Sunday, February 28, 2010

The End -- Winners and Losers

Gone - flitted away,
Taken the stars from the night and the sun
From the day!
Gone, and a cloud in my heart.

~Alfred Tennyson

Tennyson’s quote might apply to the end of a star-studded, excitement-enducing, memory-making two weeks in the annals of Olympic hockey. Or it might apply to the victory that Team USA appeared ready to snatch from the jaws of defeat in the gold medal game, only to have the gold medal that surely would be draped around their necks stolen in the blink of an eye by the one player it seemed that everyone outside of Canada did not want scoring the tournament-winning goal.

The gold medal game was everything a hockey fan could want, capping a second week of inspired – and disappointing in some respects – hockey of the sort that the stretch run of the NHL’s regular season will find hard to top. As in Week 1, there are winners and losers…

Winner: Sidney Crosby

90 percent of life is timing, and Crosby certainly has that. On the other hand, as the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” And Crosby is nothing if not prepared for what opportunities present themselves. Call that – getting the tournament winning goal – “lucky,” if you so choose. He had a quiet Olympics, if you can call 3-3-6 in six games quiet. But he was there in overtime of the gold medal game, doing what he was coached to do since he was knee-high to a gnat. He went to the net. He took a feed from Jarome Iginla and after getting inside position on USA defenseman Brian Rafalski (a sequence that took maybe two seconds) he snapped the puck behind Ryan Miller and sent 35 million Canadians into ecstasy. If Alex Ovechkin was the winner of the first week and added to his legend, Crosby was the winner in the tournament’s second week and added to his legend.

Which do you think counts for more?

Loser: Alex Ovechkin

The second week of the tournament was perhaps the worst week of his professional career on several levels. Week 1 ended in thunderous fashion – a crushing open ice check on Jaromir Jagr that directly led to a goal at the other end that propelled the Russians to a 4-2 win over Czech Republic. But it would be the last highlight moment for Ovechkin, whose Team Russia earned a bye into the playoff quarterfinals. There, the Russians met Canada, earlier in the tournament than anyone might have thought would happen. And there, just as his Capitals did last year against a Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins team, his Team Russia laid an egg on the Canada Hockey Place ice, falling behind early and going quietly in a 7-3 loss to the eventual goal medal winners.

It is colossally unfair to say that Crosby won and Ovechkin lost, at least if you adhere to the notion that hockey is a sport that depends so much on teamwork and depth. Truth be told, Canada had both, and the Russians had neither. The NHL and KHL players of Team Russia looked as if they were skating in different time zones, and the Russians were outed as a team that had real performance issues on the lower half of the forward lines, on defense, and in goal. Ovechkin, strong as he is, was not able to drag 17 other skaters and a goaltender into a more concerted effort. But life isn’t fair, and if Crosby – now a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal winner – is the winner of the second week and the tournament, then fate decrees that Ovechkin – now a part of two early exits in his last two tournaments – be the loser, made worse by what was characterized (fairly or not) as surly attitudes toward the media and a confrontation with a fan with a camera. That’s life.

Winner: Team USA

In an odd sort of way, Team USA wins the week for losing. Nothing could compare to the utterly shocking win of Team USA in the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, and if the Americans had won the day on Sunday, it would have been a source of pride for Americans, certainly. But it would always be seen as an inferior result to the Miracle boys. In losing as they did in such heartbreaking fashion to arguably the most talented assemblage of hockey talent in the history of the sport, the Americans fought back from a two-goal deficit, took the superior Canadians to overtime, and ultimately lost because the best player left in the tournament finally showed up.

The romanticism of losing gloriously aside, there is a practical side to this. The Americans were a very young team, at least by the standards of Olympic hockey that include NHL personnel. This is a team that can reasonably be reconstituted in large part in four years, and it will be a powerhouse. And if there is a winner-within-a-winner here, it is Brian Burke, who assembled a “team” rather than a mere collection of star players. He had a mission and a purpose in mind, and darn near pulled it off.

Loser: Team Russia

More for the management of the franchise than for the players themselves, although there were less-than-expected performances there, too. As the tournament wore on, it became apparent – and Team Canada laid bare – that the Russians were a fiction. Scrape away the patina of talent that players such as Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk bring to bear, and the Russians were a collection of players that might not have been the best the country had to offer. And on top of that one might add some truly head-scratching coaching on the part of Vyacheslav Bykov, and it was a case of poor management that doomed the Russians. It was like learning after the fact that design flaws incorporated into the building of the Titanic doomed it to sinking when it was finally struck by an iceberg.

