Team USA's Stellar Start May Be Its Own Downfall

Spencer CuellarContributor IFebruary 26, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 21:  Zach Parise #9 of the United States and Ryan Kesler #17 of the United States celebrate after Kesler scored an empty net goal in the third period during the ice hockey men's preliminary game between Canada and USA on day 10 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 21, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. Team USA won 5-3.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

I woke up from my nap Wednesday night to JR being completely shocked the Slovaks had beaten Sweden.  Now, it is an upset, but really is that shocking?

I can only compare international hockey to international soccer and basketball, and I’ll try to do so the best I can.

In any international play, the game is almost completely different.  It’s almost played entirely differently.  Stars are still stars but major contributions are made by your less than superstar players.

For example, in soccer, Miroslav Klose can score tons of goals while Michael Ballack and Lukas Podolski are “the better players.”  Now they may be better, but in international play, anyone can make huge differences in games; tournaments overall.

In basketball, the 2008 Olympic Final between the USA and Spain featured many stars.  One was a Spaniard and the rest were pretty much the entire USA team.  The USA won 118-107 in a very close game for most part, a week after creaming them by 37 in a virtually meaningless group game.

Pau Gasol wouldn’t start for the USA.  He was Spain’s best player.  Now, they had a good team but compared to the USA, it’s pathetic.  I’m not poopoo-ing a “small margin” of victory but on paper that game should have been like the first, a 25-point blowout.

The same happened to Sweden.  It looks worse because they were defending champions, but take a look at the Slovakian roster: It ain’t bad.  Miroslav Satan, Zigmund Palffy with a nice return to NHL fans, Michal Handzus, Zdeno Chara, Pavol Demitra, and Marian Hossa.

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Demitra is no star, but a consummate player anyone would like to have on their team.  Like the NBA, the NHL/world of hockey has so many good players.  The talent level is so high that few stand out from the many that already stand out.

After Crosby and Ovechkin, I can think of 23+ guys who I’d want with a top ten pick if the teams re-drafted.  In my view, Marian Gaborik is one of these.  He’s as good a player as you could want.

After some struggles and great years in Minnesota, he’s doing very well in New York.  He has carried it over to international play and his guys are in the Olympic semis. 

Sweden has two players of the top four total NHL point scorers at the moment: Henrik Sedin and Nicklas Backstrom.  The Swedes are sexier and heavier on paper and they had the most experience of all the teams.

That’s why they play the games.  Surprising, not stunning.

Prior to the games, most had Russia–Canada in the finals.  Afterwards, Sweden and the US were well-liked.  While that’s all well and good, it seemed obvious to me that while clearly nothing is ever certain in sports, there are some good teams not being given any credit.

Everyone was caught up in Crosby–Ovechkin.  We already saw that, and Ovechkin proved his worth at home in game seven against the fourth seed.

To me, I thought the Czechs and Slovaks could upset a team in the quarters.  If you look at it, it’s too hard to predict a clear final matchup because of group play and where teams land in the bracket.  You could just say which teams are better and rank them.

In that case, most had:

1. Canada

2. Russia

3. Sweden

4. USA/Finland

5.Czech Republic/Slovakia

While these rankings are fine, the finals, and not even that; the whole stage was set.  Russia and Canada were to cruise and Sweden or the US would put up decent fights in the semis.

I have been very impressed with the Swiss.  If I recall correctly, I saw Jonas Hiller’s NHL debut in Anaheim and he was as impressive this winter as anyone has been.  Luca Sbisa, his double teammate, and the only other name I recognize, and may be a defensive star in a few years from now.

Pretty much a team of no-names and they played very well.  Their fight more than anything made an impression on me and their performance to reach and do well in the quarters was unexpected and must have been nice for their fans.

Upsets were always going to happen.  People just got too far ahead of themselves and hopefully they have and will continue to appreciate the competitiveness.  There are no certainties and it's better this way.  I didn’t see Slovakia beating Sweden, but I wouldn’t have dismissed it.

I want to say something quickly about Sidney Crosby.  I think two things have gotten the Canadian team to finally play well and one of them is their assistant captain.

Sure, Scott Niedermayer is old, has been through everything, and the players relate to him.  Sidney is the best player in the world and he’s quite the leader himself. 

The Kid took a youthful squad to a title in his fourth season, barely able to drink alcohol with his boss in their Pittsburgh mansion.

He led his team to two insane road game seven victories, the latter clinching the Cup.  I don’t know what else he has to do to garner everyone’s best player position.  Win the Olympics?  No, I bet Ovechkin will still be better than him in a week.

