could very well be decided by the battle of the top lines, and it's one where a generational talent could give one nation a clear edge. 

4. Shootout: Sweden vs Finland

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Sweden Brings: Henrik Lundqvist is the best shootout goalie in the business, with an amazing .757 save percentage. That's less than one goal in every four attempts.

    Sweden has arguably only one elite shooter in Alexander Steen, who is 12 for 26 in the NHL. Beyond that they have Nicklas Backstrom and Daniel Alfredsson, who are solid options, and a potential wild card in Jakob Silfverberg.

    What Finland Brings: Tuukka Rask may be an elite goalie, but not in the shootout. His save percentage is .663 is merely reasonable.

    Finland's fate would instead rest on the shoulders of their shooters, which will have to make do without their second-best artist Mikko Koivu.

    Jussi Jokinen is the best of the bunch, with a 43.7 percent success rate in 71 NHL attempts. After him Finland has a handful of reasonably solid options like Olli Jokinen, Teemu Selanne and Tuomo Ruutu.

    Impact: The likelihood of the game going to a shoot-out is normally quite slim, but is a definite possibility given Finland's low-scoring, tight-checking game.

    If such a critical game must be decided by a skills competition, Sweden will be glad to have its most valuable weapon in nets.

3. Sweden vs Finland's Top Six

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Sweden Brings: Sweden selected a nicely-balanced and possession-oriented team, and it especially shows in their top-six.

    In the NHL, their top two lines currently combine for 84 goals, 150 assists and 234 points in 313 games, or a combined 4.5 points per game.

    Most notably it features Nicklas Backstrom, who is third in the NHL with 45 assists, and Alexander Steen, who is tied for sixth with 28 goals. It also includes respected two-way forwards like Gabriel Landeskog and Loui Eriksson.

    So far in the Olympics, they have combined for five goals and 11 assists for 16 points, or 4.0 points per game.

    What Finland Brings: With pre-Olympic injuries to Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula and a more recent injury to Aleksander Barkov, the Finns have been left with an old and far less effective top six. Even with the 21-year-old Granlund pulling down their average age, it still works out to almost 32 years old.

    Their five NHL forwards combine for just 46 goals, 92 assists and 138 points in 263 games, or just over 3.1 points per game. They've been effective in this tournament so far, however, combining for 10 goals, 11 assists and 21 points, or about 5.3 points per game.

    This also represents virtually all of the team's scoring, posing very little offensive threat outside these top two lines.

    Impact: Finland was highly impressive in skating to overtime with the Canadians, and besting the Russians in the quarter-finals. That type of consistent two-way play is a big reason why they have won medals in three of the past four Olympics.

    However, their top two lines are simply not at the same level as their opponents. The Finns will have to look for an edge elsewhere, because they are at a distinct disadvantage up front.

2. Canada vs Fowler and Shattenkirk

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    What Canada Brings: Don't let the surprisingly poor results so far fool you, Canada is the best offensive team in this tournament.

    This is a team that left Claude Giroux, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Joe Thornton at home. They have the three leading NHL scorers, and 10 forwards who have already scored 20 NHL goals so far this year. Their fourth line is arguably as strong offensively as at least one of every other nation's top two lines.

    The incredible Canadian offence has averaged 42 shots a game, the highest in the tournament by quite some margin. Whether you believe in bad luck, clutch play, or miracles, they simply haven't been able to convert on their impressive collection of scoring chances. That won't last much longer.

    What U.S.A. Brings: The Americans are a strong defensive team, with their only potential vulnerabilities being along their right side, and against their third defensive pairing.

    Strictly speaking, it isn't fair to say that Kevin Shattenkirk is weak defensively, but rather that we simply don't know how good he is. In St. Louis he is used in the offensive zone and against secondary lines, where he has performed quite capably. But can he do it in Sochi? He hasn't been scored against yet.

    Pairing him up with Cam Fowler is a bold move. While Anaheim's defenceman is certainly having a strong two-way season this year, that wasn't always the case. Fowler's path to the top pairing was a bumpy one defensively.

    Together they are solid puck-moving defencemen, but not great in their own zone. They are nevertheless getting 16 minutes a game while John Carlson gets 10 minutes and Justin Faulk doesn't play at all.

    Impact: Canada has four strong lines, and there will be no escaping the threat they pose to even the best defensive pairing.

    Fowler and Shattenkirk have yet to be scored against this tournament, a streak that could come to an abrupt end this Friday.

1. Sweden's Power Play

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    Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    What Sweden Brings: Sweden has six power play goals, which leads the tournament, and no other team has more than four.

    Erik Karlsson scored two of them, and four other players have one apiece. Karlsson, Daniel Sedin, Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Backstrom all have two assists.

    Two of the top four power play scorers in the NHL this year are on this explosive Swedish unit, including leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom (31 points) and power play quarterback Erik Karlsson (25 points).

    Beyond that, Niklas Kronwall has 18 points, eighth among NHL defencemen, and Marcus Johansson has 17 points.

    What Finland Brings: Finland is strong defensively at even strength, but has allowed three shorthanded goals, third most in the tournament.

    Only three Finnish NHLers average more than two minutes of penalty-killing time per game this year: Kimmo Timonen, Lauri Korpikoski and Sami Salo. The next-best NHL penalty-killer on their roster is Olli Maatta, who averages just 58 seconds per game.

    This has forced the Finns to rely more on non-NHLers for their penalty kill, like Ossi Vaananen and Leo Komarov. They have both been on the ice for two of the three power play goals scored against the team.

    Impact: Finland plays an aggressive and tight-checking style, and could easily get into penalty trouble. This problem is aggravated by the fact that key penalty-killer Kimmo Timonen leads their NHL contingent in penalty minutes this year.

    Keep your eyes on the officials early in the game. Unless they keep their whistles in their pockets, it could be a tough game for Finland.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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