Today, From the Press Box:
We take a look at the stars of the Olympic tournament, along with other newsmakers. Also on the docket is a discussion of the Women's draw. I also want to chime in with my thoughts on Olympic overtime.
Fantasy owners should be listening to the rumor mill and so will we as we await the resumption of play. Key injury notes will be addressed.
Men's Olympic Hockey
The path to the medal round has elevated some players and caused others to be questioned. The opening round provided only a few mildly surprising results. The signature game was played between the Russians and the Americans, a matchup that Olympic organizers would like to see again in the medal round.
The Swedes took advantage of perhaps the easiest Group schedule to win all three games in regulation time. The big star for them, as expected, has been Henrik Lundqvist, who surrendered five goals, while the offense produced 10 goals. The nagging concern for them is the injury that will keep Henrik Zetterberg from playing the rest of the way. He has a herniated disk in his back and his NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings, will likely miss him for an extended period of time as they try to battle back into the playoff race.
For the Americans, Phil Kessel emerged as the tournament's leading scorer, while T J Oshie gained prominence for his role in the game against Russia. Jonathan Quick has been the go-to goalie for the Americans, who went 3-0 in the preliminary round, earning the second seed and a bye into the round of eight. In North America, fans are mildly disappointed that Canada and USA are on a collision course for a matchup in the semi-final.
For Canada, the scoring prowess of their defense corps, led by Drew Doughty's four goals has obscured some concern over a lack of production from the forwards. Central to that particular lack of production is the stat line for Sidney Crosby (0 g, 2 a). The big question that has been answered is that Carey Price will be the goalie that Canada will turn to, for the balance of the tournament.
Finland was a close second to Canada in their Group and snuck into the coveted fourth seed, earning the final bye into the quarterfinals, by virtue of 14 goals scored in their first two games, followed by a narrow 2-1 overtime loss to Canada.
The home team, Russia, lived on the edge, by becoming involved in two shootout scenarios, winning one and losing one. KHL stars (former NHLers) Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov have been key components so far. They even had a brief scare from the 12th (last) seeded Norwegian team, who held them to a scoreless draw in the first period of the qualification round, before they eventually pulled off a relatively comfortable 4-0 win.
Slovenia qualified for the quarters with a nice 4-0 win over an Austrian squad, which was ninth ranked after the Group stage. The Slovenians benefitted from an opening round win over Slovakia to earn this favorable matchup and it propelled them ultimately into a matchup against Sweden.
In arriving at the final eight teams, Latvia doled out a dose of Switzerland's own medicine with an upset of a team that has been known to pull off upsets of other teams. The apparent beneficiary of that result was Canada, the third seed in the quarterfinal bracket, who the Latvians faced after earning their first win in four games played.
In another emotional match to qualify for the quarterfinal, the seventh seeded Czech Republic earned a narrow 5-3 win over neighboring Slovakia in a game that featured two European rosters filled out with a majority of NHL-rostered players. Their reward for that much-savored win was a date with the Americans.
The big fear of NHL teams is that their top players are exposed to the risk of injury here, as in any of their NHL games. In addition to Zetterberg, Mats Zuccarello, Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky will be ready for the resumption of the NHL schedule. This is one argument that some NHL GMs will use to voice their opposition to future Olympics. That's a debate that will surely take place in the aftermath of these Games.
In the quarter-final games, the big story came from the Finns 3-1 win over the host Russians. The recipe for this outcome boiled down to a hot goalie, Tuukka Rask, standing tall and turning away the Russians at almost every opportunity. Meanwhile, the experienced Finns played a textbook road game, checking the Russians relentlessly and counterattacking with efficiency. Even though Ilya Kovalchuk scored the opening goal for Russia, the Finns were undeterred. Second period goals by Juhamatti Aaltonen, captain Teemu Selanne and a third period power play marker by Mikael Granlund sealed the outcome. This Russian loss is definitely the low point of the Olympics for Russia. To put this in perspective, imagine the outcry in Canada if the same fate happened in Vancouver. There would have been an inquisition. As it ended today, the Russian squad was jeered heavily by their fans and left in stunned silence. Speculation in the aftermath of this painful loss is that the hosts may have used more KHL players to make a political statement about their home league, while other NHLers may have merited inclusion to make this team stronger. For the Finns, this is yet another statement that this tiny nation is a hockey power.