Winner: Roberto Luongo

Replacing a legend on the biggest stage on the planet can’t be easy, especially when you are doing it in your home country in a city where you earn your living. That was the burden Roberto Luongo had to bear in replacing Martin Brodeur for Team Canada in Vancouver. But Luongo bore the burden well, not by being spectacular, but by being reliable. You could say that giving up a goal in the last half minute of the gold medal game was his stepping into the fitting room for goats horns, but he was solid in the overtime. In the end, he was the man playing the most important position on the ice in a winner-take-all game who thrust his arms skyward in victory. More than any player on the ice for Team Canada, including Sidney Crosby, Luongo was a winner.

Loser: Henrik Lundqvist

How bitter must it be, having not allowed a goal on 41 shots in Week 1, earning a bye into the playoff quarterfinals, allowing four goals on 14 shots and losing to a Slovakian team that Team Sweden should have beaten going away to go to the semifinals and a date with the Canadians. It was the game-changer, so to speak, of the tournament. And perhaps the most reliable single member of Team Sweden’s roster had one of the worst games of his career.

Winner: Team Slovakia

The Slovaks were the surprise of the tournament, beating the Russians, the Swedes, and throwing a mighty scare into the Canadians in coming back from 3-0 down to get within a goal before losing, 3-2. Pavol Demitra had a tournament to dream for: 3-7-10 in seven games. But there also were Marian Gaborik with four goals to lead Team Slovakia, Marian Hossa getting nine points for the tournament, and Richard Zednik and Michal Handzus getting six points apiece. Jaroslav Halak stood tall in goal, giving his teammates the confidence to play aggressively at the other end.

Loser: Team Slovakia

It was a last hurrah in all likelihood for several members of this team. Four years hence, the Slovaks are likely to have to replace Demitra, Handzus, Zednik, Miroslav Satan, and others. This could be the high-water mark for some time for the Slovaks.

Winner: Washington Capitals fans

If by “winner,” you mean being selfish as a Caps fan and getting all five Olympians home ahead of time (ok, Ovechkin stuck around) to get a head start on the resumption of the NHL season.

Loser: Hockey fans

Because it’s over. But in six weeks, we have the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Winner: Canada

We have to claim a bias here. We just like the relative simplicity and intimacy of the Winter Games much more than the Summer Games. And for the impressive technical achievement that was the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Games in China in 2008, we liked the folksy quirkiness of these Games so much more. The self-effacing barbs cast by the likes of William Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael J. Fox at all things Canadian give voice to the sort of decency and good humor that makes one think that “nice” is not a four-letter word. And Canada, even from a few thousand miles away, it looked like you put on one helluva party.


OK, there are none, despite what you might have read up to here. These are the best athletes on the face of the earth, whether they won a medal or not. And even if they perform feats than we can never dream to achieve, they do so in such a way that allow us to have those dreams.


this space for rent said...

Goody. Everyone has crowned King Cindy I. can we all go back to our lives now? Because of course hockey isn't a team sport and now we have to listen to Milbury trash Ovechkin and the Capitals until the end of time.

Feh. I consider Caps fans losers because everything we were hoping wouldn't happen did and we're now going to have to suffer four years of abuse for it. We may as well give up on the idea of getting any respect, because it ain't gonna happen. It's just not.

Dr Caps Fan said...

@this space for rent.

Well, if the Caps were to win the next 4 Stanley Cups, I doubt we would have to suffer 4 years of abuse.

Maybe it's a blessing in disguise. Maybe the Caps are a bit more rested. Maybe Ovi, Greenie, Backs and company play with that much more fire. Maybe they have something to prove. Maybe they are tired of playing second fiddle to Cindy and the Penguins..

6 more weeks in the regular season, Caps.... Do it!! said...

There is so much to say about the gold medal men’s ice hockey game at the 2010 Winter Olympics. First, as an American, I am disappointed with the outcome. However, I was impressed that the USA was able to force overtime. The game-tying goal was exciting to see, and I honestly didn’t expect the USA to score it. Luongo played very well in goal for Canada, but I am shocked Miller got the Olympic MVP Award. Giving the award to a player who lost the gold medal game is unusual, but he did keep the USA in the game and had a stellar tournament overall.

I hope NHL players participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, hasn’t said whether the league will shut down for the Olympics in 2014, but I hope it does. It was really great to see players representing their countries. The most interesting part about this tournament to me was that it pitted NHL teammates against each other in some games.

Congratulations to Canada and I am at least glad the men did not celebrate in the same fashion that the Canadian women did when they won the gold medal. I am also happy that this game did not go to a shootout. That would have been an awful way to decide this game and the gold medal winner.

Jimmy Jazz said...

Loves me some Tennyson, Peerless. Awesome.

this space for rent said...

@dr caps fan: We can only hope that's the case, because I sure as hell am and I don't have a lot of faith that much is going to change.