Thursday, February 25, 2010

Olympic Semifinal Previews

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

For the second time in eight years, the United States finds itself in the running for a medal, heading towards a semifinal matchup with Finland in the early contest on Thursday.
Team USA persevered in a 2-0 victory over the tough Swiss on Wednesday, as Ryan Miller stopped 19 shots and Zach Parise accounted for all the offense in the win. Meanwhile, Finland advanced with an identical score over the suddenly-punchless Czech Republic, with Miikka Kiprusoff turning aside 31 shots and Niklas Hagman notching the game winner on a power play.
Although these two nations are fully stocked with NHL talent and are consistently considered the Top Six in the world, USA and Finland have not met with anything on the line since the gold medal game at Lake Placid in 1980.
In that memorable tilt, Finland led by a goal after two periods only to see the Miracle on Ice kids rally with three scores in the third period to win it all. Rob McClanahan picked up the winning score with just under six minutes left in regulation.
Thirty years on, and a trip to the gold medal game is in the offing for both. For Finland, it is a chance to medal for the fourth time in five Olympiads, following up a silver in Torino and before that, bronzes in Nagano and Lillehammer. For the Americans, it is a chance to take one more step to what might be called a mini-miracle.
Team USA last reached the semis on its home ice in 2002, racing out to an early 3-0 lead before withstanding a late Russian charge to advance against eventual champion Canada. In 2006, Finland took down Russia by a 4-0 count before falling to Sweden in the final.
Both teams have relied thus far on opportunistic offense, a containing defensive game, and above all, stellar goaltending. Ryan Miller, a newcomer to the Olympics, has yielded just five goals in four contests thus far, and his counterpart Miikka Kiprusoff, who recorded four blankings four years ago, has been slightly more stingy, yielding four goals in four contests.
This should be yet another test of wills for the United States, and what it will come down to, is which country will take advantage of defensive mistakes and whose goaltender will blink first. That seems to favor the younger, speedier USA, but looks like the more disciplined, veteran Finns who have chugged along with a consistency NHL teams would kill for, can jump out to a lead and know how to keep it.
Finland 3, USA 2

It's hard to argue that a team which laid a 7-3 pasting on the other gold-medal favorite won't have a cakewalk in its next contest with a day off in between.
Thanks to a pair of goals from Corey Perry and three-point performances by Ryan Getzlaf and Dan Boyle, plus Roberto Luongo's 25 saves, the host nation shook off a 50-year losing streak to Russia with the dominating victory on Wednesday evening.
On the other side of the ledger, Slovakia has played the role of Sneaky Pete in the tournament. The smaller and overlooked brother in the former Czechoslovakian union upended 2006 gold medalist Sweden, after Pavol Demitra tallied a goal and two assists and Jaroslav Halak made 25 stops in the 4-3 decision.
Since breaking away in the Velvet Divorce in 1993, the Slovaks have made great headway in catching up to the rest of the world, and are now in position to capture a medal for the first time ever. Slovakia's best prior performance was a fifth-place finish at Torino, and if the solid efforts thus far are any indication, it will be a tough opponent going forward.
Conversely, Canada has been nothing short of Jekyll and Hide depending upon the opponent. The final score of last night's game says more about the lingering embarrassment of the loss to the USA plus Russia's total lack of commitment from the opening faceoff. It's easy to score off odd-man rushes and pretty plays if nobody else is paying attention; it's much harder when your opponent is quicker and shows more heart.
Five games in, and Team Canada is still searching for an identity and consistency of play, but it hasn't hurt them when you look at the overall picture. This is maddening when trying to preview and predict.
You can't expect them to continue the offensive rollout (15 goals against Germany and Russia), but the physical component is still there. Roberto Luongo gave up three goals but gets away with the crowd chanting his name.
These countries have never before met with anything major on the line, but the edge now has to go to Canada, which has the collective force of the entire country behind it after a pair of rousing victories. The talent imbalance between countries will be a major deciding factor, since Slovakia cannot win unless every player puts forth maximum effort.
Canada 5, Slovakia 2

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