Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hard Hits: North America Comes Up Short Against Europe

What a difference four years makes. Just ask Canada and the United States men's hockey teams. At Salt Lake in 2002, they were superior to their European rivals and gave a great sendoff with Canada prevailing over Team USA 5-2 to win its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. A signature moment for hockey on the Olympic stage.

For Team USA, their silver medal was its best finish since shocking the world at Lake Placid back in 1980 with the miracle win over Russia in the semifinal and capturing gold over Finland. Ironically, both those teams were coached by the late Herb Brooks. If Brooks were alive today and watched how Team USA and Canada went down, he'd probably have tossed the remote at the TV.

Each team was a cardinal copy of each other at Torino. Both couldn't finish and were undisciplined which cost them in the end. A far cry from how well they played four years ago.

It's amazing to think that a team as top heavy as Canada could actually get shutout three times in their last four games, including a 2-0 quarterfinal loss to Russia Wednesday to be eliminated from medal contention. Joe Sakic, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, Todd Bertuzzi and Rick Nash combined for just two goals with the latter trio unable to find the back of the net. Other stars such as Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagne struggled to find chemistry.

With the team's forwards having scoring issues, the blueline didn't get involved enough to make a difference. Rob Blake (1 assist) and Wade Redden (1 goal) fizzled while their most active defenseman Chris Pronger found himself in the penalty box too often at crucial times. Bryan McCabe was a disaster. Let's put it this way. None of this collection of All Stars made Canadian fans forget Scott Niedermayer and Ed Jovanovski, both of which pulled out with injuries. Niedermayer's loss in particular hurt. At Salt Lake, there was no better defenseman to transition the puck up the ice and jump into the play.

For some inexplicable reason, Team Canada's D wasn't aggressive enough when they needed to be. Against Russia, they sat back and played passively- almost in fear of the Russian counterattacking style. Though it was understandable why, by backing off and letting the Russians take the play to them the first two periods, it wasn't a wise strategy. Only Martin Brodeur stopping the first 27 shots kept the game scoreless. Canada had their best chances late in the second on a power play but Evgeni Nabokov was equal to the challenge.

Canada finally was beaten when Bertuzzi took a needless interference penalty in the offensive zone shoving Sergei Gonchar down. Russia took advantage when Viktor Kozlov setup Alexander Ovechkin on the doorstep for the winner. From that point, the Canadians finally showed some desperation in their game. But by that point, it was too late. In a fitting conclusion, Alexei Kovalev stole a puck from Pronger and drew a penalty with under a minute left. Kovalev sealed it with a wrist shot past Brodeur from about 10 feet out.

ESPN's Barry Melrose called it "Canada's most embarrassing loss because they didn't compete with the kind of passion they should've." Hard to argue.

For Team USA, the results were no better this time around. Having assembled a team which included veterans such as team Captain Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher, Mathieu Schneider, Brian Rafalski, Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin, GM Don Waddell was hoping they would lead by example. Newcomers such as Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Erik Cole, Jason Blake, Mark Parrish, Jordan Leopold, John-Michael Liles and Rick DiPietro were added to inject some youth.

Unfortunately, it didn't go as planned. Playing mostly with Gomez and Gionta, Tkachuk couldn't keep up and didn't even register a point. Meanwhile, Guerin and Modano were invisible for long stretches, combining for three goals. Ironically, Modano made more noise off the ice after they were eliminated complaining about hotel arrangements. Maybe if he had brought that kind of energy to the ice, they wouldn't be coming home early.

With the team unable to finish, they won just once the whole tournament over lowly Kazakhstan and tied Latvia. While it is true that they played well in one goal defeats to Sweden and Russia, they were too inconsistent against Finland in yesterday's quarterfinal.

After Finland jumped out to a 2-0 lead, Team USA cameback to tie it on goals by Mike Knuble and Schneider. But just when they were picking up steam, a lack of discipline was the turning point. Olli Jokinen and Ville Peltonen scored on two separate five-on-three's to restore a two goal lead into the third. Visibly upset, Chelios broke his stick at the end of the second. The 44-year-old four-time Olympian had every right to be frustrated because this was his last chance to compete for gold. He also showed more heart than anyone.

In the third, Team USA played more inspired but a couple of penalties proved costly because it took away some time to comeback. Still, they perserved. When Gionta redirected a Chris Drury feed past Antero Niittymaki, they were within a goal with under five minutes left. But in a period where they outshot the Finns 16-3, they couldn't beat Niittymaki again. Cole came close on a stuff attempt and Schneider almost tied it on a slapshot off a faceoff in the final minute. But close wasn't good enough.

It summed up the whole tournament for the Americans. They didn't embarrass themselves like at Nagano in '98 when a few players trashed their hotel rooms. However, the end result was still disappointing because they were right there.

And so, this year's Olympics comes down to four European countries. Led by four Rangers including Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky and Marek Malik, the Czechs will try to solve Henrik Lundqvist and Sweden. The other semifinal pits Russia against Finland. Russia features Ranger blueliners Darius Kasparaitis and Fedor Tyutin while Finland includes Ville Nieminen. The only Olympic Ranger not to be represented is Marcel Hossa, whose Slovakian team was eliminated by the Czechs 3-1 in an ultracompetitive quarter.

In some strange way, one could say that this tournament has mirrored the Rangers surprising success this season. Either way, Europe has dethroned North America at the Winter Games.

Even though the four remaining countries have caught up, it still will feel odd without Team Canada or Team USA battling for hockey supremacy. It's a long way until Vancouver.

Hitting Back:

-How often will Wayne Gretzky get blamed for Canada's early exit? Speaking of which, I hope Mrs. Gretzky didn't have Canada scoring many goals. Well, at least she's not Rick Tocchet.

-Do you think Cammi Granato smiled a little bit when Team USA lost to Sweden in that shootout last Friday? Just asking.

-Everytime I see a Bode Miller Nike commercial, I'm reminded of those silly ads over a decade ago which featured Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien. Well, at least Miller qualified unlike O'Brien.

-Does anyone else find it poetic justice that Italy's Enrico Fabris won the 1500 meter speedskating beating out Americans Shani Davis and Chad Kedrick? That's what they get for overhyping that race.

-Speaking of Davis and Kedrick, when are they getting in the ring to settle this thing already? That's just what NBC needs.

-It seems like many of these world class athletes just can't live up to the hype. Maybe if we stopped talking them up, they'd be more levelheaded instead of trying to showboat like Lindsey Jacobellis did to cost her gold in snowboard cross.

-At least the women's bobsleigh team took silver.

-I've found curling to be an interesting sport to watch. How can you not love all that intensity? Who would've ever thought pushing a rock on ice could create all that tension?

-Does anyone else wish NBC commentator Dick Button would just shutup already during women's figure skating?

-Tanith Belbin could've been an angel for all I cared. Just as long as she was on my TV screen in awkward positions with partner Ben Agosto helping them take silver in ice dancing. Hey. At least I'm telling the truth.

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