Sunday, February 21, 2010

See? I Told You All Hockey Was Awesome

For all you people who claim hockey is boring and that you don't know how it could be entertaining, the whole lot of you got smacked in the face tonight with the United States' upset win over Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, its first victory against its northern neighbors at an Olympic Games in 50 years. This was an exciting, taut matchup between two geographic rivals that played with the same effort and tension you'd see in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Both teams viewed it as a key stepping stone to a medal, and what followed with tons of great saves, great goals and wild end-to-end rushes was great theater. America's victory has set them up for a fantastic shot at the medal rounds, while dealing a startling blow to Canadian national pride.

Now, unfortunately, I'm going to have to break down to all of you in a few minutes why this might not have been the hallmark moment you thought it was -- to say nothing of the fact that Canada is still very much alive for the gold medal -- but don't worry, if you want to relish in it for a few seconds, I'll let you have your moment.


There you go. Now, I'm not going to be one of those self-congratulatory hockey fans who begins to criticize the vast majority of you for not caring about hockey until tonight --  it seems Gawker already did it for me. I don't mind people jumping on the bandwagon when the Olympics come around. Swells of patriotism and the joy of national triumph are what the Olympics are all about, even if douchebag extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens doesn't seem to agree. Furthermore, without it we wouldn't get gems of comments by Canadians such as this one.

No, I'm glad you're all watching, and I'm glad you're all pissed off that the game was relegated to MSNBC rather than NBC's national telecast. If the U.S. team can make a stirring run to the medal round, rally the country behind it and convert some of you out there into real hockey fans who keep watching come the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, tonight's game will have been a victory not just in the Olympics but for hockey as a whole. This is Canada's game, but making it healthier in the U.S. can only better the sport for everyone.

And how exactly did we get here? Well it's very clear that this game started and ended with Ryan Miller's play between the pipes. Miller has been stellar this season for the Buffalo Sabres in what has already been a fine career to this point, but tonight was a level I have never seen him at before. In a tense, pressurized rivalry game in front of an opposition crowd and on an international stage, Miller was unconscious throughout and made several huge stops en route to a 42-save night.

Meanwhile, you can call it a stretch if you want, but with my hero Martin Brodeur in goal, the following players factored heavily into every U.S. goal, with the exception of Ryan Kesler's empty-netter: Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rafalski and Chris Drury. The fact that I was forced to cheer for Drury in what was essentially a Rangers jersey against a red-bedecked Brodeur was oustandingly uncomfortable, but their is a certain national pride that conquers all. Regardless, Drury, as a Ranger, faces Brodeur several times a year, while Rafalski played with Marty on two Stanley Cup-winning squads and Parise and Langenbrunner currently share a locker room with the NHL's All-time wins leader. All of them were familiar with Brodeur. All of them have known him for years and had to have had some idea of how to play him. That edge alone was invaluable.

No, Brodeur was not at his best. Three of those goals were direct results of errors he made playing the puck, and he may very well have played himself out of the starting job, but he still made several outstanding saves in the second period, which was the only period during which the U.S. really controlled play. As Marty said, Miller was the difference -- and he was -- but the fact that three current or former Devils and a Ranger were involved in every scored on Brodeur cannot be overlooked.

As for that last goal by Kesler, it was particularly interesting since it may have sealed his fate of never being able to show his face in Vancouver again. Kesler's upset-sealing tally came on the heels of comments that must have caused a stir north of the border, when he said of the Canadians, "I hate them." That may seem a bit brash, but it's unlikely Kesler will really have to hear from Vancouverites too often since he plays for ... the Vancouver Canucks.


Well, with those comments in tow and that diving empty-net score, it might be a safe bet Kesler has punched his ticket out of Vancouver, but at least he looked good doing it, because yes, I'm a total sucker for those totally sweet 1960 Squaw Valley throwbacks the U.S. was wearing tonight. The 1980 jerseys will always have a special spot in my heart -- the U.S. should wear them at every tournament -- but these come a close second. Still, while Kesler stoked some flames, he didn't do anything completely stupid, like, say, mark Alex Ovechkin's colossal hit on Jaromir Jagr with a clearly inappropriate caption on his heavily trafficked website.

So what exactly does this all mean? Well, not as much as you'd think. On MSNBC after the game the following statements were uttered: "The biggest U.S. hockey victory since 1980," "Huge upset" and "Just a bunch of Americans playing a team of future hall of famers." All of these statements are, well, a little over the top.

Let's calm down a little bit people.

First of all, to put this win on par with The Miracle on Ice in 1980 is just plain silly. No upset, no not even the greatest football game ever played, will ever carry the symbolism, political weight and shock of the U.S.'s win over the Soviets in Lake Placid. Besides, the U.S.'s shocking victory at hockey's 1994 World Cup and it's arrival in the Gold Medal Game in Salt Lake City in 2002 were all bigger moments. As for "huge upset", well, these are all NHL players on both sides, and the U.S. and Canada both had a number of star players. Were the Canadians the more talented lot? By quite a margin the answer is yes. But during an NHL season, weak teams with more diluted talent than this still win against the big dogs once in a while. Gretzky's Oilers didn't go undefeated each season. Lastly, "Just a bunch of Americans playing a team of future hall of famers" gives the U.S. team too little credit and the Canadians too much. The Americans are young, and Kesler isn't likely to wind up in the hall, but a number of players on the team, Parise, who was profiled in Sports Illustrated this week, Miller, Patrick Kane to name a few, could very well have long, hall-worthy careers. Of course, it's much too early to make that kind of declaration, but it's hardly out of the realm of possibility. As for the Canadians, Brodeur, Sidney Crosby and more than one or two others on the roster are likely to be honored in Toronto some day. But is Corey Perry? Is Patrice Bergeron?

In any event, this was exciting, but it is probably not the major moment NBC wants you to believe it was. Of course, like I said, if it gets more hockey fans, I'm fine with the outcome, but we ought to see what this really does to the tournament as it stands.

Depending on the outcome of Finland and Sweden, the U.S. seems like it will wind up with the top overall seed in the elimination rounds of what is a very confusing tournament structure -- a surprise to say the least. This means, the Americans will get a bye to the quarterfinals where they will face the winner of Belarus and Switzerland. While Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller could easily steal a game -- he single-handedly eliminated the Presidents' Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the postseason last year -- beyond Hiller neither team has a threatening lineup. This means the U.S. could very possibly find its way into the semifinals, which could have them facing a stiffer challenge in the likes of Finland or the Czech Republic.

As for the Canadians, the path gets far more ornery. Canada will face the Germans in the first elimination round, which, frankly, may as well be a day off, but if all the favorites hold and win through the first round of elimination games, Canada will face off with Russia in the quarterfinals, a matchup that insures one of the two pre-tournament gold medal favorites will leave the Olympics with nothing to show for it. If the Canadians are to get past Alex Ovechkin and company -- and I think they would -- they find themselves in the semifinals where their challenges are on the same level as any other team team that gets to that point. In fact, it's very possible that Canada and the U.S. could meet again next Sunday for the gold, and in that situation I don't like the Americans' chances, but that potential matchup with the Russians looms large as the key stumbling block.

Canada has put a lot of pressure on itself to take home what some say is the only medal that matters. As Sports Illustrated put it, without top honors in hockey the Games as a whole will be considered a failure. Being on the magazine's cover may not have helped the team's case, but either way, for Sidney Crosby and the Canadians, the clock is starting to tick.

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