What an absolutely dominant performance by Canada last night in a 7-3 rout of Russia, the performance we've been looking for since the opening game against the Norwegians. After a close shave against the Jonas Hiller-led scrappy Swiss squad and a disappointing loss against the rough and tumble Americans, the Canadians responded with two convincing wins. The key last night wasn't so much that Mike Babcock completely outcoached Vyacheslav Bykov, or that Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Semin, and Pavel Datsyuk were next to ineffective, or that the Russian holes on defense were completely exploited, or that Evgeni Nabokov played one of the weakest games in his career (and will no doubt be subject to some ribbing by the Sharks' quadruplets). The key last night was that the Canadians got an extra game to fine tune their chemistry and were able to ice four complete lines. It was quite surprising, but also quite comforting, that even when Sidney Crosby and Scott Niedermayer were held off the score sheet the Canadians were still able to pull of such a convincing win.
The Canadians were able to execute, scoring a number of tic-tac-toe plays in which Nabokov had no chance, including a partial two-on-one break led by Jonathan Toews off a Mike Richards pass that led to a beautiful Rick Nash goal. That line was clearly the best line last night, not only completely shutting down the Russians' top line but also scoring. Ovechkin and Semin combined for 6 shots and -4 on the night. It's hard to single out who didn't play well last night, but Patrice Bergeron logged less than five minutes and Chris Pronger continues to play mediocre hockey. He's nowhere near Niedermayer's class.
When I did my last pre-Olympics post I did mention, and Pierre LeBrun did as well, that the Russians' KHL contingent could be a drawback. I think last night it was pretty clear it was a mistake. The Russians' KHL players combined for -12 last night, with captain Aleksey Morozov logging just under twelve minutes of ice-time. Sergei Gonchar, Ovechkin, and Datsyuk, all of whom play in the NHL, both logged more than 20 minutes. I thought it was a curious decision not to take the KHL's leading scorer Sergei Mozyakin, instead taking Alexander Radulov and Sergei Zinovyev, both of whom finished in the minus. Zinovyev played just 8:49, the least out of any Russian forward.
The physical play, once again, was set by the Canadians and the Russians didn't have anybody to counter. While Ovechkin's hit on Jagr was quite entertaining, the Russians couldn't keep up. Before the Olympics began I did see that as a potential problem, and which is the main reason why when I made my picks I made sure Evgeny Artyukhin was on that squad. I do agree that this win, by far, was the most convincing in this tournament even though face-offs could use more work. However, I think more interesting happenings were occurring outside of the Russia-Canada match-up.
Didn't I say the Finns would be in the mix? Miikka Kiprusoff made 31 saves for the Finns who will play the US in the other semi-final. The win wasn't an easy one to swallow - Pavel Kubina stopped checking Niklas Hagman to retrieve his helmet only to allow him to score the eventual game-winner. Kubina had lost his helmet during play and under international rules playing without a helmet could result in a minor penalty. The rule created some controversy, including Hagman's own admission that it's a "stupid rule." Either way, from the looks of things the Finns may very well finish with the bronze. The Finland-USA game should be a well-fought one and really could go either way, but I'll have to go with the 1980-inspired Americans and Ryan Miller on this one.
I think the biggest storyline of the night, however, was Slovakia's upset of Sweden. The defending champions won't medal in this tournament, despite relying on a veteran squad. Led by Pavol Demitra's three points, who is playing the best hockey I've ever seen him play, and Jaroslav Halak, the Slovaks are have already achieved their highest finish at the Olympics. Henrik Lundqvist made just ten saves in the loss, and coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson continued to rely on his veterans, even if they're essentially playing on one leg: Daniel Alfredsson logged 19:28, Henrik Zetterberg 18:58, Johan Franzen 17:46, and Peter Forsberg 16:07. On the other hand, the NHL's highest scoring duo was surprisingly limited to secondary roles, to me especially, as Henrik Sedin finished with 13:43 and Daniel Sedin with 13:23. Meanwhile, Patric Hornqvist, Loui Eriksson, and Nicklas Backstrom all logged more ice-time than the twins. Gustafsson's reliance on players based on age seems to be extreme at best. I didn't get to see much of the game, but it seems as though the Sedins played well enough but failed to execute.
The Slovaks have an uphill climb with Canada next, especially when they're firing on all cylinders. Halak has been amazing but the Canadians are clearly the best team in the tournament now. Expect the gold medal game to be a re-match between the US and Canada and it will be a barn burner.