Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shock and Awe

 For both the Latvia and American games I was at work, got on the surprisingly excellent CBC feed and suffered through two outstanding Canadian performances.

 I've referred to Nick Hornby's outstanding book 'Fever Pitch' here many times. He makes the point that attending Arsenal matches was nothing enjoyable in any way, save the result when they triumphed. The gut wrenching tension, the stress, the frustration, all eating at you. Are you not entertained?

 When Jenn and I were in London in 2006 we went to a Tottenham match at White Hart Lane. They were playing Portsmouth, an also ran, and as usual Spurs, while not a great side, were quite good. They tallied twice early on and controlled the match entirely from that point. It was fairly dull for quite a while though the spectacle itself was very enjoyable. I highly recommend it. It was a lovely autumn afternoon and the crowd was in full voice, cheering and singing and chanting. And then late in the first half a long ball against the run of play, a quick pass, a defensive blunder and the lead cut in half.

 As the second half progressed the tension in the stadium mounted. The singing was no more and the fans worried as Portsmouth began to come on.

 In the row in front of us was a man of about my age. His leather jacket was worth more than my entire wardrobe, his haircut certainly worth a decade worth of haircut's at Sam's Nice Haircuts. As the game wore on I noted that he became angrier and angrier, his face a knot of tense disappointment and worry. He muttered curses under his breath as Portsmouth slowly pushed and pushed and pushed into Tottenham's end. His fists clenched, his jaw spasmed, his face a mask of terrified disgust and finally with about ten minutes left, unable to take it anymore, he got up and tore out of there.

 Spurs held on and when the final whistle blew the crowd exhaled as one and then sang with joy as we streamed out into the gloomy high road, back to the pubs and the tube station, flooding by the mounted riot police.

 For us it was an exhilarating experience. I'm a Spurs' fan but a casual one. It was fun. For the hardcore supporters it was more of a relief. They were happy of course but there weren't a lot of smiles after Portsmouth drew within reach. It was agonizing.

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 And so it was Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. Canada triumphed three times but there was no 'gorillas from a cage' game, no blowout that allowed us to sit back, crack a beer and fully enjoy the spectacle. The hockey was great on Friday, the best game of these Games by far but despite Canada's dominant performance it was still one shot away from being a tie and despite Glenn Healy's assertion that a two goal lead would be insurmountable (Healy says a lot of things that are dumb but oh boy) it wasn't until the final whistle went that we could exhale and relax, at least until Sunday.

 More thoughts on the men's team but first, Thursday's game.

 I thought I saw it all four years ago when Parise tied it and then Crosby won it all and then the Bruins came back last spring from three down (and two down with barely a minute left) and I thought wow ok now that will never be topped and then just weeks after that Chicago turned the tables on Boston and tied it and then won it just like that. Won the Cup. Now I had seen it all.

 And then Thursday. I expected the Americans to win. They were quicker. They had beaten the Canadian women handily in the leadup to the Games. Wickenheiser is no longer Wickenheiser and the new hope, Poulin, had been mostly invisible. The Americans were up by two as the game wound down it looked like a valiant effort was going to fall short.

 Then a lucky break (its nearly always a lucky break) and it was a one goal game and then the linesman bumped Ward and the puck skittered down and thudded against the post and then another break and it was Poulin and it was overtime.

 There were two keys. The goaltending of Szabados in the first two minutes of overtime saved the Canadians. And then with the Americans on a powerplay the slashing call on Lamoureux. Dreadful call? Yes. Except if you play hockey you know that if the ref gives your team a warning, as had happened earlier, then you heed that warning. And Lamoureux, being Lamoureux, couldn't help herself and gave Szabados a whack.

 Dumb.

 And then it was almost inevitable. Knight clipping Wickenheiser, taking her down on the break, the ensuing powerplay, the goal by Poulin. I'd say it will never be matched but we know that on Sunday it could be.

 That's hockey.

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 I don't think I've ever seen a 1-0 game that was a bigger blowout than the game on Friday. Now you can argue player selection and deployment even with the results. I'm always of the mind that you should push to be better and Hockey Canada's conservative approach has cost us, especially at the world juniors these past few years where there seems to be an obsession with pedigree (winning programs) and bringing role players. At the Olympic level we have such an embarrassment of riches its hard to believe. I've been around forever ;) and really since 76 I don't think I can remember so many great Canadian players. The teams that ran the table in 84, 87 and 91 had the most successful run in best on best play but in 87, for example, you had Doug Crossman and Normand Rochfort on defence. On this team PK Subban can't get into the lineup and Martin St Louis doesn't play a shift and Joe Thornton, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and James Neal (to mention a few) are at home, along with the injured Stamkos and Tavares.

 Take those latter six players. No country can match that as a top six. Maybe the Swedes.

 Crazy.

  You could argue for different player selection for sure I think, even with the team where its at but I do appreciate Babcock's choices and gameplan. They have dominated and the fact is they have beaten two good teams and handily (despite the scores). I'd love to see what Babcock could do with this team given a month, find out if they can find a way to break out on the big ice. Watching the game on Friday you will note that when the Canadians had possession the Americans had all five players below the hashmarks. That's a difficult nut to crack regardless of how much skill you have on the ice And yet they had multiple chances in close. Benn's one timer. Sharp and Crosby and Kunitz all in close. In the other games Perry twice had the puck on the doorstep all alone and could not stuff it in.

 The gold medal game could go one of three ways. I respect the Swedes but this is not the 2002 or 2006 team. They can be had and I could see a 'gorillas out of the cage' game for Canada. Unlikely but a bit of puck luck will make it happen. More likely it will be more of what we have seen. It will be close, Canada will deserve it but as we all know that means not a thing. The team has done well though and worse case I see a deal like 96 or 98 where we deserved it and got beaten by the better goaltender. It happens but I'm thinking a gold medal is in the offing. Canada is too loaded front to back. They're going to run the Swedes into the ice.

 Go Canada.

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