Group B: Pre-Game – Canada vs. Finland
Buckle up, the games start to mean something from here on in.
After a simply fantastic game Saturday morning between political arch-rivals Russia and the US, we’re going to be treated on Sunday to the determining game for the first round bye in Group B between Finland and defending champions Canada. By all accounts, this is going to be another stellar game.
After watching the first two Canadian games, you can see how quickly they have adapted to the larger ice surface. The first game against Norway, everybody looked tense, unsure of what to do with all the extra space. Defenders were being beaten wide, where they would have been easily able to rub out the winger into the North American dimensions. After a period or two of this, the game noticeably changed; nerves eased, and the skill and speed of the larger Canadians took over.
What we saw from Team Canada in the Austria game is likely what we can expect from them going forward – an absolute nightmare for their opposition. While Austria is anything but a powerhouse, they had a much more capable team than Norway. Canada made them look like a peewee hockey team. While the score of 6-0 is notably one-sided, what stood out was the play that didn’t go into the net. Odd man rushes looked incredible and numerous, there were times where puck possession in the Austrian zone went on for several minutes – at one point, I counted four on-the-fly line changes for Team Canada in the offensive zone, while Austria could not get a single man changed. It’s rare that a 6-0 score can be said to be misleading – against the team that scored six, but there you have it.
In short, if Canada can continue the play that we saw in the Austria game, we’re in for a treat.
Unlike Canada’s other two opponents thus far, Finland has the tools to be able to win this game. Without question, their goaltending entering this tournament is the deepest; whether it’s the best still remains to be seen. Tuukka Rask looked decidedly ordinary in the opening game against the Austrians, giving up four goals on 20 shots. Kari Lehtonen looked much better in the game against Norway, but didn’t stand on his head, as we were expecting the Finnish goalies to do. Anttii Niemi has yet to see any action, and may do so against Canada – no starters have yet been named, and will likely be a game-time decision.
Finland started in a very scary fashion at the tournament – allowing an early goal in the Austria game, less than a minute in. Mikael Granlund righted the ship a few minutes later, only to have Austria put another goal on the board a few minutes later. By the end of the period, Finland has given their collective heads a shake, and were comfortably up 4-2. From that point forward, the result was never in question, but it gave fans pause for concern – could Finland swing with the big boys if Austria was giving them these types of headaches?
Their following game against Norway was a solid statement to the affirmative, handily beating down their Scandinavian brethren. Finland scored easily and often – in fact, only two Finnish skaters did not have a plus-minus in the plus during the whole game, a testament to their all-around play and success.
But, let’s face it. For both Finland and Canada, these two prior games were appetizers for the main course, which will come Sunday at 12:00 ET. The winner gets a respite; the loser will likely have to go through the additional qualification game on Tuesday.
Keys to the Game
If Canada is to win the game against Finland, they’re going to face a much better goalie than they have so far in these games. Canada’s speed and skill can be enough to win this game, but they’ll have to get shots on net early and often. Regardless of which Finn starts in net, it will be important to get at least one body in front to obstruct his view.
Canada will also need to be very careful because Finland’s transition game is very good. In the offensive zone, they play a perimeter game, choosing their shots carefully. If Canada collapses back onto the net, they could get a very good counter-punch game going and simply outmatch the Finns on chances. If they get caught chasing the puck in their own end, Finland will make them pay.
Canada should be able to win this game – they just need to dictate the terms of engagement on their strengths, and not let Finland play the way they need to in order to win.
For Finland, the key to winning this game will start from their crease. Whoever gets the start will have to be stellar in order to even the playing field. Canada’s offensive depth is unparalleled in these Games (possibly, ever) and every line will have quality opportunities. Rask, Lehtonen, or Niemi must play out of their minds, or this game could be over by the end of the first period.
Second, the defense will have to keep the crease clear of big Canadian bodies. Part of Canada’s game plan will be to park Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, or Jamie Benn near the paint to obstruct and collect the garbage; Finland cannot let that happen.
Finally, Finland will have to make every opportunity count. They’ll get their chances in this game, but they will not nearly be as abundant as they have been so far. They can probably expect 20-25 shots and maybe ten scoring opportunities. If they hope to defeat Canada, they’ll have to pot at least four. This is not a team you can trap for a period.
Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 4-2 Canada
News & Noteworthy
Neither team has determined who is starting in net (or at least, neither side is talking). It makes a lot of sense for Finland – all three goaltenders who could play have teammates on Team Canada that could spill the beans on how to beat him. Keeping them guessing up to game time doesn’t give Canada much time to prepare on which one, and what strategy to employ. Canada has a different problem in net – both Carey Price and Roberto Luongo looked good in their first games, and while Price gave up a goal in the Norway game, both could likely do yeoman’s work in net against Finland. My money is on Luongo – based on his experience, the net should be his until he loses it, and with a shutout in his first game, how can you bench him on that?
Finland has a few notable injuries that could be a problem for them going into Sunday’s game – Aleksander Barkov is done for the Olympics with a lower body injury, and Teemu Selanne missed the last two periods of the Austria game with an injury, though he is expected to play. Barkov will be a big hole for Finland to fill, and Selanne may not last long if it’s his shoulder that’s acting up again.