Thursday, September 15, 2011
Watching the Canadians play the Americans I marvelled at how so much has changed in international hockey since 1976. And also how so little has changed.
Game two for Canada follows an 11-2 thrashing of the Finns in their tournament opener, a game infamously not on the DVD set. In 1976 international men's hockey is not at the present level of women's hockey but its closer to that than to the present day when you have nine or more teams that can compete with anyone. Sure the Swiss, Germans and Belarus have never won a medal but they are closer to the big boys (and have the scalps to prove it) than the Finns and Americans were thirty five years ago.
Both teams collect their own measure of respect in 1976. The Americans will tie the Czechs and the Finns will beat their arch rivals, the Swedes, but at this time its a three team competition with Sweden rising (the Swedes actually end up with the same record as the Russians). Its a long way from present day, that's for sure.
(As an aside, going back to Nagano the team with the most medals in the last five best on best tourneys? The Finns. Salt Lake City is the only tournament where they did not win at least a bronze. Third in Nagano and Vancouver, second in Turin and the World Cup. Pretty impressive. Second are Canada with three, all tournament victories, and the Czechs, with gold in Nagano and bronzes in 2004 and 2006. As for the once powerful Russians? Second in Nagano. Third in Salt Lake City. Not a damn thing since.)
Every time Canada plays a minnow we expect to thrash them. Actually every time we play anyone we expect to thrash them. Not the way it usually goes though. Vancouver was actually rare in that we whipped Norway and the Germans and the Russians. The shootout win against the Swiss is a pretty common (and frustrating) event.
So in 1976 in their first game the Canadians absolutely destroy the Finns, probably the last time that ever happened. Rick Martin scores a hattrick and adds two assists, Hull and Esposito score a pair each, Perreault, Orr and Lafleur all chip in with three points. The only sour note is an injury to captain Bobby Clarke. Its a slaughter and when the starting lineups are introduced for game two against the Americans the expectation is that we'll see more of the same.
The game is in Montreal and so Bowman starts five Habs, four who will be in the Hall of Fame one day - Shutt, Peter Mahovlich, Lafleur, Robinson and Serge Savard. Rogie Vachon is in net.
Starting for the Americans, Bill Nyrop and five guys you've never heard of. Actually its possible that you've never heard of Nyrop either, who played two seasons and a bit with the Habs' dynasty in the 70s and just over 200 games in the NHL in total. Gary Sargent, coming off his rookie year with the Kings, would play 400 games in the NHL. On the right wing - Fred Ahern, who played 146 games with three franchises that no longer exist, California, Cleveland and Colorado. On the left wing, Curt Bennett, who had scored 65 points (only 2 less than Esposito) the year before with the Atlanta Flames. Centring their staring line, Mike Polich, coming off a stellar season with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. Polich would make the NHL in 1977 and get in just over two hundred games.
In goal, Pete LoPresti, who would start for Minnesota for just over four seasons before going to the minors in 1978. LoPresti would play two games for your Edmonton Oilers in the 1980 season.
The rest of the American roster has more of the same. Journeyman pros and college kids mostly. There are some relatively famous names, mostly for what they do after they retire. Lee Fogolin is coming off of his rookie season. There is Lou Nanne, who will run the North Stars for years after he retires, and Larry Pleau who will win a Cup in the front office of the Rangers and later run the Blues. Craig Patrick will help manage and coach the Miracle on Ice team in 1980 and later he will build a Pens franchise that wins two Cups in the early nineties. Mike Milbury will play for the Bruins for years, beat up a fan with a shoe, destroy a franchise and then torment us on Hockey Night in Canada. Coaching the club are Bob Pulford, whose destruction of Chicago makes Milbury's work in New York look like the second coming of Sam Pollack, and Harry Neale, who would become a funny old guy.
So an interesting cast of characters but certain to be overmatched, yes?
The Canadian lines are as follows:
The game starts a little scrambly. Shutt takes a penalty on the first shift and then Nanne and Potvin take coincidentals. In the following two minutes the Americans have a shot blocked by Orr and a long shot go wide. The shorthanded Canadians force LoPresti to make two saves and shoot wide on a third attempt. The Americans pick up a too many men penalty and Esposito's centring pass banks in off of a defender and in. Not even a scoring chance yet and the Americans trail. The Perreault line hasn't even had a shift yet. Reggie Leach too. And Sittler and the Mahovlich line have barely been out for half a minute each.
