One for the ages
Dream final will come down to blueline playPosted: Saturday February 23, 2002 2:48 PM
Updated: Sunday February 24, 2002 12:20 AM
Hard to find a flaw in this scenario: After the hockey high already delivered by the fine play in these Olympics, the world gets to witness the game that will elicit the greatest emotional response, by players and fans alike.
The Americans wanted to play the Canadians, and the Canadians certainly wanted this matchup for gold. Team Canada’s desire is equal parts distant and recent history. Sure, they want to capture gold for the first time since 1952, but they also wanted the chance to atone for the 1996 World Cup loss in Montreal at the hands of the Americans. Oh, by the way, NHL officials and NBC executives aren’t disappointed either. And for good reason -- one game, winner take all, on the world stage. Do you believe in epics?
Team USA has shown a balanced attack throughout the games. Coach Herb Brooks has tweaked his combinations throughout, in part to capitalize on familiarity between certain players and partly due to the injury to Keith Tkachuk. The combinations have revolved around the three centermen of Mike Modano, Doug Weight and Jeremy Roenick, while employing four sets of wingers.
At times, Chris Drury moves to the middle to center a line with Adam Deadmarsh and Mike York on the wings, while at other times Drury plays the wing on a Roenick-centered trio. This flexibility has been central to the balanced scoring, as has the production from the wingers.
Coming into these games, this promised to be the best collection of forwards, and the group has not disappointed. Not surprisingly, Brooks has constructed the entire team scheme around this strength. Part of that strategy -- and a major reason for the overall success of Team USA -- centers on the defensemen quickly getting the puck on the sticks of the fleet forwards. Offensively, though, to win gold it might come down to a defenseman scoring a pivotal goal that makes the difference, as Phil Housley’s power-play goal did against the Russians.
Up front, the Canadians have made vast strides since opening with a 5-2 loss to Sweden. Unlike Team USA, Pat Quinn has opted for more static line combinations. The adjustment that has provided the most punch was moving Steve Yzerman to the wing on line with Paul Kariya and Mario Lemieux. The threesome has immerged as the top offensive unit for Canada. With a top line in place, the other combinations had time to get comfortable. Joe Sakic between youngsters Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagne has been a consistent threat, while the Brendan Shanahan-Joe Nieuwendyk-Theo Fleury line has filled the checking role, mostly due to their experience and Nieuwendyk’s proficiency in the face-off circle.
Wingers Ryan Smyth and Owen Nolan are strong forecheckers and have been centered by both Eric Lindros and Michael Peca. The situation has seemingly dictated who is in the middle, with Lindros between the pair in obvious offensive situations and Peca taking a turn when defense is the priority. Regardless, if Team Canada is to prevail, this line must produce offensively.
Team USA’s defense has performed better than expected, while Team Canada’s blueliners have not lived up to the advanced billing. The Canadians have gotten stronger, but the American attack will feature the fiercest forecheck they have faced.
Team USA also faces an opponent predisposed to up-ice pressure, but their fine play has been built on quick puck movement and repeatedly making the simple play. They have played with patience and poise -- only looking rattled in the final, frantic third period of their 3-2 semifinal victory over Russia. The anchors on the backline have been captain Chris Chelios and Gary Suter. That pair will likely log most of the ice-time against Lemieux’s line.
Canada has juggled their blueliners a little more than their forward units. Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis struggled early in the tournament resulting in a forced separation for a couple of games, but enjoyed a successful reunion in the semifinals. Rob Blake has formed a formidable physical tandem, paired with either Ed Jovanovski or Eric Brewer. The final pairing of Scott Niedermayer and Adam Foote blends agility with edginess. It is similar to what the Americans present when Brian Leetch is teamed with Aaron Miller. In the end, whichever blueline corps handles the forecheck and stays away from taking penalties in the process should secure gold.
Mike Richter gives Team USA confidence. They trust him. And why not? His best performances have come in his biggest games, including the ’96 triumph over Canada. His game-saving goal-line stand in the third period against Russia -- despite facing a mere 11 shots through two periods -- was as gutsy as it gets. It was the classic big-game example of meeting the challenge by delivering the necessary, timely saves and making the early work of his teammates stand up. Expect nothing less from Richter in this high-stakes showdown.
Canada, on the other hand, is in a slightly different place with its goaltending. Hockey’s best big-game performer is Canadian Patrick Roy, who not-so-subtly declined the opportunity to compete for the right to play in precisely this situation. Canada’s decision-makers may yet rue the day that they chose to exclude Roy from their initial roster. Not that Martin Brodeur isn’t a fine alternate. But, Brodeur has not been the same goaltender this season after failing to win either Game 6 or Game 7 last spring in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Brodeur has not been as consistent this season, allowing more soft goals than ever before. Even at these Olympics Games, stoppable shots have eluded him. That cannot happen if Canada is to ascend to the top of the podium. In a sense, Brodeur controls his destiny and Canada’s gold medal fate. If he delivers a meaningful performance, his place among the best ever is secure, and Canada can rest easy that he is in fact a worthy successor as Canada’s go-to ‘tender. Should he falter, however, he will forever live with the notion that he could not carry the mantle of Canadian goaltending. That would remain the title -- in absentia -- of his idol Roy, the man that bested him in those must-win Stanley Cup games in June.
Games of this magnitude come down to which team executes with the fewest errors, keeping their wits about them at all times. Both teams have enormous expectations upon them, so the issue of pressure is moot. The atmosphere will be electric, fueling both teams equally. Behind the bench, coach Brooks has a slight advantage over coach Quinn because he is more experienced in the winner-take-all format and consequently, he is quicker to institute in-game adjustments.
Team USA has been magnificent throughout -- with their collective focus being most impressive. They are not going to lose this game, meaning if Team Canada secures gold, they will have won it.
Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for CNN/Sports Illustrated and will provide Olympic hockey commentary throughout the Games for CNNSI.com.