Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The World Is Catching Up

Congratulations go out to Team USA for their Women's World Championship win over Canada last night. The Americans and Canadians met again on a familiar stage to determine hockey's best national team annually, and Alex Carpenter knocked home a loose puck behind Emerence Maschmeyer in overtime to give the Americans the 1-0 victory in the final. It was an incredible game where two netminders literally stared one another down as they went save-for-save through regulation time. However, when you look at this tournament, a few bounces could have dramatically changed who was in the final and who played whom in the semifinals.

People will point to the domination the Americans showed over their last three games as a sign that the gap between the hockey superpowers and everyone else is still there. However, an early scare by Finland against the Americans in the preliminary round followed by a pesky showing against Canada in the semifinals, and it appears that Finland has figured out how to reduce the star power effectively on both teams to keep games close where any bounce can determine a winner. There are still larger gaps between USA and Canada and the rest of the field, but the Finns have the idea of an upset almost down, and I wouldn't be surprised if they pull off a stunner at some point in the next two years.

Those who watched the Finns play know they have outstanding goaltenders. Meeri Räisänen was incredible throughout the tournament, and she was named as a tournament all-star after her outstanding performances against the world. Toss in Noora Räty, and the Finns might have the best goaltending tandem in the world on skill alone. This isn't unusual for fans of the men's game as the Finns always get incredible goaltending performances from their male counterparts, but the Finnish women might have the best goalies in the world not playing in the NHL right now. That's not hyperbole either - they're that good!

I heard a few people lamenting the fact that the Finns play a trap style of game, but let's be realistic in that the trap does one thing very well: it prevents skill and speed emerging as the neutral zone becomes more of an obstacle course. The Finns played their system very well, catching both the Americans and Canadians on risky passes that turned into goals against the superpowers. The Finns have active sticks, and used those sticks to break up those risky cross-ice passes to send odd-man rushes back at the American and Canadian netminders. It's an effective strategy, and one pulled directly out of the New Jersey Devils' playbook when they won the Stanley Cup in 1995.

Jacques Lemaire, who played with the Montreal Canadians in the 1970s under Scotty Bowman who coached the 1995 Detroit Red Wings, was exposed to the neutral zone trap as a player when some of the Swedish teams in the 1970s began using it. Lemaire, sensing his Devils team would be outmatched against most of their playoff opponents, installed the trap as a way to even the playing field, so to speak, when it came to matching talent. New Jersey downed Boston 4-1, Pittsburgh 4-1, and Philadelphia 4-2 before advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. Against Detroit who boasted a number of future Hall of Fame players, the strategy worked wonders in eliminating the speed and skill of the Red Wings as the Devils swept the Red Wings 4-0 in a shocker.

How does this relate to the Finnish women? The Devils had an elite goaltender in Martin Brodeur, several skilled defencemen, and a handful of scorers while the rest of the team were competent skaters and checkers. In other words, this Finnish women's team had virtually the same composition as the Stanley Cup-winning New Jersey Devils in 1995, and they employed a trap that almost worked as effectively!

Look, I'm not advocating any team to go to the trap as a way to win hockey games, but when the level of talent is mismatched in a significant way there has to be a way to level the playing field. The trap does that by making skilled teams dump the puck in and retrieve it so that skill and speed is reduced through the neutral zone where defensive breakdowns begin. The Finns recognized this, and they did an effective job in throwing a scare at the Americans in their 2-1 win and at the Canadians in their 5-3 win in the semifinals. While the strategy may result in "boring hockey", it gave the Finns a chance to win games they may have been out of early on had they played in a different formation.

On the opposite side of the coin, the Russians played a much similar game to the Americans and Canadians, and they were crushed 25-1 in the three games they played against Canada and the USA. That's not a knock on the Russian style of play, but a reminder that there's still a ways to go for the rest of the world when it comes to playing wide-open hockey. Despite having a number of skilled players, Russia was swatted away like a fly in the three games, most specifically in the two games against the Americans where they lost by a combined 17-0. The skill level is rising, but there is still a significant gap between the superpowers and everyone else.

I guess the question is should more teams employ the trap to slow down the superpowers? It worked for one game against the Americans who won 2-1, but the Canadians blasted the Finns 6-1 in their preliminary game. However, the Finns played a much more disciplined game in the semifinal against Canada, and it nearly worked as Finland trailed 3-2 with less than five minutes to play in the game. Had it not been for a couple of empty-net goals while the Finns skated in a 6-on-4 situation, this game's outcome might have been different had Räisänen been pulled later in the contest.

The Finns and Russians played a scoreless draw in the bronze medal game before the Russians used the breakaway competition to down the Finns, but these two teams played as evenly as anyone could have expected. The Finns relied on their defence and goaltending to generate turnovers and chances while the Russians dumped, chased, and passed their way through the trap as best they could. Both Räisänen and Russian netminder Nadezhda Morozova were outstanding in the nets, and it was disappointing that the IIHF rules forced them into a shootout after both teams had performed incredibly throughout the game.

While Americans deserved the kudos and congratulations on winning another World Championship and the Canadian women deserve a hearty round of applause for their efforts in the final and throughout the tournament, the Finns could very well have been playing for the gold medal had a couple of pucks gone their way against the superpowers. We may not be far off from seeing a major upset of one of Canada or the Americans in a tournament by the Finns as they're doing everything they can to level the playing field when it comes to the top-two medals offered at these types of international events!

Upsets are good for the sport. I feel we may be on the verge of seeing one soon!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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