I know what you’re saying.  Sidney didn’t score Wednesday in the rout of Russia.

Correct.  He didn’t have to.  Now you can counter with Russia not being as good as Canada.  However, Canada was playing terribly for their potential and something happened. I think I know what two things.

The latter being the overall point of this piece and I’ll get to it soon, I promise.  But the first was Sidney.  He’s a great player but I cannot overstate how great a leader he has become.

Russia wasn’t that inferior to Canada.  They were projected finalists and many liked them to win.  On paper and when teams play at full strength, Canada is an obvious choice to win.

It’s not even fair.  They have the best three players from the best offensive team, in the Sharks.  They have the best player from the best team in the west in Toews.  They have the best two Ducks, who are low in standings, but still fine players.

I haven’t even mentioned Jarome Iginla or the great defenders, especially Niedermayer, who may be the best even at his older age, and the ever-intimidating Chris Pronger.

Eric Staal is still a mighty fine player and the goalkeeping...do I even need to continue?  Perhaps the greatest ever in Martin Brodeur.  Arguably the best in the game now and the hometown hero Roberto Luongo.

In my opinion, they have the world’s best pure goal scorer: Rick Nash.  Nash’s clinical finish in the break-away that put Canada up 3-0 sealed the win in my view.  Russia was not coming back from that icing on the super-hot start.

But back to the leaders.  Scott is great, I really think so.  But it’s not just him.  Canada knows who Sidney is and I know in international play, pride for your country comes over club commitments.

They like Sid.  They know how great he is at the game.  And I think they know that he’s become a great leader and they’re learning how and why.

I believe they accept following this young guy who is just stellar.  Things got started for Canada in the Germany game.

Up and through the match with the Germans, Iginla had five goals, all coming while he was on Crosby's wing, and Staal had four assists and a score.  Specifically in the Germany game, Crosby and Iginla combined for three goals and Staal had three assists.

The line came together best in the German game and put the memories of the disappointing loss to the US behind them for the time being.  It catapulted them to a drubbing of Russia and perhaps to a gold medal.

I saw Sidney do some things I hadn’t really seen him do before in that Russia game.  He was more of a fighter (I mean in a literal sense).  He was pushing and checking more, and harder.  One time I saw him take a poor, albeit hard shot, that was either right at the goalie or many inches off the near post; a sure miss.

I think he was trying too hard to score, maybe to seem as though he was contributing, at least tangibly.  I don’t think he feels this way, but the fact that he or I or anyone would think that because he did not score in a resounding victory over a huge rival, he’d underperformed and is overrated, is crazy.

He played well.  He was able to conserve energy and that may be a plus in the long run.  He finished his checks.  Defended his boys, Dan Boyle in particular.  He was a captain.

Opposite, Ovechkin wasn’t great when he needed to be more than that.  Sidney wasn’t either, but he did what was needed of him for the day.

If there’s one thing I’m certain I’ll see in the coming days, it’s a superb Sidney Crosby, affecting the game in every which way and being the best player on the ice.

Ovechkin seemed to disappear as doubt grew and grew as the lead widened and widened, a comeback seeming less and less likely.  To be perfectly honest, Alexander Semin seemed to be the best Russian Capital on the night.

At least he was being a little brat and getting in people’s faces; skating hard and trying to make something, anything happen, until the final whistle.

I am not putting upsets by the Fins or Slovaks as impossible, but the US and Canada are favourites.  While the US should post decent odds, the Canadians are absolute favourites to get to the Final and then big favourites to win it whomever they play.

The Teemu Selanne reunion tour alongside the fantastic goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff, who has been the best by far in the Olympics, can beat the US.  Miikka looks as good as ever like he did in ’04.

Team USA’s play has been great and they can do better.  A potential finals rematch with the Canadians is a dream that will come true.  A greater opportunity to embarrass them is too much to not win.

The Slovak offense can score a couple on Canada but the Canadian offense will be too much for Jaroslav Halak who is good, but not enough to get to an Olympics Final, especially against Canada, in Canada.

I will stick with my pick and who I thought the two best teams were in the USA and Canada.  Now I am not on the record with this on paper but pre-Games I had the USA over Canada.

I thought the young Avalanche and Duck stars (Paul Stastny and Bobby Ryan) would lead an overall pretty good team that had enough young star-power to match the mature, experienced veterans the squad has.