Its about to get worse for the US. The Perreault line hits the ice and runs rampant. First Perreault rushes into the zone, undresses a defenceman with a beautiful inside out move and forces LoPresti to make a great save. Moments later he dances in and sets up Gare who is robbed. The Lafleur line follows and they have three glorious chances and the following shift, this time by Sittler and the Flyers, results in Potvin missing the net on a golden opportunity. The Americans are being overrun. They are big but they are not that good with one exception.
Ftorek won an Olympic silver medal in 1972 and had a cup of coffee with the Wings the following year. Getting only a dozen games the next season it became clear that he is considered too small to play in the NHL and so in 1974 he jumped to the WHA. He would end up being the sixth leading scorer in WHA history and would return to the NHL with the Nordiques, scoring 73 points in 1981, along with 104 PIM. Small, yes, but skilled, fast and feisty.
Its at this point of the game that he suddenly makes himself known, hard in on the Canadian D, a fumbled puck, he forces Vachon to make a save from close in. It will be the lone bright spot for his club this period but its also a sign of what is to come. When he gets his chance he is too close in but its an illustration of what we have seen ever since. A team can dominate but all it takes is one mistake for the underdog to get back into it and shit to turn sideways. It will happen later in this very same game.
One more point to make - there is little in the way of line matching or jockeying at this point. Each team rolls their lines regardless of the situation. The Canadians are in total control. At this point though Pulford sees something or so I assume. For the rest of the game whenever Esposito Hull and Dionne hit the ice its Ftorek's line that comes over the boards.
The rest of the period is a nightmare for the Americans. They manage one more shot at the Canadian net (they miss) while the Canadians rampage. Mahovlich scores on the power play and soon after Hull scores from the slot. Its three cob after one, the Canadians have outchanced the Americans 11-1 and the Corsi is 33-6 for Canada. Its a rout.
Perreault gets a penalty to start the second period. Its a penalty the Canadians kill off easily but here, I think, is a slight turning point. After the first unit (Barber, Sittler, Orr, Potvin) does their thing, Bowman sends out his remaining four defencemen out. They do the job easily (Savard and Robinson play up front) but its an odd move. Its a slap at the Americans, imo, and while their response would mean nothing if the Canadians stay on top of their game, one wonders if the move displays some complacency on the Canadian side.
Almost immediately afterwards the Canadians go on the power play and its a disaster for a good part of it. Its the first unit - Hull, Esposito, Dionne, Orr, Potvin - that shows a lack of urgency. They get sloppy and the disciplined style they played in the first period gives way. They end up hemmed in their zone until there's a faceoff. Bowman sends out Perreault and the Americans almost score off the draw. The penalty ends and then again the Sabres' line takes over. Three straight scoring chances and it looks like things are back to normal.
But the following shifts see a little more back and forth in the play and the next shift for Esposito his line again gives up a chance that Ftorek almost finished. On the shift after the Americans suddenly score. Its a seventies' special. One of those long hard shots that nobody scores on anymore but that we saw some of in 1972. The type of goal that Lafleur would score in a few years to break Don Cherry's heart. Ahern steps over the blueline on a two on one with Bennett, gets near the circle and fires. He beats Vachon cleanly. Potvin is the only man back but Orr is about to turn the two on one into a two on two so buddy figures he'll let it rip.
Now its three to one.
Another Canadian powerplay and again the first unit does nothing. Again Perreault comes out, this time with Lafleur in Gare's place. They tear it up but Lopresti stones Perreault and then both he and Rick Martin miss glorious chances. Next its back to evens and Sittler and his Flyer linemates come out. Barber almost scores and then so does Leach and the Americans are pinned down.
And then Ftorek comes out against Esposito, Hull and Dionne and moments later its a one goal game as 21 year old Steve Jensen picks off a poor pass by Hull and goes in alone. He makes no mistake.
A couple of interesting things happen next. Jimmy Watson blocks a shot with his coconut and as he is tended to the commentators was poetic about his role as the defensive defenceman and how having a guy like Watson out there calms things down when guys like Orr is out there.
Now I know that a good stay at home partner helps when you have a guy who likes to wheel but I'm thinking a guy like Watson is more in the way here. ;) Hockey commentators. Saying shit as long as they've been around.
A minute later Shutt dives and draws a penalty. Its obvious and the crew says so and good on them. Orr hits the post on a long shot and then the period ends.
Its a totally different period. Canada has slowed down and the Americans have taken heart and suddenly they have come on. The Corsi numbers favour Canada 22-15 and the scoring chances are 8 to 4 but only 5 to 3 at ES. So it goes. The Canadians dominate in the first and get three goals. They still hold the edge in period two but are on the wrong end of it and suddenly they are in a game where a break or two can lose it for them.
