Rivalry Day – Pressure, Hate, and Too Much Talent
A few thoughts two-thirds of the way through Rivalry Day in Winter Olympic hockey…
Intensity: I have watched hockey all my life, and never have I seen an entire period played with the emotion shared by both the Americans and Canadians in the first period Sunday night. In fact, the first twenty minutes reminded me of the opening round of “The War” between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns in 1985.
The two squads delivered an opening period of preliminary round action with a fire that is usually reserved for the final minutes of a gold medal or decisive Stanley Cup game. That the pace and intensity didn’t waver for the full twenty minutes was mesmerizing.
The teams did more than bestow upon us some tremendous hockey, though. They reinforced two points:
1) The Americans are not here just to build experience for the next Olympics. Many of the familiar names are gone from Team USA, leaving fans to think this year’s young squad was acquiring experience to make it more of a force the next time around. Not so. With goalie Ryan Miller standing on his head, veterans playing like leaders, and young stars proving they belong, the United States may just have a chance.
2) The Canadians are feeling the pressure. Team Canada entered the tournament as one of the gold-medal favorites, hoping to become the first host nation to win hockey gold since the U.S. in 1980. Canada eked out a shootout win against Switzerland, a victory in the standings but a loss to the nation’s hockey-mad fans. The team knew it needed a win to not only gain a bye into the quarterfinals but to stave off the growing doubts, and they played with that desperation.
The biggest question for the Americans is whether they can maintain this intensity into knockout play. It’s very possible they may have peaked too soon, with the possibility of a letdown after an emotional victory. It’s a risk with such a young team.
A day off to get angry – at themselves, at each other, at their expectations, whatever – is a good prescription for a Canadian squad that now has to play into the quarterfinals. I would hate to be their next opponent. On the other hand, I would hate to be player wearing a maple leaf if this team doesn’t figure it out, and soon.
It’s possible to be too talented. Nearly every player in the NHL has exceptional hockey skills, and they can all do wonderful things with the puck. But being a great player means knowing when to do the simple things. It’s like being able to do a 360 dunk, but knowing when a layup is appropriate.
Unfortunately, I noticed more than a few times during the Canada-USA game when players attempted the extra pass or a fancy play when the simple option was the right one.
I can’t say whether it’s the desire to create that highlight-reel goal – the so-called “SportsCenter effect” – or if it’s the result of having so much talent on the ice.
Case in point: Sidney Crosby passed to Rick Nash from six feet in front of the goal; Nash was cutting to the post, blanketed by a defender, while Crosby had space enough for a clear shot on goal. It would have been a picture-perfect goal, and had Nash been able to bury it (he shot the puck through the crease) we’d all be talking about Crosby’s vision and Nash’s finishing ability. The appropriate play was for Crosby to put the puck on net; the odds are much better that he scores, or that a crashing Nash deposits the rebound.
Yes, you could say I am being overly critical or that I’m reading too much into one play. But the fact is that it happened more than just once, and this was the play that was the shining example to me.
When everyone on the ice is an all-star, playing on an international stage, the urge sometimes is to create a play that isn’t there. If you have the skill to make that happen, the impulse can be blinding. But the great players know how to let the game come to them. The heroes from these Olympics will be the players who realize a great play might make SportsCenter, but the right plays will be remembered for years.
Patriotism trumps team loyalty. Every player for Canada and the USA plays in the NHL, and the entire Olympic tournament is full of NHL players. But for these two weeks, those NHL teams are just backstory for fans, like where players went to school or played junior hockey.
It’s an extension of my philosophy that when the Olympics arrive, I hate everyone. During the Games, all that matters is your flag.
Fans of the San Jose Sharks are probably very proud that their line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley remains intact as key cog for Team Canada. But I imagine Silicon Valley was happy the trio couldn’t muster a victory over the Americans Sunday night.
The same holds true for fans all over the hockey world. While it would be nice for your favorite players to make a splash at the Olympics, you don’t want to see it happen at the expense of your country.
As a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, I’m excited that captain Mike Richards and defenseman Chris Pronger are in the Games. But it wasn’t until late in the third period, when the Americans had a 4-2 lead, that my mind turned to those Flyers.
“Richards could score a goal right now, get on the scoresheet and the U.S. could still win,” I thought. That notion was quickly discarded when Sidney Crosby scored a power play goal to close to within 4-3.
Interestingly, there’s an opposite effect as well. As a Flyers fan, I have a special distaste for the New York Rangers. But when Chris Drury scored to put the Americans ahead 3-2, he was momentarily forgiven his sin of being Rangers captain.
That Team USA jersey can mend a lot of fences. Well, temporarily, at least.
In a week, I can go back to loving Richards and Pronger, and shuddering at the mere mention of Drury’s name. But in the meantime… well, you know how I think.
Aside from Miller, the player who stood out most in the Canada-USA game was Nash. He was an absolute beast out there. He threw his weight around like a man playing pee-wee hockey, and he showed elite stick skills. As a Flyers fan in Texas, I don’t get to see Nash very often. For hockey’s sake, either Columbus has to become a contender, or Nash needs to find his way to a better team.
Alex Ovechkin can be the Tasmanian Devil of hockey, and no one knows that better today than Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin’s open-ice pasting of Jagr was a thing of beauty, especially since it directly led to a goal. Even without the puck, he can be a dominating player.