Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Price is Right or Toewed by the Bell

In a game where everything seemed decided by the start of the third period, Canada gutted out a 7th round shootout victory over the United States to advance to the U-20 World Jr. Championship gold medal game.

The Americans, counted out by many (including myself) early in the tournament, looked like a completely different team than the one the Canadians faced last week. With a forecheck and puck possession game that seemed to befuddle team Canada, the Americans lead at the halfway mark with a goal by Oilers prospect and team USA captain Taylor Chorney. The goal was a PP that banked in off of Marc Stall's skate, who looked to the sky in frustration after surrendering the first go-behind goal against Canada. While the American PP dealt a crucial blow to the Canadians, the Canadian PP looked anemic at best.

Halfway through the game my idea was to give my 'therealdeal' of the night award to the American PK unit, who dominated the Canadians by blocking virtually every Canadian shot and forcing the Canadians into bad plays. Kris Russel, the player who Pierre Maguire has been lauding for having the ability to get shots to the net, looked absolutely lost and had his worst game of the tournament by far.

During the 2nd intermission, things looked bleak for Canada. Bob Mackenzie talked about how this was a test for Canada, and how this was the first time they faced adversity in this tournament. I couldn't have agreed more with Bob, although my particular conclusion was that Canada was done. They looked terrible, they looked defused, they looked broken. The two bright spots were Carey Price, making what was essentially a perfect effort and keeping Canada in a game they shouldn't have been, and Marc Stall dominating defensively, using his body to make some big hits and using his long reach to defuse several potential scoring opportunities for the Americans.

But from the first faceoff in the third, the Canadians looked like a different hockey team. Players like Kristopher Letang began to win battles along the offensive zone blueline. Eventually the Americans were forced into taking another penalty, then another, leading to a Canadian 5-3 advantage. While the Americans killed off the first penalty, they were not so lucky the second time around, with an otherwise lacklustre Luc Bourdon nailing a one timed shot top corner. While the Americans complained 16 year old Sam Gagne (who was the penalized player the Americans scored their PP marker) was in the crease, the replay clearly showed it was a clean goal.

In overtime, the Americans once again used their speed and puck control to dominate the play. Eventually Kris Letang made a mental mistake and he lazily one handidly high sticked Jack Johnson who was in on the forecheck. The Canadians caught a very lucky break in that the referee only called a 2 minute minor on a high stick that undoubtedly drew blood.

Enter the Carey Price show once again. Up 4 men to 3 because of the 4-4 overtime format, the Americans patiently waited for their chances on the PP. Eric Johnson masterfully quarter backed the PP, even as the boos reigned down upon him from the Canadian fans, still bitter after Johnson's last minute cheap shot on Downie in last years matchup. But every time the Americans got a chance, Price shut them down, and as the last seconds of the 2 minute straight without a whistle PP for the Americans died down, Ryan Parent, after heroically playing the full PK got off the ice, and the Canadians again bent but did not break. With nothing solved in the OT period, even with the Americans outshooting Canada 12-2, the game headed to the dreaded but dramatic shootout.

This is where I witnessed what I believe to be possibly the single greatest individual effort in all of sports history. While Canada won the cointoss and elected to shoot first, initial shooters for both teams (Downie for Canada, Patrick Kane for USA) were shut down, the second scorers for both teams potted a goal (Bryan Little for Canada, and Peter Muller for the Americans). That is where Jonathan Toews stepped in. After scoring a penalty shot goal against the Americans in the round robin matchup of this year, I felt it was unlikely Toews would be successful again. Just look at shootout percentages for NHL shooters in SOs and penalty shots. 50% is an impressive number in the SO. But Canada needed this goal, now.

But score Toews did, nailing a perfect shot low blocker on American goalie Jeffrey Frazee, who played an outstanding game himself. Jack Johnson replied for the Americans a shot later.

After 3 shooters each, the SO moved to 1 round sudden death, in which you could use any shooter you wanted from the previous rounds. Bryan Little, on his second shot, missed, and the Americans had a chance to put the game away. But once again, Carey Price stepped in, stopping Kane on the shootout. Canada went back to Toews for the next shot? What was it I said earlier about successive shots? But again, Toews confidently fired the puck into the top right corner of the net, hitting post and in on what could only be described as a perfect shot. Jack Johnson once again replied for the Americans, an impressive feat by itself. Cogliano shot next for Canada, slamming one in low glove side, and once again, the Americans replied with a goal, fending off elimination.

Finally, Toews stepped up one more time. As he went in it looked like American goaltender Fracee had Toews beat. Toews however had other plans, and he fired it past Frazee for what is essentially a 4th straight one-one goalie battle, (one penalty shot, 3 shootout shots). Peter Muller shot for the Americans, but Price once again stood tall, shutting down Muller's attempted 5 hole shot.

And thats the way the game was. Canada faces the winner of the second semi-final today in the final on Friday.

therealdeal of the night: Obviously Carey Price and Jonathan Toews played a huge role in this game, but for my money, the best non goalie of the match had to be Marc Stall. While the rest of this vaunted defensive group looked tentative, unprepared, overmatched, slow, Marc Stall lead the way, dominating everytime he came near the puck. He was Canada's best player over 70 minutes of play, getting in the way of American players, eliminating opposition offensive efforts down low, making fantastic breakout passes (which were sorely lacking today), getting his long reach and big stick involved in the play, and just generally staying calm amidst what was at one point a sea of panic.

edit: and for those readers wondering why I spelled it 'Muller' instead of 'Mueller,' well I originally had it 'Mueller' but the official game summary provided by Hockey Canada had it spelled 'Muller.' Officially, I'm almost positive it's spelled 'Mueller.'


Finny said...

you make world juniors sound so damn exciting, I'm a little P.O.'d that it gets NO COVERAGE here. "here" behing California, though I doubt it gets more than a sputter of mention anywhere else in the States.

*sigh* It's at tiems like that I really hate living here and start seriously eying the Canadian immigration website...

Kyle said...

Its really too bad that Americans don't get a chance to watch this tourny, as, in my opinion, its the 'can't miss' every year. But its something Bob Mackenzie alluded to today - the American public generally doesn't get excited about things America doesn't succeed at (and who could blame them). The Americans have only won 3 medals in the history of this tournament.

If they start succeeding or competing consistently year in and year out, I would expect coverage to increase. Until then, you can watch it on TSN broadband, Team USA faces off against Team Sweden for the Bronze medal at 7am pt on Friday. It should be a competitive affair, as Team USA coach Rolston said today, bringing home a medal is still an important acheivement for USA Hockey, and the game is being played in front of the hometown for the Swedes.

That could be a tad early in the morn for the uninitiated though...

hockeygirl said...

Dude... nice post. My vacation and lack of RSS feed is throwing me for a loop. I'm sorry I missed this earlier.