Sunday, 3 May 2015

Big Games Tomorrow

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Bob and Bobek, the mascots of this year's IIHF World Hockey Championship taking place in Prague and Ostrava, Czech Republic. There have been some impressive individual and team performances thus far at the tournament thus far, and there are two big games on the schedule for tomorrow as Canada and the host Czech Republic will meet in one game while USA and Russia will tangle in the other. There are big implications in both of these games, so let's take a peek at why these games are important for all four countries.

In the preliminary round, teams play every other team in their division to determine standings. Once determined, the top-four teams of each division crossover to play each other. There's a good chance that at least two of these teams will meet in the elimination round, and one of these teams could miss the elimination round altogether if a few things fall into place.

We'll start with the Americans and Russians. Both teams sit at 2-0, so this game will most likely determine the winner of the pool unless one team falters in their remaining games. The Americans come into the game with seven goals-for and two goals-against while the Russians roll in with 11 goals-for and five goals-against. The Americans defeated Finland 5-1 in their opening game before beating Norway 2-1 two days ago. The Russians opened the tournament with a 6-2 victory over Norway before beating Slovenia 5-3. Needless to say, both teams have had their ups and downs in the scoring department.

The Americans are a hard-working, young crew who won't let up on a forecheck and backcheck just as hard. Zach Redmond, born in 1988, is the only player on the blue line born outside the 1990s while Matt Hendricks, born in 1981, is a full six years older than Dan Sexton, the next oldest forward. You'll see names like Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Jack Eichel on the scoresheet, but names that aren't that familiar should start appearing around them. Steve Moses and Dan Sexton both played in the KHL this season while Dylan Larkin and Jimmy Vesey were both in the NCAA.

What the Americans lack in star power, they make up for in spades with team speed and work ethic. Expect the back-end of Torey Krug, Justin Faulk, Seth Jones, and Jake Gardiner to log a pile of ice-time. The big question mark might be in net, but both Connor Hellebuyck and Jack Campbell have a pile of accolades on their resum├ęs already.

The Russians come into the tournament with a roster heavily-influenced by the KHL. There are seven players from the Gagarin Cup-winning SKA St. Petersburg squad while ten other players are from various KHL teams. There is one NHL defenceman on the roster - Dmitri Kulikov - and a handful of forwards that are high-profile. Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeni Malkin as late additions make this squad even better on paper, but, like any Russian team, there are always questions about work ethic.

The biggest question mark is in the blue paint where it's expected that Sergei Bobrovsky will get the start against the Americans. The bigger questions are who backs him up and how long will that last. I say that because the KHL always seems to have influence on the roster decisions seen on the Russian team, meaning that Anton Khudobin may be the odd-man out if Konstantin Barulin is given the back-up role. If Barulin is on the bench, I'm not sure he's seen a doggedly determined team like the Americans who will forecheck, crash the crease, and put shots on him from every angle.

If I had to pick a winner in this game, I'm going with the team that has shown a better work ethic thus far. Hard work can beat talent on any given night, so let's go with the Americans in this game based on the work ethic shown in their previous two games.

Over in the other pool, the Canadians are 2-0 while the Czechs are 1-0-1-0 (W-OTW-OTL-L) in the tournament. Canada has an impressive 16 goals-for while only surrendering one against while the Czechs have scored nine goals-for while giving up eight goals-against. The Canadians opened the tournament with a 6-1 win over Latvia and a 10-0 win over Germany. The Czechs dropped a 6-5 decision in the shootout to Sweden to start the tournament before downing Latvia 4-2 two days ago.

The Canadians arguably have the biggest stars in the tournament throughout their roster. Sidney Crosby, Jason Spezza, Benoit Giroux, and Tyler Seguin lead this crew of offensive stars into action. All four lines are deep in scoring, and they have enough speed to skate with anyone. The defence isn't flashy, but they'll be solid with Aaron Ekblad, Brent Burns, Dan Hamhuis, and Jake Muzzin leading the way. The addition of Patrick Wiercioch gives the Canadians a pile of talent on the back-end that any team in this tournament will envy.

Canada may have questions in net where Mike Smith and Martin Jones will share duties. The first two games were anything but close for Canada, so there aren't a lot of moments where one could say "yeah, he's the number-one." However, you'd have to think that Mike Smith's experience as a starter will have head coach Todd McLellan leaning in his direction.

The Czechs, while being the favorites by the locals, feature the ageless wonder himself in Jaromir Jagr. Jagr's unretiring for international play is impressive, but I'm not sure there's enough quality talent around him to run-and-gun with the Canadians. Jakub Voracek, Martin Erat, and Tomas Hertl are the only other NHLers while Vladimir Sobotka, Jan Kovar, and Roman Cervenka will provide the firepower from the KHL. I'm not sure they can out-gun the Canadians, though.

The back-end of the Czech team is a real problem. Jan Hejda is the only player with real NHL experience. Michal Jordan is listed as part of the Hurricanes, but that's not entirely accurate. Ondrej Nemec is a solid KHL defenceman while the rest of the unit is capable but unspectacular. In net, the Czechs will rely on Alexander Salak of the KHL and Ondrej Pavelec of the Jets. Pavelec will need to continue to play a strong game like he did to finish the NHL campaign while Salak had a decent but not outstanding season in the KHL. Lots of questions in the defensive zone for the Czechs.

If Canada were to win this game, they would sit atop the pool standings at 3-0. A Czech loss, meanwhile, would slot them in at either third- or fourth-place depending on goal-differential. If Canada were to win by more than a goal, the Czechs would fall to fourth-place behind the Swiss. The Germans and Austrians could both leap those teams with games on Tuesday as well. The Germans battle the Swiss while the Austrians would play winless France. Needless to say, this game has major implications on the standings!

I'm going to play the homer and pick Canada to win simply due to their roster on paper. I'm not saying it's going to be a 10-0 rout like it was against Germany, but this Canadian team isn't struggling in any way to score goals and I doubt neither Salak nor Pavelec will have much of a say in that.

The IIHF World Championships are great hockey, so tune in tomorrow!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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