Olympic Hockey 2014: Biggest Takeaways from Day 5 of Men's Tournament
The final day of preliminary play is in the books for the men's ice hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and intriguing storylines continue to emerge.
Following a day four that saw T.J. Oshie become a national sensation instantaneously and Slovenia come up with a massive upset over Slovakia, the fifth day of competition was mildly less entertaining, if only by proximity.
With coaches having one final game to tune up their teams before the qualification/medal rounds, line juggling and goalie changes took center stage. Canada continue to dig for the right combination for Sidney Crosby, while the United States made a change in goal.
All told, we have plenty to consider as we move toward the "money" part of the tournament, which begins on February 18.
The Gap Is Closing
It's unclear at this juncture whether or not NHL players will go to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Games. If Gary Bettman makes the wise choice and decides to send his player to those Olympics, 2014 will be remembered as the last time there were only four or five teams capable of winning a medal.
From the 2010 games in Vancouver to 2014, Switzerland went from rostering two NHL players to eight. On the back of timely goal scoring and strong goaltending, the Swiss have not only been able to hang in Group C, but are sneaking into medal conversations as well.
Few pundits saw that coming prior to these games.
The Swiss have always been the feisty underdog, but they're close to being not so fun to cheer for in the near future.
While Slovenia aren't on the same track as Switzerland, it's impossible not to be impressed by their showing in these games. They downed Slovakia in what will likely be the biggest upset of the tournament and were competent in a tough Group A.
Norway also had a strong showing, and provided tougher competition than expected. All of this bodes well for the NHL as the game continues to grow and put down roots everywhere.
Patrick Kane Needs to Simplify
Patrick Kane is one of the most spectacular puck-handlers in the world. When he has the puck on his stick he's able to make just about anything happen at will. The United States brought Kane along to be one of their offensive leaders, but so far he's been all but silent.
He's made a few slick passes, but all too often he seems to be skating the puck into two or three defenders instead of dishing to one of his teammates.
That's not a good trend for the United States, who have been getting a different hero every day, it seems. From Phil Kessel's hat trick today to Oshie's shootout yesterday, different players have been stepping up. For the Americans to contend for gold though, they need more intelligent plays from Kane.
Russia Is Shell Shocked
Russia put on quite the show against Slovenia in their first game of preliminary play, but the 5-2 final was somewhat misleading. After jumping out to an early lead in that contest, the Russians went to sleep and allowed Slovenia to make the game more interesting than it should have been.
Russia were much more competitive against the United States, but still couldn't come up with the big pushes when they needed them most. For a home team that features the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, blowing leads and failing to capitalize on numerous power-play chances is tough to overlook.
Instead of shaking off the loss to the Americans, members of the Russian team made a stink in the press. According to a Tweet by Dmitry Chesnokov of Puck Daddy from Sochi (h/t LA Kings Insider), Slava Voynov called out his Los Angeles Kings teammate Jonathan Quick, more or less accusing the netminder of cheating by knocking the net off the moorings on purpose.
Voynov went as far as to say that he'd seen Quick attempt to do the same thing in the NHL. It's worth noting that the goalie has never been called for a delay of game in more than 300 contests played.
This doesn't exactly scream focus and unified purpose for the Russians.
The loss to the United States clearly had a negative effect on Russia, who came out looking disinterested against Slovakia. They only managed five shots on goal in the opening period and were just barely interested enough in the game to squeeze out a shootout victory.
Phil Kessel Is Having a Special Olympics
Don't expect Phil Kessel to get too much credit, but so far he's arguably been the best player for the United States. Zach Parise has been all but invisible and Kane has been out of his groove. The Toronto Maple Leafs sniper has been spot on through three games though.
He scored a hat trick today as the United States took down Slovenia—the first hat trick for a U.S. national team player since John LeClair back in 2002—and has seven points in just three games.
The line of Joe Pavelski, James van Riemsdyk and Kessel has been deadly for the U.S. and will continue to play a major role in any success that the team will have in the medal rounds.
Sidney Crosby's Line Struggling Regardless of Wings
Chris Kunitz stuck on Canada's top line for all of two contests, but was removed prior to today's game against Finland. Martin St. Louis was also scratched, giving Sidney Crosby a new set of wingers in Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn.
The line seemed every bit as disjointed as Mike Babcock's original top line, and one of the most rapidly developing storylines of the Winter Games is Crosby and his linemates. Are other squads just focusing all of their attention on shutting the captain down?
We've seen this before from No. 87. It's hard to remember now, but he wasn't all that great in 2010 until he scored the gold medal goal and erased all lingering memories of struggle. Canada can't be counting on him to play the hero all the time, but a goal from Crosby would certainly be nice.
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