Saturday, 19 May 2012

Why Is Everyone Shocked?

It came as a surprise yesterday when I finally heard the news that Canada had been eliminated by the Slovaks at the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championships. Canada had earned first-place status in their pool, and they looked like they were starting to gel as a team after having very little time to work on the finer points of any sort of chemistry on the ice. In drawing the Slovaks, however, one only had to be reminded of the Slovakian performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics when they shocked the world in upsetting the Russians in the preliminary round before upsetting Sweden in the playoff round. If anything, the talent assembled on the Slovak roster was very similar to what they had in Vancouver, and their preliminary round performance was very reminiscent of their Winter Olympic performance.

I had to view all the highlights on the internet thanks to ESPN giving zero coverage of the World Hockey Championships here in the USA, so my being a day late with this info is due to my having to search out all of the info online between doing all of the tourist things I've planned. No highlights, no chatter, and no recaps from the ESPN SportsCenter crews has made my hockey obsession wanting more. A lot more.

Anyway, the loss to the Slovaks on Friday should really show that Slovakian hockey is more of a sleeping dog than anything else. Once again, when the chips were down and they were in an elimination game, the Slovaks came out and played incredibly well.

In Vancouver, they only had to finish in the top-three in their pool. They finished third.
In Helsinki, they only had to finish in the top-four in their pool. They finished fourth.

Both finishes guaranteed them a shot at a medal, and Slovakia took that chance and turned it into something great. For Slovakia, a silver medal was just as good as the gold medal because no one expected them to be there outside of the their dressing room. While the players undoubtedly wanted the gold medal, a medal at the World Hockey Championships is a fantastic result when you consider the countries that didn't medal this year.

In Vancouver, we first caught a glimpse of Slovakia's unorthodox strategy in their round-robin game against Russia. While the Russians came in waves at the Slovakians, they simply sat back and waited for a break. Russia led 1-0 after two periods, and looked like they were poised to add to their lead as the third period opened. Instead, a goal by Marian Hossa pulled Slovakia even, and the two teams played through overtime very cautiously into the shootout. It was there that Slovakia stole the win in a game where they were outshot 37-33.

In order to move on after the round-robin, the Slovakians had to dispatch Norway in the qualification round to advance to the quarterfinals. It was there that we saw Slovakia play its efficient game by keying on powerplay chances and opposition turnovers, and converting these opportunities against Norway and Sweden.

Three powerplay goals by Slovakia against Norway paced them to a 3-0 lead, and Miroslav Satan's third-period goal game the Slovaks a 4-3 win. Against Sweden, two more powerplay goals by the Slovakians in the second period saw them lead 3-2 after 40 minutes, and close out the game with a 4-3 victory after Tomas Kopecky scored a third-period marker. If anything, the Slovaks are all about capitalizing on a chance regardless of how small the chance is.

Even against Canada in the semi-final, the Slovaks saw the door open just slightly, and they tried to kick it off the hinges. Two goals in the final ten minutes, plus some extremely tense moments as the Slovaks pressed, saw the Canadians nearly succumb to this same strategy two years ago. The Slovaks capitalized on the Canadians sitting back and protecting the lead, and capitalized on turnovers and a laisser-faire attitude by the Canadians. The upset almost happened two years ago, and yet people are "shocked" that the Slovaks beat Canada yesterday?

Again, the Slovaks played for the last goal against Canada. Canada led this game by a 3-2 score after 40 minutes, but the Slovaks just kept coming. All it took was a Ryan Getzlaf penalty for opportunity to knock for the Slovaks, and they answered the door with the Michal Handzus tip-in past Cam Ward seconds after Getzlaf was sent off. This is EXACTLY how the Slovaks beat Norway and Sweden two years ago - powerplay goals were aplenty for Slovakia - and they showed that they are playing the same "third period-centric" game they showed in Vancouver.

Still don't believe me? Slovakia beat the Czech Republic today by a 3-1 score. It was 1-1 after 40 minutes. If there is one team that is the greatest third period team in recent history, it is Slovakia by a wide margin. No team shows up more often or as efficiently in the third period as Slovakia. As long as they can skate with you through the opening 40 minutes and not find themselves down by more than three goals, the Slovaks can turn a deficit into a win in the last twenty minutes like no one's business.

So while the gold medal will go to one of Russia or Slovakia this year, the "shock" being experienced by people in Canada should not even be felt. We knew this is how Slovakia plays its game. We knew that they'll try to stretch out the first forty minutes before picking it up in the last period. We knew... and we responded as we always do: "we're Canada, and we rule in hockey".

You have to know your opponents, and we knew our opponents. We simply refused to study their methods in order to outplay them. That is why we, as a nation, lost to Slovakia. That is why we, as a nation, will not compete for gold yet again this year. That is why we, as a nation, need to start doing what every other nation does when they "Canada" on their schedule - know the opponent.

If Russia is smart tomorrow, they will press as hard as they can to get out to a three- or four-goal lead. Forecheck like the dickens, force Slovakia to make a lot of bad passes, and convert turnovers as often as possible. Once Russia is up by a handful of goals, continue to forecheck, but turn those bad passes into long possessions by passing the puck around. If Russia can get through 40 minutes with a three-goal lead, the pressure falls squarely on Slovakia, and it's difficult to put a three-spot on Russia in one period in any tournament.

Ad for Canada, let's start looking at the past so we stop making these same mistakes as we play in tournaments in the future. If you're shocked about anything, be shocked that we, as a hockey nation, do not respect our opponents enough to fear their abilities.

After all, those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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