Sunday, May 18, 2008

the battle between good and evil



Canada and Russia will assume the roles of the Nationalists and Republicans, respectively, with the venue this time being the Quebec City Colisee in the gold-medal game of the 2008 world ice hockey championships, rather than the battlefields of Guipozcoa, Segovia, and Ebro of the Spanish Civil War. Though the world championships have always played second chair to the NHL playoffs in North America, this year's event has taken on special meaning due to the IIHF's celebration of 100 years and, more importantly, its hosting, for the first time ever, on Canadian soil. Competitions between national teams are particularly interesting because you get to see specific identities and styles emerge as players from a shared background and with a more consistent hockey aesthetic come together to form a team. The short duration of the tournament also gives coaches less time to mold their teams, and thus players have to rely more on their own instincts and abilities than a coach's direction. This can, though not necessarily, result in more interesting hockey than at the end of a long club season when basically every team plays the same way and the players can at times look like robots following direct orders from above.

This is the dream match-up everyone was hoping for and these are clearly the two best teams of the tournament. As in any one game series, goaltending will be huge: if either Ward or Nabokov woke up feeling funny and has a stinker, their team will probably lose. Canada is essentially a one line team; the trio of Heatley, Getzlaf, and Nash has been dominant. Russia, of course, will have no special plans to defend them, will not match-up any specific line of defensive pair against them, and will essentially appear as if being coached by a solipsistic infant who has wandered into a hockey arena for the first time. Their possible saving grace is that Russia has displayed a hugely successful puck possession game and regardless of what 5-man unit is out there they will likely force the Big Canadians to spend a fair amount of time and energy running around their own zone, which could seriously limit their effectiveness. As for the good guys, the "Capital Punishment" line of Ovechkin, Fedorov, and Semin have been the main suppliers of offense thus far, and I expect Canada to pay special attention to stopping them (i.e. stapling Jovanovski and Bouwmeester to that line). This could open the door up for the ZZM (Zaripov, Zinovjev, and Morozov) troika to have a big day (and hopefully show Canada and Canadian fans especially that the NHL no longer has a monopoly on the hockey talent in the world).

It will be absolutely imperative that the Ruskies stay out of the penalty box as the hosers from up north have a deadly power play. My thought, hope at least, is that the prairie boys aren't fast enough to play with Russia 5 on 5, but they can do some damage with the man advantage. Lamentably, the refs will play a huge role in the outcome of the game: if they decide to whistle everything that moves, I think it favors the bad guys. If they let the players decide the game and call only those infractions that impede and prevent possession or scoring chances, I like the former Soviets' chances. A Russian victory won't undo the all the damage the Republicans' defeat did to freedom and liberty around the world, but it would be a start.

1st period update: Russia gets off to an awesome early start off a goal by Semin. Then, quick and decisive responses by the major actors involved: 10 straight minor penalty minutes to Russia handed out by the refs, 3 straight goals from Canada, and continued asinine coaching and bench management by Russian coach Slava Bykov. The biggest mistake he makes is continuing to play 8 defensemen. NHL teams use 6 defensemen in a game, and of those 6, 1 will often play sparingly. Bykov uses all 8 roughly equally, despite some being obviously not as good as others. This specifically includes Vitaly Proshkin, a Russian league defender who was on the ice for the first two Canada goals, and took a 4 minute highsticking penalty that led to Russia being down two men and led to Canada's third goal. A Canadian coach wouldn't even dress Proshkin for the game, yet now he will be a major reason why Russia will lose. Canada's second goal was the result of another Russian league player; Maxim Sushinsky coughed up the puck at center ice, then ran into, guess who, Vitaly Proshkin, which allowed Chris Kunitz to coast in and beat Nabokov up high. Bykov will continue to roll out Sushinsky, who is super skilled and a good player, but who is not used to playing at speeds this high against very big and aggressive Canadian players. Against a team like Switzerland, Sushinsky could be Russia's best player, but he will exploited by team Canada and will make it that harder for Russia's difference makers, Ovechkin, Fedorov, Semin to keep Russia in the game. Yet, Bykov will continue to roll all the lines out equally, a kind of unthinking socialism that is being applied to hockey in a way unimaginable to the Canadian players, coaches, and fans. Coaching again will cost Russia a chance to effectively compete at the level it should.

2nd period update: much better period. Bykov actually makes an attempt to have his better players on the ice more often than his worse players. It appears to be too little too late. Everyone will go home happy and expectations will have been met. I hate hockey.

final update: good beats evil 5-4 in OT. Maybe there is hope for all of us after all.

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