Thursday, February 25, 2010

Finland blanks Czechs, Slovakia upsets Sweden

There will be a new Olympic champion in Vancouver. For the fourth consecutive Winter Games, the defending men's gold medalists were ousted in the quarterfinals. This time, Sweden was victimized by a hungry bunch of Slovaks, who never trailed in a 4-3 win, advancing to the medal round for the first time ever. They'll meet Canada, who should be a heavy favorite after dismantling Russia 7-3.

Nobody solved Henrik Lundqvist for seven-plus periods setting an Olympic record. But once Ranger teammate Marian Gaborik did via a nifty Marian Hossa power play set up, Slovakia had little trouble beating him on three consecutive shots, including a sweet Andrej Sekera finish off a two-on-one 37 seconds later for a quick 2-zip lead at Hockey Canada Place. Before Pavol Demitra's left point power play bomb steered them back in front during a wild second that featured five goals, Sweden struck for a pair also eerily 37 ticks apart.

First, a fluky bounce allowed Peter Forsberg to get the puck behind the net and center for Patric Hornqvist, who snuck a backhand one-timer past Jaroslav Halak. The same trio combined for a Henrik Zetterberg tally when the Red Wing star centered for a cutting Forsberg with the puck deflecting off a Slovak defender. Just like that, it was knotted with Sweden pressing for more. However, Halak kept them afloat with timely stops in an odd played game that didn't have many shots. In fact, after the Slovaks beat Lundqvist, they went a long stretch without taking No.12 which saw Demitra blast one thru traffic high glove late in the period, regaining the lead.

The Swedes blew a power play opportunity that carried over into the third. Having already made one glaring mistake earlier on the second goal, this time Nick Lidstrom got caught leading directly to a three-on-one the other way. A streaking Demitra dished across for Hossa whose bid was denied by Lundqvist but he couldn't stop Tomas Kopecky who put home the rebound for 4-2. But before they could get too comfortable, the defending champs came right back when Halak misplayed a puck leading to Nicklas Backstrom setting up Daniel Alfredsson in the slot slicing it to 4-3.

From there, it became a battle to run off the clock. Opting to play smart defensive hockey which burned them earlier in the match, this time the Slovaks did a better job forcing Sweden into turnovers and attacking when they could with diligent checking from Hossa, Gaborik, Demitra and Jozef Stumpel. They nearly iced it with a point blank chance that Lundqvist denied with a quick blocker. The Swedes came close a couple of times with the Sedins nearly working their magic but Halak was strong against the post. Slovakia even made it difficult for them to pull Lundqvist with him finally on the bench with 45 ticks left. One final shot from Lidstrom almost deflected right to a teammate in front but the buzzer sounded giving Slovakia its biggest victory.

In the other late quarter, Finland prevailed over Czech Republic 2-0 backstopped by Miikka Kiprusoff's 31 saves at a much quieter UBC Thunderbird Arena. Early on, the Finns struggled on special teams, failing to capitalize on three consecutive power plays. In total, they misfired on five man-advantages instead allowing an undisciplined Czech team to stay tied after 20 minutes.

The Czechs were sharper in the second testing Kiprusoff, who made a few strong stops including a sprawling one with his legs extended. The classic unorthodox style that's seen him win a Vezina for Calgary. Each country warmed to the task at the halfway point with physicality picking up along with a mixed bag in the stands that makes European games such a fun atmosphere. The teams took turns testing both netminders with Tomas Vokoun also looking sharp as the contest remained scoreless after two.

A turning point came when Jaromir Jagr had two pointblank chances to break the tie but was blocked once and then with Kiprusoff dead to rights, fanned on the shot. No.68, who was competing in his final Winter Games, got stronger as the game went on- being moved up by former '98 Nagano captain Vladimir Ruzicka to the top line with captain Patrik Elias and Tomas Plekanec. They nearly hooked up for the game's first goal when Jagr drew defenders on a three-on-two, passing to Plekanec who dished across for an isolated Elias, who from eight feet hit the side of the net. Afterwards, the Devil looked skyward in disbelief. Unfortunately, those missed opportunitied cameback to bite them.

In a game where the refs were content to let the players decide it, a bizarre Martin Erat clear into no-man's land wound up costing Czech Republic. Finland cashed in in even more bizarre fashion when a diving Pavel Kubina prevented a scoring chance in front. However, the Atlanta defenseman lost his helmet. A no no in IIHF competition. Instead of going to take Niklas Hagman, he had to go pick up his helmet behind the net.

"A player on the ice whose helmet comes off and continues to play without a helmet without going directly to the bench will get a minor penalty," the media guide states.
It allowed Suomi to push ahead with Hagman the beneficiary, neatly deflecting home defenseman Janne Niskala's left point shot. Teemu Selanne, who also is competing in his fifth and final Olympics, discussed at length the bizarre rule which helped his country advance to the medal round for a second straight Winter Games. In Torino, they took silver.

"We play in the NHL, so you don't remember [the IIHF rule] and the team is so focused and so into the game that it's almost impossible to remember that. On the safety issue, I think it's a good rule. Hockey-wise, it's a bad rule, especially in the NHL."

 "It was obvious, in the third period, that who scored first will win the game," added a disappointed Ruzicka who supported Kubina for conforming to the odd rule.
 Trailing by a goal with under seven minutes remaining, the Czechs searched for the equalizer but it never came with Kiprusoff making another awkward stop off a crazy redirect. Ruzicka pulled Vokoun early with still 100 seconds left. It backfired. Due to his team not having clear possession which was needed to get it deep, Mikko Koivu came the other way patiently going around a Czech defender before dishing to an open Valtteri Filppula, who clinched it.

"I got a little chill," Selanne noted of Jagr's glorious chance. Not surprisingly, an emotional beared Jagr buried his head on the bench after Filppula's gimme. "You give him five chances like that; he's going to bury four. You can see that he is hurt."

"It was good for us that he lost his helmet, but it's a stupid rule," Hagman explained of his eerie decider which frustrated Kubina. "I know they want to keep it safe. [But] you lose a helmet; you should let the guy play."

Instead, the Finns march on and will meet Team USA for another possible shot at Olympic gold.

1 comment:

Hasan said...

Wow, I thought Kubina had brainlocked when I saw it, had no idea it was an actual rule. To have a semifinal spot maybe decided by that is just idiotic, but the Czechs did have plenty of opportunities anyway.

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