Hockey Update

Yesterday was a special day for hockey fans. Never before in the sport’s history had so much talent played on the same day on the same rink. Over twelve hours, the six best hockey teams in the world played three games—Czech Republic vs. Russia, USA vs. Canada, Finland vs. Sweden—each one an arch-rivalry as well as a rematch of the last three gold-medal games.

Russia (4) — Czech Republic (2)

Stereotypes abound in the hockey world. One is that Russians (and Europeans) are supremely talented but dispassionate. Hands soft as clouds, they lack the will to go into the corners and get dirty. Everybody knows Russians (and Europeans) can’t handle the rough, straight-line hockey played in North America because they grew up on international-sized ice rinks—15 feet wider than those used in North America and, for the first time, in these Olympic Games. Stereotype says that Russians (and Europeans) prefer a slower, headier, more creative kind of east-west hockey where passing and puck possession are more important than physical play.

For two and a half sloppy periods, this game went stereotypically. The Czechs tried to throttle the Russians, the most offensively talented team in the tournament, by taking away time and space in the defensive half of the rink. Russians, so the stereotype goes, don’t want to dump and chase. They want to cherry pick, dangle; each and every one of them, inarticulate and missing teeth, turns into an artiste when he gets the puck. So the Czechs sacrificed offense for defensive responsibility, and the Russians obliged them, sticking stubbornly to an ineffective finesse game. After two ugly periods and three garbage goals, the Russians had a slim 2-1 lead.

Even at 38, Jaromir Jagr is still the Czechs’ best forward, truly world class. For twenty years he’s been European hockey’s avatar: the vision of a watchmaker, speed that’s slow yet dreadful, like watching a shark swim from above water. Two years ago he left the NHL for a fatter paycheck in Russia, helping to solidify the stereotype that a Euro is a merc unto the grave. A minute and a half into the third period, Jagr skated the puck out of his defensive zone to lead the Czechs’ rush up ice. He’s a big man these days, Jagr, 6’2 and 229 pounds, with most of it in his pig-iron thighs. He brought the puck up the right wing looking for the equalizer.

On the ice against him was Alexander Ovechkin’s line. Ovechkin is best the forward in the NHL and, probably, the world. Canadians and Americans adore him because he plays nothing like the stereotypical Russian (or European). He flies up and down the ice, chooses force over guile nine times out of ten, and scores goals as often as he demolishes opponents. He’s a hyena, razor-backed, bowed by his huge shoulders, tongue lolling out of his mouth, loping on legs that look too-short, cackling.

On this rush, Jagr used his size defensively, cutting back hard against Alex Semin’s weak stick check, olé, Semin tumbling to the ice. Taking his time Jagr skated back toward his own goal and then set his legs wide, his balance bovine, and began to glide up center ice. He expected another stickcheck, a typically Russian (and European) attempt at defense which minimizes body contact and maximizes the chance for a breakaway the other way. Jagr approached Ovechkin and deked—and would’ve breezed past a stickcheck, had Ovechkin not removed his left hand from the top of his stick, the better to lower that shoulder, and driven Jagr head-first to the ice like he was hinged. The Russians collected the loose puck and scored a real masterpiece of a game-winning goal on the ensuing odd-man rush.

Russia remain the tournament favorites.

USA (5) — Canada (3)

Team Canada started Martin Brodeur, by the numbers the greatest goaltender hockey’s ever known. Brodeur has three Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal (2002), the most wins (655), the most shutouts (118), and, best of all, the most game-winning goals scored by a goalie (1). Yet he stopped only 18 of the 22 American shots, while Ryan Miller was 42 of 45 at the other end.

Martin Brodeur is a kinesthetic genius who plays what’s known as a hybrid style—he relies on quickness, agility, and reflex to keep the puck out of the net. He’s one of a dying breed. Ryan Miller, like most goalies in the NHL and the Olympics, adheres to a goaltending system called “butterfly style.” (Technically, Miller plays a progression of the butterfly called the “profly,” where the emphasis is on landing on the inside of your knees and keeping your leg pads perpendicular to the ice in a most contra-biological way. Some think it’s going to lead to a lot of hip/groin problems for goalies in the future.) The butterfly’s called the butterfly because of the way the practitioner looks when he stops the puck: he drops to his knees, making a wedge with his lower body, his knees touching, and holds his glove (usually the left hand) and his blocker (usually the right) shoulder-high. Altogether, he looks like he’s caught in a lepidopterist’s frame. (For what it’s worth, Russia’s goaltender is named Nabokov, but he unfortunately does not play strict butterfly style.)

Butterfly goaltending has supplanted all other styles because it’s a system and it’s safe. The goalie plays the percentages. Facing shots, he covers the bottom of the net with his legs and forces the shooter to lift the puck and beat him high, which is significantly more difficult to do than beat him low. Against Canada, Ryan Miller was textbook butterfly. He played it safe, positioned himself to stop everything but the lucky and the exceptional, and he did. He was, as always, an unadverturous passer and a mediocre stickman.

Brodeur, on the other hand, can be faulted for each of the goals against him. He’s terrific at handling the puck—international play doesn’t have the NHL’s “Marty Brodeur rule” that limits where a goalie can stickhandle—but free of his shackles he tried to do too much, making three stickhandling gaffes, two of which led directly to goals.

The game-winning goal came on a long-range slapshot on which Brodeur dropped to only one knee—sacrilege to the butterfliers—and—cardinal amongst their sins—failed to adequately protect the area between his legs, the five-hole, with his stick. The puck skittered off his blade into the net.

Brodeur played well, but he didn’t stop a few pucks he should have. He was human. The way Brodeur plays, he can stop any shot. But if he’s off his game, even a little, he can be a sieve. This tournament is too short and too important to Canada to allow for temperamental genius. There’s a very good chance that Roberto Luongo, the butterfly’s monstrous, cybernetic archetype, will play in Canada’s next match, an elimination game against Germany. He’s doesn’t try to handle the puck, and his five-hole is virginal. Martin Brodeur may never start for Canada again.

Sweden (3) — Finland (0)

Pulpy ice, anxious refs, and Sweden dominated this game. Finland couldn’t forecheck, couldn’t trap, couldn’t score on the powerplay. They looked sluggish and old.

There are just 5 million people in Finland. That they have assembled such competitive teams in the past two decades—two silver medals and two bronze in the intervening Olympics—is practically a miracle, and miracles end. On this Finnish team are two sets of brothers, the Koivus and the Ruutus, and a son, Ville Peltonen, who’s represented Finland as many times—four—as his dad Esa.

Finns are famously durable hockey players. Their game is persistence, grit, and agitation. They’re the second-shortest team in the tournament, but they have its all-time leading scorer, Teemu Selanne. In his fourth and final Olympics he’s playing for the first time with his jaw wired shut.

The Finns don’t have much coming down their junior pipeline, and with nations like Switzerland ascendant, they’ll likely drop in the world ranking after these Games. But they’re still the fourth seed, and there’s a lot of hockey left to play. More so than any other nation, theirs is a team. To underestimate them is foolish, and exactly what they want.

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