Posted by Dean Holden at March 16th, 2014
by Kevin Hartzell, 26 February 2014
The Olympic hockey venue in Sochi again brought out the best the world has to offer on ice. Like many hockey enthusiasts, I was glued to the TV to watch the drama play out. Following are a few of my thoughts.
For me, maybe the most entertaining game of all was the women’s gold medal game between the USA and Canada. There was great hockey being played from beginning to end. I love the way these two teams play the game. We have to give the Canadian team all the credit for their late comeback. I thought the U.S. was playing great defense through the neutral zone late in the game and really limiting the Canadian attack. But true to Canadian form, the couple of late chances they generated, they put the puck in the net. There is no better country at converting on their opportunities than Canada. I hated to see the referees injecting themselves into the game in the overtime period … oh well!
My wife, Marybeth, asked me during the game if I thought there would ever be a viable pro league for the gals. I don’t know. But the WNBA has a pretty good product and if the women’s game can continue to develop, I don’t know why they couldn’t develop a good pro league. Their gold medal game in Sochi was very entertaining.
The only problem with the women’s game is there are only two teams that can win the tournament. I watched a number of other women’s game including the bronze medal game between eventual bronze medal winner Switzerland and a very good opponent in Sweden. This game was also very entertaining and well-played. While I enjoyed the game, one could see that neither of these two teams would beat either Canada or the U.S. …at least not very often. The women’s game, at least on the world stage, needs some more competitive teams.
On the men’s side, the final four teams were no surprise at all. I thought Finland, Sweden, the U.S. and Canada were the four best teams. I will give a shout-out to the team from my current place of residence, Norway. For not winning a game, the Norwegian team represented itself pretty well. About half of its Olympic roster was out of the Get Ligaen here in Norway with the other half consisting of players playing outside of Norway. They played Russia very tough, as they did Finland (goalie had a tough outing in that game) and was tough against Canada as well. They were not an easy win. Good for them.
There is no question the teams in Sochi consisted of the best players in the world. As good as these players are, a good number of the games were a bit on the boring side. Part of that I believe is the product of the Olympic size ice sheet. I admit that I never bought into the Olympic-size ice craze that hit our colleges some years back. In my opinion, the big sheet of ice can promote boring hockey. It is hard to cut opponent’s working space down and create turnovers. When turnovers are limited, so are scoring chances. The big ice and not being able to cut down space and attack pucks leads to a different style of play.
Coaching here in Europe, I have learned a lot more about this big-ice “European” style of play. I know terming it “European” style is a generalization, but there are some trends that come with the big ice sheet. Many teams when not able to forecheck the puck aggressively, retreat … as in all five players are skating backwards in the neutral zone defending their blue line. This creates a high percentage of dump-and-chase attacks.
As I have come to better understand this strategy, I think there is one country better at it than all the rest and that is Finland. Their team and their individuals within the team are more committed to their system. This seems to hold true at all the various levels for Finland. When you add in their great goaltending, they are a real force on the world stage.
All that said, while many teams retreat, there are only a few who do it well. I have learned in my time over here that one of the best tactics in games like these is to attack the outside backward-skating forwards. These forwards might be in a strategic location, but I have found that many of these forwards are not very good at the task they’ve been assigned. I mean a backward-skating forward in the neutral zone … if he was any good at it, he would be called a defenseman!
To me there are two ways to attack this defense. One way is with quick counterattacks. Attack long, hard and fast before the defending team gets into their set. I thought the U.S. did a pretty good job of quicker counters and using their speed in the preliminary rounds. I thought Canada in particular did a poor job of this in the preliminary round games. They looked stagnant. I really thought that the best thing that happened to Canada was to play a familiar foe in the medal round. Playing the USA brought them back to a familiar game.
The second way to attack these systems of five players retreating is to identify and attack the outside forwards. Many of these forwards are no good at defending skating backwards. To do so, however, you need to attack with speed AND you have to have puck support.
Unfortunately for the U.S. team, they ran into a good and familiar foe in the semi-final who simply played the game better that particular night. Subsequently, the U.S. ran into an outstanding Finland team in the bronze medal game. I am sure the U.S. team is disappointed with the medal round results, especially after looking so sharp in the preliminary rounds.
Had the Olympics been played in a series format, in my opinion there would have been no better pick to win that format than Finland. They defend consistently outstanding and with great goaltending. So the loss by the U.S. to Finland in the bronze medal game was not some kind of a surprise. That said, if the U.S. played either Canada or Finland again, the results easily could reverse. Those who will try and make some kind of large conclusion from these two USA medal round results, I think are making a mistake. Put these final four teams in a tournament each week, and I think each team will have its moments. All four were very good teams capable of winning the gold medal.
With that said, Canada wins again. Canada again sends a great group of players who also know how to play as a team. Until someone unseats Canada on a consistent basis, Canada deserves to continue to be called the world’s finest hockey power.
Kevin Hartzell is the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen. A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s.