The third period starts and Canada gets penalized early again. The Americans have a shot deflected and another blocked and when it gets back to evens they get three more shots off, two that Vachon has to steer aside but nothing dangerous. Its at this point that Bowman shortens his bench. Watson is out so he has five blueliners left. Orr and Potvin play a ton while Robinson anchors the second pair, first playing with Savard, then with Lapointe. But mostly its about Orr and Potvin. Bowman rides them hard, a phrase that brings disturbing images to mind, yes.
Up front Lafleur has replaced Gare on Perreault's line with Martin. Shutt doesn't see the ice in the third and as the period moves along Bowman brings out the blender. Mahovlich replaces Sittler between Leach and Barber. After an early shift Gare joins Shutt on the bench as does Sittler for a long stretch.
Overall little is happening as the Canadians shut it down. Ftorek's line gets one more shot at Esposito and get the only American scoring chance of the period. Bowman rolls Perreault out and they get the puck moving the right way again. Sittler comes out between Barber and Leach for a short shift, the Esposito line comes out again and in their brief appearance the Americans get the puck into the Canadian end again at which point Perreault comes out AGAIN. They kill off most of what is left of the game until the Americans force a draw in the Canadian zone at which point Bowman looks down his bench and discovers that his best options left are Barber and Sittler with Mahovlich replcing Leach. The Americans don't threaten and Sittler finishes it off with an empty netter.
The third period is a typical period for one of these games. The Canadians shut the Americans down totally. They take no risks and their superiority carries the day but its a position they'd rather not be in. A bad break and its a tie game after all.
Low event period when it comes to scoring chances, 4-1 for Canada, Corsi is 26-12.
Overall Corsi - at ES 55-16, Canada PP 6-0, Canada SH 4-5, Total 65-21
Scoring chances - at ES 19-5, Canada PP 4-1, Canada SH 0-0, Total 23-6
Here's individual corsi:
Here's individual scoring chances:
The Canadians put up crooked numbers across the board. Its a difficult game to take anything away from. The Americans are severely outclassed. Nine out of the twelve Canadian forwards allow one scoring chance or less the entire game.
There's little to say about the Canadian back end. They're very good and can not be faulted for either American goal imo. Five Hall of Famers and a solid pro in Watson. We'll see what happens down the line but they barely break a sweat in game one.
Perreault is the best player on the ice. A bit player in 1972, he got two games in and showed well for the most part at the age of 21. Now in his prime he is unstoppable, at least this game. Bowman recognizes it and gets him out there any chance he can. The funny thing is his line is shut out despite threatening every time they hit the ice.
The Sittler line is very good and on this team it appears that they are the primary defensive option. Sittler and Barber are the first PK unit and at the end of the game they are sent out to take the final draw in their end. One thinks that when Gainey and Clarke get into the lineup that they will take over this role, although Barber and Sittler do just fine of course.
Lafleur shows more once he joins up with Perreault although he, Shutt and Mahovlich have their moments early in the game. While he is solid he isn't outstanding (although the crowd goes wild every time he touches the puck).
After the very good though there is some ugly. The Esposito line gets outplayed. While the other lines are plus 8, plus 5 and plus 4 at ES, this line ends up in the red, outplayed by Robbie Ftorek. They do end up at even with Hull's goal the eventual winner (and cancelling out his godawful giveaway that led to the breakaway goal) and on top of that they do score on the power play.
Maybe its just one game but Esposito and Hull look slow and old and while Dionne is slick they generate very little. Four years and the guy who drove the bus in 1972 may be a liability this time around. It will be interesting to see what happens as they move on and face tougher opposition. Unlike 1972 where it was eight games against one opponent the preliminary round features five games with five different opponents. With two wins against the two weakest clubs in the tournament Canada is in good shape but what can Bowman take from what has happened so far and will it matter when they meet the Czechs and the Soviets?
What I did notice is that the Canadian game has evolved since 1972. The team is disciplined. There are far fewer freelance efforts. When the Americans don't give them anything they are content to dump the puck in and chase after it rather than risk the turnover. Even against a weak opponent there is little breakdown, except for the notable Hull giveaway.
Again, hard to take a lot from this game but its clear that the team has a system and even loaded with mostly offensive minded players they don't sacrifice defence for offence.
Next up for Canada - Sweden.
Posted by Black Dog at 9:30 PM