Friday, 7 December 2012

Familiar Foes

The four nations competing in the 2012 World Sledge Hockey Challenge have found their final standing, and the final will feature two old foes renewing a rivalry that has been escalating over the years. Canada will play the USA in the gold medal final while the bronze medal match will pit Norway against Japan. I am very excited for the gold medal game as Canada and the US have really been the cream of the crop in sledge hockey for the last couple of years as countries like Sweden and Norway have begun to regress. On the other end, Japan is the feisty up-and-coming team that isn't quite in the echelon of the North American squads, but they are beginning to carve out a nice niche in sledge hockey. Medals are on the line tomorrow, so let's take a quick peek at the two games.

NORWAY vs. JAPAN: Norway and Japan battled to a scoreless shootout in the preliminary round before Norway sunk the Japanese. These two teams are quite close in terms of skill as the goaltenders for both teams are some of the best in the world. Norway's Kjell Christian Hamar and Japan's Mitsuru Nagase stopped all 31 shots taken against them in regulation time before sending this game to the one-on-one finish.

Norway has only scored three goals in this tournament, so it can't be said that they're successful because of their offence. Norway has always been a sound defensive team, but their glaring weakness on offence was really on display at the 2012 World Sledge Hockey Challenge. Audun Bakke, Jan Roger Klakegg, and Loyd Remi Solberg were the only scorers thus far for Norway, and they didn't manage a goal against Japan during regulation in their game. Norway's offence will have to awaken if they want to capture the bronze medal.

Japan, on the other hand, has been worse offensively than Norway has (if you can believe that). They have yet to score in any game, and have been blown out by the Americans and Canadians. Needless to say, Japan's offence will have to find some way of pushing a puck past Hamar in the bronze-medal game if they hope to come home with a medal for the first time in their team's history.

PREDICTION: In a battle of non-scoring teams, I'm going with Norway simply due to their experience. They've played in big games before, and they are solid defensively. They will probably win by a one-goal margin, but I think Norway will find the back of the net in the bronze-medal match.

CANADA vs. USA: This is a game between the two sledge hockey powerhouses on the planet right now. This game will be fast, it will be physical, and it will set the stage for the next year as both teams build towards Sochi in 2014. Canada won the preliminary round match by a 2-1 score in which Canada played some outstanding defence through the three periods. Both teams are hungry for this gold medal, and I am excited for this game!

Canada owns the scoring leaderboard as they have the top six scorers in the tournament. Needless to say, Canada can fill the net if given the chance. Billy Bridges, Greg Westlake, and Adam Dixon are the Canadian stars once again in this tournament, and they've been matched by the superb goaltending of Benoit St-Amand and the Canadian blueline. St-Amand has a 0.44 GAA and a sparkling 0.938 save percentage - indications that this Canadian squad is strong from top to bottom on their lineup. Canada is looking like the favorites, but there is one team that can match them shot for shot.

The Americans come into the game having only lost to the Canadians in the preliminary round. Despite only taking nine shots against the Canadian, the Americans have five of the top twelve scorers in this tournament and have played solid defence as well. Steve Cash's 1.78 GAA and .857 save percentage fall only behind Benoit St-Amand's stats in terms of starting goaltenders, and the American defence has been steady if not solid. The Americans do need to generate more chance against Canada is they hope to win, so they'll have to be ready to win the physical battles as well as races to pucks to keep Canada at bay.

PREDICTION: I've got to be a homer on this one and go with Canada. Canada has been outstanding in terms of generating chances, and the speed they have shown through the neutral and offensive zones is a major difference between them and other teams. While they do get a little out-of-sorts sometimes in their own zone, Benoit St-Amand is always there to bail his team out - exactly what a great goaltender does. I believe Canada will come away with the gold medal on Saturday.

If you want to watch either game for FREE, log onto FastHockey's website and watch for free! I guarantee you that the speed and excitement of this game rivals any international game you've seen. Personally, I am overly impressed with how skilled these guys are. Watch for free, and cheer on your favorite team to victory!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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