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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament: The Semifinal Predictions

First, a few thoughts about last round's game concerning the Red Machine.

First off, that was not the way I intended to start my morning. I woke up around 7:40 and immediately found the RUS-FIN game, and the score stood at 1-0, Russia in the lead. Little did I know the rest of the game would be a continuous wave of miscues and close chances for Team Russia as Finland eliminated them. 

I expected so much more from the Red Machine this year. Riddled with talent and promise as they were, they labored through much of the game, unable to break through Finland's stout defense. It was a slow, drawn-out game, where the threat of losing nagged and nagged until it became possible, probable, and then inevitable. 

I trust that the talent will continue to be at a high level looking forward for Russia. I'm not worried about that.  What needs to change is the style of hockey this team plays, and dramatically. Look at how teams like Switzerland and Latvia fought and persevered against teams far superior in skill level! I don't think anyone (except a few fired up Latvian fans, possibly) expected a small Baltic nation to install a brick wall in net and take Canada to the limit like they did.

I will admit, it's hard to get mad at the Finns, especially when the face of your country's hockey team is Teemu "The Flying Finn" Selanne. The man is all a hockey player should be: modest, dominant, ageless, respectful, and consistent. When the teams lined up for handshakes, Selanne clearly showed empathy as he consoled a visibly shaken Aleksandr Ovechkin. That is one of hockey's great traditions...players will eat each other alive during play, but when all is said and done they will shake hands and give credit where credit is due, man to man. 

(This photo is not mine and I deserve no credit for it, I found it posted to Twitter from @JaspersRink.) 

Okay, okay, enough emotional speech-making. Time for predictions.

Finland vs. Sweden
Game 1

Ah, yes. The great Scandinavian hockey rivalry. 

Why Finland could win: 

They represent a challenge. Finland is probably the most difficult team to date that Sweden will face in this tournament. Finland has the best resume of teams that Sweden has so far faced: they took Canada to overtime and ended the Russians' run in a convincing 3-1 win.
Excellent Goaltending. Tuukka Rask speaks for himself. He went up against an offense that may have been the best on paper, and with the exception of Ilya Kovalchuk's early tally, shut down the Russian offense. 
Veteran Presence. This is Teemu Selanne's sixth Olympics. Yep, this old superstar was around in Vancouver, Torino, Salt Lake City, Nagano, and Lillehammer. Him and Sami Salo have been around the block enough times that they'll be able to use their experience and to give the Finns an advantage. 
Ability to do small things right. In the game against Russia, Finland played some excellent defense. They passed the puck well. They didn't try to show off. They blocked shots. It's 
not particularly pretty, but it works. 

Why Sweden could win: 

Balance. The Swedes have one of the best defensive corps in the Olympics. Their offense has the potential to be explosive, as we saw against the Slovenes. King Henrik Lundqvist, who's already won one gold medal, is between the pipes. 

Depth. Injuries are obviously a setback, but the Swedes' roster is so deep that it hasn't hurt them so far. 

Experience: Finland, despite veteran presence, has relied heavily on a couple young guns in Olli Maatta and Mikael Granlund to help them win games these Olympics. They've played admirably so far, but are still a liability, especially against a bitter rival. Sweden will not have to worry about this, as almost their entire roster has considerable experience. 

Prediction: Sweden 3, Finland 2 (OT)

United States vs. Canada
Game 2

This is it, boys. Time for revenge. In Vancouver, the United States played Canada in the Gold Medal game. Canada went up 2-0, but the Americans clawed back in the last seconds to tie the game at 2. In overtime, Sidney Crosby scored the "Golden Goal" to give Canada the 3-2 victory.
That was tough to stomach. Of course, many of us (although they won't admit it) were happy for our northern neighbors, despite the frustration that came with the loss. 

And now it's time for the rematch. 

Why the USA will win: 

Momentum. The United States has been on fire all through these Olympics. They stuck with the Russians and beat them in a shootout thanks to TJ Oshie of the St. Louis Blues. They steamrollered over Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. Canada, meanwhile, just barely squeaked by Latvia and their overheated goalie. They've been winning, yes, but not in the convincing ways that the US has. The defense has been fast and aggressive. The offense has scored more than enough. 

A Goalie who knows the big stage.  With all due respect to Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick has been to the Stanley Cup and performed magically, shutting down the New Jersey Devils and leading the Kings to the Promised Land. By contrast, both Canada's goalies have had trouble in the NHL playoffs. Carey Price has trouble against Leafs' forward Phil Kessel.  (Yes, Luongo won gold in Vancouver, but in general he has been inconsistent in the games he's needed most. He is still an outstandingly talented goalie, however.)

Why Canada will win: 

Latent threat. Canada hasn't been exactly amazing so far, but the United States must realize that this team is still loaded with talent and could break out. In women's hockey, the United States was up 2-0 going into the 3rd period. Canada cut the lead in half, and all the momentum changed. Canada tied it up and won in overtime. The United States needs to remember this. 

Emotion. The biggest complaint against the Canadian team is that they haven't played with gusto. They've been playing well, no question, but there hasn't been much emotion on the Canucks' side these Olympics. That is sure to change tomorrow at noon. (Eastern Standard Time) The United States is probably the Canadians' biggest rival next to the Russians, and everyone remembers the 2010 Gold Medal Game. 

These teams are pretty equal in skill level this year, but at the end of the day, I must side with my country. 

Prediction: USA 4, Canada 3


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