On paper, Canada was and is an overwhelming favourite, and after some early squabbles, its found its stride and is hotter than ever…without its best player showing he is that.

The US has been impressive in all facets.  Ryan Miller in particular, but the offense has been good and effective in clutch moments.  The defense has been good.  The intensity and maturity and class to play well and finish has been the best quality I’ve seen.

I haven’t seen this before from a US national hockey perspective.  It’s been fun to watch and very exciting, not only the games and play itself, but the prospects of a legitimate shot to win a gold medal.  Or to medal period; advance beyond the quarters—something few thought could happen, even fewer thought would happen.

That said, this is why I feel the USA will lose to Canada if they do in fact lose to Canada.  Meaning if they do lose, this will be the overbearing and main reason why they do:

Simply, they played and beat them too early.  Not all of this was in their control.  The draw put them in the same group and an early game was always guaranteed.

I have my suspicions about international athletic tournaments and their draws being fixed, but I do not put blame on it, whether they are or aren’t.

Inter/Barca in the group stage?

Manchester United/AC Milan and Inter/Chelsea in the first knockout round of the Champions League?

USA/Canada in Olympic hockey?  If it wasn’t the USA, it would have been Russia.  Please...

This actually helps the games and tournaments and as I said, put no blame for losses on my cynicism.

You can’t do anything about who you play and when you play them.  You also never want to lose.  There would be no reason for the US to not have wanted to play Canada early, and then beat them if they were to meet, regardless of the time.

Even with a loss, a favorable matchup in the playoff round would have been likely (even thought it turned out to be the second favourite Russians).

The US came out and hit Canada in the mouth.  They did not match Canada because they controlled and set the tempo.  Canada matched them intensity-wise.  After 20 seconds, they led and never looked back.  When Canada would respond, the US replied back.  Brian Rafalski has been magical, I just have to say.

The Canadians dominated the game on paper.  They outshot the US 45-23.  Ryan Miller was exceptional.  Brodeur was actually awful.  Luongo will be in goal and perform typically, but so will Miller.  Kipper has been the best, but Miller is the hottest goalie in the tournament.

The USA’s ability to overmatch Canada’s offense with their intensity, hitting, fearlessness, and overall intangibles, is the recipe they will have to copy and re-use to defeat the Canadians again.

The climactic and perhaps greatest sign of this was Ryan Kesler’s empty-netter.  I’d never seen such a nice empty-net goal.  This may seem funny at first but go back and look.

His effort and thought to first get to the puck, then not to take an extra touch/few skates, and reach around the intruding defender and swing the puck towards goal was exceptional.

Team USA’s victory over Canada may have surprised Canada, and only a little, but not because the US is that inferior.  It would have surprised them because they did not back down at all.

They took it to Canada.  I don’t want to contribute to the over usage of The Miracle On Ice comparisons, but that’s how they beat the Soviets almost 30 years ago to the day.  It works.

The victory opened Canada’s eyes and in a huge way.  The sleeping giant had been awakened.

They did not respond quickly or well enough to beat the US last Sunday.  With a few preparation days and newfound success in line changes, play, and confidence, the Canadians have enough time to counter the US’s great style of play that was so successful and beat them.

Likewise, the US can prepare for changes the Canadians will make and flip the switch again.  This is set up for a remarkable final.

The game itself may not happen.  There’s always that chance.  But I think it will.

It may be that the USA’s unsuspecting position in the group and then bracket that does them in, in the end.  That combined with their great play early on in the tournament.

The may-be misfortune to play Canada in the group when they were not themselves and beat them in front of their fans who expected so much for that game and this tournament as a whole, subsequently putting the world, especially Canada, on notice that they’ll have to work extremely hard to get the gold.

Causing Team Canada to adjust early, and being the main reason they improve quickly, which is why the US may lose a gold medal in the most unfair of ways.

Through their stellar play, the US has forced Canada’s hand, and I expect them to respond like champions this weekend.  That’s not to say the US won’t play as well or better, and not have a chance.  They have a great chance.  And I think they’ll make the most of it.

As well as Team USA played, when the Canadian team is clicking on all cylinders as it’s sure to be on Sunday, it’s awfully tough to beat them.

Something the US has already done.  However, what it caused by defeating that Canadian team was the exact wake-up call and sense of urgency it needed for them to protect their home and play their very best.  To not be again, upset by their neighbors to the South in the most meaningful of games.

This time around, I’m just not sure even Team USA’s extraordinary wherewithal will be enough to be giant killers for one more day.


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