Men's hockey quarter-finals: Team Canada catches a break
Latvia matchup helps a team not firing on all cylinders
Team Canada caught a break.
With a bunch of its top scorers firing blanks, Canada drew an easier opponent than it might have for the Olympic Games quarter-finals when Latvia pulled off a shocking upset of Switzerland in the qualifying round.
The Latvians, coached by Canadian Ted Nolan, built a 2-0 first period lead and held on for a 3-1 victory over the Swiss, who will certainly go back to the drawing board to figure out a way to produce more offence moving forward.
While Latvia deserved full marks for its stunning victory over Switzerland, it will be hard pressed to duplicate it against the top hockey playing nation in the world.
Canada advanced straight to the quarter-final round after finishing third in the preliminary round with a 3-0 record. The three wins were nice, but truth be told, Canada did not look overly impressive.
Most concerning is the fact coach Mike Babcock has not found suitable linemates for Sidney Crosby. He has tried numerous players including Chris Kunitz, Martin St. Louis, Patrice Bergeron, Jamie Benn and John Tavares on the wings, but there have been no magical connections.
When the heck did playing with the best player in the world become so difficult?
In three games, Crosby has just two assists. Meanwhile, Kunitz, John Tavares, Rick Nash and Corey Perry are pointless through three games. St. Louis doesn’t have a point in two games. Canada can probably get by Latvia without these guys producing, but it’s hard to imagine winning a gold medal with so many stars remaining silent.
Fortunately for Canada, defencemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber have been lighting it up. Doughty has been Canada’s best player, scoring four goals and five points while Weber, who averages a team-high (tied with Duncan Keith) 21 minutes of ice time per game, has two goals and four points.
Hard lesson for the Swiss
Switzerland was the favourite against Latvia, but found out the hard way you need to be prepared to play a Ted Nolan-coached team right from the get-go. Latvia struck at 8:38 of the opening period and then again at 11:19 and all but shut the Swiss down.
“We never had a coach that actually believes in the players,” said Kaspars Daugavins, who played 91 NHL games with Ottawa and Boston and now plays in Switzerland.”
Nolan said sending a positive message is a big part of his focus.
“I’m trying to get them to believe how good they really are,” Nolan said. “They slowly started believing it after the (Olympic) qualifiers last year.”
Daugavins said he can offer a game plan for upsetting Team Canada. “We just tell our goalie to stop every shot,” Daugavins said. “Then you can’t lose, right?”
Latvian goalie Edgars Masalskis knows they are in tight against the Canadians in the quarter-final, but he’s not about to hand them the game.
“I won’t shout out that we will beat Canada,” Masalskis said, “but we’ll try. We’ll do all that we can to give them a tough battle.”
In the other quarter-final match-ups, host Russia faces Finland in what should be the best and toughest battle of the round, the United States plays the Czech Republic and Sweden faces Slovenia.
Team USA, which is led by a couple of members of the Toronto Maple Leafs – Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk – has been the most dominant team in the men’s tournament. Kessel leads the Olympics in scoring with four goals and seven points in three games.
Russians also look to improve
The Russians skunked Norway 4-0 to advance to the next round and would probably admit to not playing as well as they can. Like Crosby, Alexandxer Ovechkin has not been hitting on all cylinders. He has a goal and two points in four games.
The Russians know getting past the Finns won’t be a walk in the park.
“They’re a really good team,” said Russian defencedman Fedor Tyutin. “You see it every year, it doesn’t matter who they have on their team. They play a pretty good structure of the game, pretty good defence. It’s no different this year.”
There has been all kinds of chatter about the pressure Russia is under to win at home, but Tyutin said it is blown way out of proportion.
“You guys are the only people who talk about pressure,” Tyutin said. “We will wake up tomorrow and prepare the same way we’ve been preparing for the past four games ... come here at 2 o’clock and play at 4:30.”