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Some Final Thoughts on Team Canada 2012

May 17, 2012

Today Team Canada and Canadian hockey fans had their hopes of any medal, let alone a gold one, violently dashed. Violently, because they ended on a needless kneeing penalty to Ryan Getzlaf (our captain) that was deemed worthy of 5 + a game.  That’s not to say that Getzlaf was the sole reason that Canada lost, because it certainly isn’t. Did it contribute to the loss? Yes, because that was 3 minutes we didn’t have to mount a comeback.

Short-handed for the last minute and a half, the Canadians swarmed the Slovakian net and it really looked like they might actually tie up the game. Which would have led to overtime and yet more penalty time to kill. But another breath. Another chance to keep the dream alive. But it was not to be.

Back to the violence.  In the past two games, including this one, Canada was assessed 3 major penalties that ended up with players thrown out of the game and a suspension (Marc Methot).  Granted, penalties in IIHF competition are generally called tighter and more harshly, but 3?  Have we learned nothing over the years of playing internationally?  Canada cannot keep shooting themselves in the foot every tournament by taking several games to figure out how the game will be called.

Respect appears to have been lost, not just by Canada, but by players from everywhere, for their fellow player.  The head hit by French player, Sasha Treille, was terrible and he received a 5 and game, plus a 5 game suspension. In a short tournament, this is devastating to a team like France that has limited player resources.  Andrei Kostitsyn was assessed 5 and a game on a play against Canada’s Evander Kane, and in the same game, Marc Methot was assessed a similar penalty and then received supplementary discipline in the form of a 1-game suspension that caused him to miss this semi-final debacle.

To the game itself.  Canada was off to its usual slow start, falling behind 2-0, before Kane put them on the board.  A furious push in the second period, in which Canada out-shot the Slovaks 17-7 resulted in a 3-2 lead on goals by Jeff Skinner and Alex Burrows.  Entering the third period, the wheels fell off.

I don’t know if it was all on Brent Sutter, but he started his checking line, which was an indication to myself and the announcers, that Canada was going to try to simply protect the lead. This has lead to disastrous results for Canada in recent history, with the exception of the Olympics, where Canada managed to survive the sit-back and defend tactics. Dear Team Canada – if you have your foot on your opponent’s throat in an elimination game? Grind it down and finish them off!!! No points for easing up.

As if on schedule, Team Canada fell into its ‘defensive cocoon’ and almost refused to attack. Instead of crashing the net and directing the play, Canada tried to stave off Slovakia’s offence.  I am in favour of the concept of ‘the best defence is a good offence,’ especially when the margin of error is just one goal.   John Tavares had a couple of decent rushes down the wing, but aside from that, it was drop back and defend.

To no-one’s surprise, the score stayed the same til near the 13 minute mark when Milan Bartovic (one of the former NHL-ers on the Slovakian team) tied the game on his second chance off his own rebound.   With less than 5 minutes left in the 3rd period, the issue of discipline raised its ugly head again when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took an ill-advised boarding penalty. Although it raised the ire of the Canadian fans, it was a textbook penalty in terms of what referees had been calling all tournament. Obviously, Team Canada hadn’t gotten the memo.

Canada managed to kill off a potent Slovakian power play and again, instead of taking the momentum from a timely penalty kill and putting the pressure on their opponent, took another unnecessary, and in this case dangerous, penalty. With less than three minutes to go in the third period of a tied elimination game, captain Ryan Getzlaf decided to lose his composure or just panicked and lined up Juraj Mikus for a knee on knee collision. Down went Mikus and up went the ref’s arm.  Getzlaf would be assessed a five minute major and a game misconduct and the Slovaks were on the power play for the remainder of the game.

Early in the powerplay, the familiar Michal Handzus would plant himself in front of Cam Ward and tip in the go-ahead goal. Due to the major penalty, Canada was still short-handed and pulled their goalie in order to eliminate the manpower advantage.  Finally attacking hard and with desperation, the Canadians swarmed the zone – tracking down pucks and while they didn’t let the Slovaks out of their zone, neither did they put the puck on the net.  They had a couple of close-in chances, but Jan Laco, aided by his defence was able to keep them out.

The game would end in a 4-3 win for the Slovaks. A third straight quarter-final loss for the Canadians. A third straight year outside the medals. This time there were deeper implications than simple disappointment. The 2012 WHC was to be the last factor in finalizing the seeding for the 2014 Olympics.

Although the majority of this team will likely not be participating in the Olympics, they were tasked with setting Canada’s seeding at the upcoming tournament.  A little additional pressure to go along with that which is ever-present the moment a player puts on the Team Canada jersey. One thing is for sure, these guys wanted to win.  But some of the things that players need to do to win were not evident.

Some of that comes from the lack of preparation – players are air-lifted in to play with little chance to practice or play enough to come together as a team.  As well, there will be fingers pointed at Getzlaf and the fact that some players had been out having fun, instead of focusing on the hockey at hand. In the end, a good result would have erased either of those issues.  What was seen, however, was that Canada time and again cannot learn from previous experiences in international hockey.

We can moan and complain about the officiating all we want (and I did, as those of you on my Twitter feed can attest) but it hasn’t changed over the years, and its not likely to change in any way that a North American will find reasonable. It is the IIHF and not the NHL. But in either league, you have to adapt to the way the game is being called, whether it is the ‘new’ obstruction penalty calls (NHL) or the interpretation of penalty calls (IIHF).

Canada has been consistently unable to maintain discipline with respect to penalties and find themselves in deficit positions at key points in games. The two concepts Team Canada, in many of its variations, has been unable to develop, are keeping out of the penalty box and protecting a lead.  Given the depth of talent Canada has from which to select their teams, its hard to believe that their chances of winning wouldn’t increase astronomically if they improved upon those two aspects of the game.

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