Just a day out now. Whatever your feelings about Olympic hockey and how it affects the NHL season and its teams, we’re on the precipice. I usually panic and complain about the stoppage and the toll it will take on the Hawks all the way until the tournament arrives, but then the Olympic hockey starts and I’m generally enthralled by it. It really can be the highest level, and the drama and randomness of a knockout tournament can’t be matched. So let’s take a look at what we’re in for during the next two weeks.
The first thing you’ll hear about is the size of the rink. It’s 15 feet wider. While the first conclusion you might draw from that is it makes for a faster and more open game, that generally is not the case. Perhaps with the level of talent on display in Sochi it might come true, but more likely it won’t.
If you’ve seen any European game or even watched the World Juniors when held in Europe, the game can actually get pretty slow. People forget the Left Wing Lock, which the Wings adapted in the mid-90’s and eventually birthed the neutral zone trap, came from the European game.
Why? Well, when you have 15 more feet to cover, you can’t really do that with standard North American defensive tactics with just two guys. So it only seemed natural that one of the wings would be required to become a third d-man, and basically deny entry so easily into the offensive zone. You’ll see this from Sweden and Finland in this tournament, and probably the Czechs and Slovaks too. They’re not going to let the firepower of Canada and Russia simply to waltz in.
However, with that extra 15 feet, defensemen can’t really force or stand up at the blue line. You’ll just get dragged out far too wide and either get beaten to the outside or leave a lane for someone else to drive to the net for a pass. This is why teams collapse even more into the middle in their defensive zone. You can let a guy stake the puck into the zone on the outside, because they’re still a $40 cab ride from the net. While Patrick Kane having his puck on his stick and skating to the right circle is exciting over here, over there he’s still going to have a ton of work to do to create anything.
Another change is that when teams do chip or dump the puck in, d-men are going to be way more hesitant to chase into the corners because they’ll need a to teleport back to the front of their net. Letting the offensive team have the puck in the corners just isn’t that big of a deal because it’s far away.
On the offensive side, d-men can pinch along the wall a little more with pucks ringed around the boards, because for a forward to get out from his collapsed position in the middle to the wall to pressure is nearly impossible. And the last thing you want to do on a bigger surface is start running around. It’s why the US’s insistence on speed, speed, speed may not have been the best policy.
When teams are set up offensively, it’s going to look like the Tortorella’s Rangers on meth. You’ll sometimes see all five skaters in between their own circles, and from out in the great yonder it’s even harder to get a shot through that. Pressure is not the name of the game on the International rink.
So with that, I’ll do my best to take a look around all the teams and try and predict what we can expect.
Russia – Well, we joke that if they don’t win they’ll all be killed, and when we do there’s a small part of us that isn’t sure we’re serious. Obviously facing enormous pressure, and this isn’t a squad that’s been known to deal with pressure well (see Rick Nash’s 16 goals against them in 2010’s quarters). It’s kind of hard to believe that since the pros joined in the Russians have only played for gold once, losing to the Czechs (Hasek, really) in 1998. But the previous two times the Games were hosted by a contender, they both made the Gold Medal game. Playing at home is something of an advantage.
Looking at the roster, good lord does this defense suck. From what I can gather Slava Voynov and Andrei Markov will be the top pair, and then it’s look out. Anton Belov and Nikita Nikitin are on this squad, which should tell you everything you should know. I’d say they’re going to give up a billion goals, but both Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky have some experience bailing out teams that are giving up a ton of shots. Either one of these guys could get hot and make the Russians a very tough out.
But with any Russian team there’s more than enough firepower up front. Even if Datsyuk isn’t totally healthy, Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Tarasenko, Semin, Radulov and one or two others can pump in the goals. The question with the Russians is usually what’s between the ears, and we won’t know that until they get out there.
Prediction: Biff it against the Yanks in the preliminary round, get it together from there and probably play for Gold. Which will kind of suck.
Slovakia – You might not know it, but Slovakia has put together some sneaky good performances the last two Games. They went 5-0 in their first five games in 2006 and almost put out Canada in the semifinals in 2010, and really should have won bronze.
The Slovaks don’t have the strength in net that their group rivals the US and Russia do. Jaro Halak and Oh Lord Stuck In Petr Budaj Again just don’t measure up. The defense could be an issue, depending on what you think Zdeno Chara has left. The miles have piled up, he’s got more ground to cover in this tournament, and the dominant force he was in 2010 is just not the case any more. Mezsaros and Sekera are fine players, and promising Oilers rookie Marincin has turned some heads since being called up. It’s arguably a better blue line than Russia, at least.
Up front? Michal Handzus is the top center. That’s not where you want to be. If he’s not Tomas Kopecky might be. As we’ve seen, Tomas Tatar can be something of an issue in big games. Marian Hossa is going to have to do most of the heavy lifting, though if he carries his recent play into this tournament that won’t be too much of an issue for him.
Prediction: They’re in deep in this group. Feel like it’s quarters and out.
Slovenia – This really won’t be anything more than a thrill for Anze Kopitar, the country’s only NHL-er. They can look forward to getting clocked three times in the group and then biting it quickly in the second round. Kopitar will be home before the postcards.
USA – It’s funny that there’s such a hot debate about the goaltending for the Yanks, because between you and me Jonathan Quick really hasn’t been that good in two years. Sure, he still has the credit from his 2012 playoff run, and was good in parts in the 2013 playoffs. But Quick’s SV% this year is .911. Last year it was .902. Meanwhile, Ryan Miller discovered his game just in time to play the Olympics and get traded from Buffalo. Coincidence? Miller will get the first two games, though I bet Quick gets the start against Slovenia. Unless Miller throws up all over himself, he’ll go the rest of the way.
I feel like the defense got more shit than it deserved, because it includes players that not everyone sees a lot. Justin Faulk from Carolina is a terrific blue-liner. Cam Fowler is the best d-man on the team with the most points in the league. John Carlson basically has to be Atlas in Washington. With Suter, McDonagh, Shattenkirk and Martin, at least Brooks Orpik might not have to see the ice. Which would be a good thing. It’s a pretty solid group. If you don’t think so, go look at Russia’s again.
Of course, the question is goals. I can only imagine the look on Patrick Kane’s face when he watches Dustin Brown biff all the chances he sets up for him. They’re a mobile group for sure, but how much punch do they have? It sounds like Blake Wheeler will be the odd man out, when it really should be Brown or Callahan who do not have the hands Wheeler does. This Van Riemsdyk-Pavelski-Kessel line could be an utter blast though. Kessel has been other worldly in Toronto lately. I don’t know that the game on the bigger surface plays into Backes’s style all that well. I hope Pacioretty is healthy, because people also miss out on this guy too. He’s an ass-kicker of the highest level and my new guy I’d cut off a finger to get into a Hawks sweater.
Prediction: Every time I look at this team I just keep feeling like they’re headed for the Bronze Medal game. I think they’ll win this group with an upset win over the hosts again, and get a pretty nice draw for the quarters. But in the semis they’ll likely get one of Sweden, Russia, Canada, or Finland, and I wonder if they have the scoring to get past a hot Rask or Varlamov or Lundqvist. Don’t see it, hope I’m wrong.
I’ll be back later this afternoon to go through Groups B and C.