U.S., Canada must maintain focus
Canada faces Slovakia and the U.S. takes on Finland in Olympic semifinals
Canada has to come down from its soaring triumph over Russia
The speedy Americans will have their hands full with workmanlike Finland
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When asked if could pinpoint Slovakia on a map, Team Canada defenseman Dan Boyle immediately blurted, "Umm, right next to the Czech Republic. I know it used to be part of Czechoslovakia, right? So I'll say close to the Czech Republic."
And where is that?
Boyle hesitated. "I know it's somewhere in Europe," he said, an answer as vague as Russia's passes against the Canadians the day before. "I don't know if I could pick out where the Czech Republic is."
This is not a critique of the grasp of world geography by a defenseman who has regained a significant role on Canada's blueline. After all, the game Canada will play against the Slovakians is the men's Olympic hockey semifinal, not "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?"
But for all the ritualistic scraping and bowing about the Slovaks -- by the time the Canadian players were done Thursday, Slovakia was sounding an awful lot like the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s -- there is something taxing about facing one of the generics, the only team of any repute that has not made an Olympic final since NHL players began participating in 1998.
Just as Team USA must put on blinkers against Finland and not ruminate about the dizzying possibility of a rematch against Canada in the gold-medal game -- more on the Finns and Americans in a minute -- Canada has to come down from its soaring triumph over Russia and maintain its equilibrium against a country that produces nifty forwards but is a cruiserweight among hockey's super heavies. Despite praise that was laid on with a trowel, Slovakia's shootout win over Russia in the round robin and a quarterfinal victory over listless Sweden didn't exactly send anyone in a maple leaf jersey sprinting to an atlas.
"They're maybe not a name brand," Canadian defenseman Brent Seabrook said, "but they are definitely are coming on strong the last couple of years. I know we played them in the world championship of the U-18s in the final -- they'd beaten Russia -- and their program has gotten a lot better."
In fact, their program has gotten the same. Slovakia has reached into Professor Peter Bondra's Way Back Machine -- the NHL 503-goal scorer is the general manager -- for 37-year-old Ziggy Palffy, who last haunted the NHL in 2005-06 before disappearing into the Slovak league. Another familiar graybeard is Jozef Stumpel, also 37, who stole money from Florida in 2007-08 before leaving the NHL.
Curiously the most dynamic Slovak forward has been Pavol Demitra, who has shocked Vancouver with a passion he rarely has displayed in his day job with the Canucks. Demitra has missed much of the season with a shoulder injury, scoring once in 11 games. (You really can't spell Demitra without IR.) With the added fillip of a flag on his chest, he now has two goals in five, one behind Marian Gaborik's team lead.
"I would not call it that," Bondra said when asked if reaching the semifinals represented a golden moment for players who are bordering on their expiration date. We have a mix of (young and old) players. We'll just be ready for the Canadians and do what we can ... Their roster has many more star players than my roster, no doubt."
Indeed. Other than Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, Gaborik and Marian Hossa, the Slovaks are a quart low on truly elite talent. But Jaroslav Halak, the Montreal Canadiens' No. 1 goalie (pro tem) this season, is an X-factor. He might not steal a game for the Boys from Bratislava -- note to Boyle, that's the capital -- but he is capable of borrowing it for long stretches like he did against the Russians.
For Team USA, redoubtable Finland, the 2006 silver medalists and the best team pound-for-pound in Turin, presents other sets of problems. While the Americans have forged a hockey identity based on speed, Finland has become known as the James Brown of the game -- the hardest working team on the planet. They are the master of the hockey obvious, the short shift, the good 10-foot pass and puck support unlike the Russians, who have a lot of curlicues in their game. Not to paint them with too broad a brush, but Finns are Canadians with a surfeit of vowels.
Although the Finns shockingly capitulated in what ultimately was a meaningless match against Sweden to conclude the round robin -- "After they got a couple of goals down they didn't seem interested," Peter Forsberg said -- they flummoxed the Czech Republic in the quarters behind goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. For all the warranted fuss over American goalie Ryan Miller, Kiprusoff leads the Olympic tournament in save percentage - .946 to Miller's .944.
"They're a very fast, very well organized," Miller said. "From what I've seen in early games, they have some big shots on the power play to mix with a lot of skill around the net. This will be a good test for our locker room, to see if we can keep our heads in the right spot."
"It's only natural if you're thinking about (a gold medal game)," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think you're lying (if you say you're not). I think it's good to look ahead. You have to set your goals high. You always picture yourself as having success. At the same time, you don't want to overlook (Finland)."
Finland is tough to overlook. It's that pretty long thing near Sweden and Russia on the map.