Sweden continued their roll, with a relatively easy 5-0 win over a heavy underdog in Slovenia. Goals from Alex Steen, Daniel Steen, Loui Eriksson and a pair by Carl Hagelin should serve notice that despite the injuries to Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg, this team still has a ton of skill throughout the roster. They are the only team with an unblemished 4-0 record to date. That sets them on their own collision course with a fellow Scandinavian country. The Swedes and Finns will meet in one of the semi-finals and that game should really be dripping with emotion.
In the later games on Tuesday, Canada outshot the Latvians 57-14 but only managed a 2-1 victory on a late third period goal by Shea Weber. That continued a tournament long trend of clutch scoring from the blueline brigade. In the other match, the USA defeated the while the USA got goals from goals from five different forwards en route to a relatively easy 5-2 triumph over the Czech Republic.
That leaves Sweden vs. Finland and the USA vs. Canada as the semi-final games set for Friday.
I can't wait.
Women's Hockey Tournament
As expected, the Women's Gold Medal will come down to a match between Canada and the USA. There has been much handwringing over this eventuality, with some calls for the removal of the women's hockey event in the Olympics.
I think those catcalls should be silenced immediately. Hockey is a sport that is central to the Winter Olympics and in these modern times, we have seen a growth in female participation, not just in North America, but also all over the World. It's only a matter of time before other country's hockey programs narrow the gap with the two current powers. The fact that Canada and the USA are still dominant is a credit to these nations, but I really believe that more competitive games and contending nations will soon emerge. Just as we have seen with international basketball and baseball tournaments in men's divisions the competitive gap between established powers has narrowed over time. It will take more time with Women's Hockey, but that day will come. Shutting down this competition would have resounding implications. Governing bodies are surely aware of those possible repercussions and should be encouraged to grow the status of the game for women everywhere.
When the USA-Russia game went to a shootout, I was surprised to see that the international rules continue to allow repeat shooters after the first three shooters. Unbelievably they made me long for the NHL version, which I believe is the worst way that a hockey game can be settled.
This is the kind of thing that turns people off soccer, which is the first sport that turned to shootouts to decide global supremacy in the sport.
Now, international hockey uses it and goes further against purist views and turns the game into one-on-one confrontations (literally) to decide these team outcomes. This is totally ridiculous in my opinion. Individual skills competitions have no business in settling team games and world titles.
NHL returns next week- which names will be in the news?
Tomas Vanek - Did you see how Vanek went on a line change immediately after turning the puck over to a goal-scoring two on one rush for the Slovenians? The NY Islanders will be trying feverishly to move this guy, after he rejected a lucrative contract extension from the Isles. I have to wonder where his head is at, but some rival GMs will be lining up to try to coax this highly skilled player to find motivation with them.
Henrik Zetterberg - As noted above, his back injury could be the final straw that snaps the Red Wings 20 year playoff streak. It might be worth watching them transition to younger players like Gustav Nyquist.
Stephen Weiss - After signing a multi-year deal as a free agent, his first season in Motown has been a mess, due to injury and poor play. He has the final 24 games left to make his mark. He has indicated that he will be healthy when play resumes and should be anxious to produce, even if the games may eventually not mean much. He played in enough of those games with Florida, earlier in his career.
Ryan Miller - It makes no sense for the rebuilding Sabres to keep him, so I expect him to be dealt to a playoff team, so keep an eye on goaltending situations with some of the top teams in the league.
Martin Brodeur - He has all but handed the top goalie reins to Corey Schneider, as I have indicated in an earlier column. He could consent to a move to a contending team and won't cost as much as Miller in trade talks.
David Clarkson - He has had a poor season with the Maple Leafs, but has been playing his most inspired hockey of the season just prior to the Olympics. He's got lots of "big game" experience and may be ready to produce as he had been expected when he signed with Toronto.