Thursday, February 20, 2014

Random thoughts on the Olympics heading into USA vs. Canada, plus predictions

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Because Twitter is only 140 characters, here are some of our thoughts on the Olympics so far as we head into USA vs. Canada on Friday ...

- Chris Kunitz's inability to score naturally makes people think about the guys who could be there instead.  (Our passionate rebuttal to the anti-Kunitzites is here).  The most notable snub is Claude Giroux, but having watched a lot of the tournament, I'm not sure he would have been the most logical choice to pick instead of Kunitz.  The big ice pushes everything out wide to the boards, which is where Giroux likes to set up and operate.  He'd have tons of room out there, but he'd likely be doing the same things Crosby and all the other uber-talented Canadian forwards are doing -- setting up his point men for long-range slapshots.  What Canada is missing is guys that find open space in the slot and  BURY THE PUCK with reckless abandon.  That's why James Neal would have been a more sensible alternative to Kunitz -- he is a better player than Kunitz and also has the experience of playing with Sid.  Giroux would have made sense as a replacement for Stamkos (instead of St. Louis).  But not for Kunitz.

- Speaking of setting up point men, the big ice basically forces everything to the outside, meaning you can get a lot of shots, albeit from far away.  You would think this would lead Mike Babcock to dress stud offensive-defensemen P.K. Subban over Dan Hamhuis, especially since Hamhuis is getting 4-5 minutes of ice time.  But so far it hasn't.  From a distance, it seems to us that Babcock is coaching tight, constantly switching the lineup to find some elusive chemistry.  The best solution is to get your best guys on the ice -- and Subban is certainly one of them -- and let them play.  A pot of water is never going to boil if you keep moving it from one burner to the next.  You have to pick one, step away, and wait.

- If the incubation period is too slow for Babcock's liking, it might help to give your best players more ice time.  Sid had 10 minutes through the first two periods against Latvia.  If you think he's your best player -- and, despite his underwhelming performance so far, he is -- then his minutes should reflect that.

- Russia's elimination is a huge choke job, even if it came at the hands of an excellent Finnish team.  There's no positive way to spin it, and no way to pin enough blame on any single person to absolve any other person of his share.  And that certianly includes Evgeni Malkin, who did nothing offensively after the first period of the first game.  Creating chances doesn't count as doing something.  Finishing them counts as doing something, and his inability to finish the amazing chances that he creates is a problem that is creeping more and more into Geno's game as he gets older.  Sure, he could have had 10 goals this tournament.  Just like he could have had 10 against Boston last year.  But he didn't.

- Thankfully for Geno, Ovechkin will get most of the ink for Russia's failures.  Deservedly so, too.  If you're in line to get all the credit for a win -- and you know his big fat head would be on the cover of every sports publication if the Russians had taken the Gold -- then you get the blame, too.  Ovechkin played fine, but like Malkin, he didn't score.  Ovechkin is a one-dimensional hockey player, and I don't mean that entirely as a knock, given that his dimension is being better than everyone except Stamkos at scoring.  The problem, though, is that when that dimension isn't working, Ovechkin has no second pitch.  You know that scene at the end of Rookie of the Year when Henry Rowengartner loses his fastball but still has to get three guys out, so he pulls the hidden ball trick and throws the Floater?  Ovechkin would have kept chucking 46 mph fastballs.

- There's some worry that the Olympic disappointment will have a negative impact on the Russian players when they return to the NHL.  If that impact is physical, then it's at least understandable.  But if it's mental, that's a huge problem.  Think about if you were an owner and your star player came back from the Olympics (where he was risking injury) and his performance fell off because he was upset about losing.  And you had to write him the $9.5M check.

- Dan Bylsma's stock is at an all-time high right now heading into the semis.  It looks like he has the best team, and it doesn't seem particularly close.  But the Canadians are an entirely different animal than a dysfunctional Russian team or an over-matched and tired Czech team.  Flaws aside, the Canadians are the best collection of talent that has been on the ice at one time since ... the last Olympics.  A dominant performance from the USA over Canada is highly, highly unlikely.  But if it happens, get used to Dan Bylsma behind the Pens bench for the next 10 years, because he isn't going anywhere.  And get excited about it, because he'll belong there.

-  The best part of the Olympics is seeing guys play who you hear about, but don't get to see a lot when they aren't playing the Pens.  Some awards:

- Phil Kessel - best player who we already knew was great
- James van Riemsdyk - guy we've always thought was really really good, and it turns out he definitely is
- Ryan Getzlaf - least entertaining superstar
- Corey Perry - I've referred to him as Chris Perry a half dozen times.  First sign of aging; also a sign that he's been nearly invisible.  Sidney Crosby finished only 32 points behind MVP Corey Perry in 2010-11.  In 41 fewer games.
- Alexander Radulov - least likable individual ever, and this category isn't limited to hockey players
- Pavel Datsyuk - could take a dump at center ice and NHL writers would say it was beautiful
- Ilya Kovalchuk - maybe the most overrated player to come through the NHL in the last 15 years. What has he ever done in a big spot?
- Drew Doughty - what Kris Letang should (could) be
- Paul Martin - America's Prime Minister
- Patrick Kane - amazing talent, but if he was ever on a bad team, he'd do a lot of things that would cause you to roll your eyes
- Patrice Bergeron - player I'm begrudgingly coming around to like
- Ryan Kesler - maybe the perfect player for Dan Bylsma to coach
- John Tavares - we feel so bad for h...[cut to us furiously scouring the Islanders' Capgeek page for trade targets]

- The size of the ice is only the second worst part of the ice.  The worst part is the ice itself.  The puck looks like a racquetball.  No doubt that the Russians were too proud to bring in the Edmonton ice guy.

- Russia's elimination makes the tournament significantly less interesting.  They were the villain, and every good story needs someone to root against.  Are you going to root against Sweden or Finland?  On what basis?  Boy, those Sedins are gettin' on my nerves!  Just doesn't feel the same.

- Olli Maatta is rightfully getting lauded for his performance at these Olympics.  He led all Finnish defensemen in ice time against Russia.  He has his bad moments -- he got toasted a few times against Canada -- but he is so far ahead of where most 19 year olds are at this point that you almost welcome those growing pains because you know he's going to get better because of it.  He should be getting close to 20 minutes a night for the Pens when he gets back.

- Predictions:

Finesse: Canada 3, USA 2.  I think USA has the better team, but it just feels like we're due for a market correction.  Team Canada will bury some chances, and Team USA won't be able to rely on JVR to score on bad angle shots.  The offense that Canada has been getting from its defensemen is not a fluke.  Doughty buries the winner in OT.

Artistry: USA 4, Canada 2. Canada is wound tighter than they were in Vancouver, ABICT. And if you treat your team like a bunch of robots with interchangeable parts and everyone playing 15 minutes a night, that's how they'll play.

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