Top 5 Olympic Memories for Canada

Critics may say the “Own the Podium” project has failed for Canada because we will finish third in total medal count. However, the goal of “Own the Podium” was to get the younger generation interested in amateur sports and our athletes have done that. After watching hundreds of hours of Olympic coverage over the past two weeks, here are my top five memories from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (hopefully the men’s hockey final can be added to this list):

5. Alexandre Bilodeau – First Gold Medal: This medal might have been expected but it was the first gold medal won by a Canadian athlete on home soil. This story is especially touching when you see the relationship he has with his brother Frederic who has cerebral palsy. The pressure was very high early in the games and Bilodeau came through, making all of Canada proud.

4. Charles Hamelin – Two Gold Medals In One Night: Hamelin’s performances might not have made as much noise because they happened during the Canada – Slovakia game but he was tremendous. First Hamelin won the gold in the 500 meters as the Korean skater fell in the last turn and then Hamelin and his teammates dominated the 5,000 meters relay. Short track speed skating is an exciting sport to watch and I’m sure a lot of young Canadians asked their parents if they could sign-up for this great sport after these performances.

3. Men’s Hockey – Canada Defeats Russia: Only in Canada would a quarterfinal win in hockey be near the top of a list like this but I had to include it. Our hockey team was sensational on this night and it was extra sweet because it was against Russia, the other favourites to win the tournament and our hockey rivals of 40 years.

2. Jasey-Jay Anderson – Wins First Olympic Medal In His Fourth Games: Jasey-Jay Anderson worked hard for the past 16 years and despite earning 59 podiums in the FIS World Cup, few Canadians knew him. He changed all that yesterday by winning his first Olympic medal and it was especially sweet because it was a gold and it was in Canada.

1. Joannie Rochette – Wins Bronze A Few Days After Her Mother Passes Away: In 10 years, there are two things that Canadians will remember from these games: whether or not the men’s hockey team won gold and Joannie Rochette’s bronze medal after her mother passed away. Joannie inspired a lot of Canadians and is a hero for a lot of little girls who one day dream to participate in the Olympics.

Canada – USA: The Rematch

The 2010 Vancouver Olympics have been a success so far for Canada with 13 gold medals but, years down the road, the only thing that people will remember is whether or not the men’s hockey team won gold. Eight years ago, Canada won the gold on U.S. soil in Salt Lake City, beating the Americans 5-2 in the final. A lot has changed since then as Martin Brodeur, Jarome Iginla, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger are the only four returning Canadian players while Chris Drury and Brian Rafalski are the only two returning Americans.

As I mentioned a few days ago, there’s no doubt that Canada has a more talented team than the USA but it’s one game and anything can happen. This is especially true after the semi-final games that these teams played on Friday when the Americans dominated Finland and Canada barely hung on against Slovakia.

The Americans are undefeated so far in this tournament winning each of their games by at least two goals while Canada lost to the USA and had a couple of close ones against the Swiss and the Slovaks. The Canadian team has had a very up and down tournament and was especially disappointing in the semi-final after such an impressive performance against the Russians. All the pressure is on the Canadian squad for this game as this game is expected to set a new record for the most-watched sports program in Canadian television history. You have to believe a Canada – USA final will be good for the NHL but a according to this article, the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City didn’t do much for the NHL but that’s a debate for another day.

Everything has been said about this game so there isn’t much analysis to do. The Canadians are much more talented, but Ryan Miller has been the best goalie in this tournament and could steal the game for the Americans once again. One thing is for sure, this will be a great game played between two excellent hockey teams and hopefully the NHL can benefit from this.

Has Halak increased his value or proven that he’s a #1 goaltender?

The debate has been going on for months now in Montreal and will continue at least until Wednesday’s NHL Trade Deadline. Two things are for sure: if the Canadiens want a chance at the cup they need to improve at the trade deadline, and they have two excellent goaltenders that could interest a number of teams.

Jaroslav Halak has been underrated since the beginning of his North American career in 2004-05. In his first season, Halak played in 47 games with the Lewiston MAINEiacs starting ahead of the 16-year old Jonathan Bernier. The 19-year old Slovak had a 0.913 save percentage in his first season and its interesting to note that his teammate, and 2006 first-round pick, Jonathan Bernier averaged a 0.908 save percentage over his four-year career in Lewiston. The following year, Halak started the season in the ECHL stopping 93.2% of the shots he faced and was then promoted to the AHL where he was nearly as effective with a 0.927 save percentage. In 69 career AHL games, Halak has a 0.930 save percentage and in 86 career NHL games he has a 0.916 save percentage. Sure he has not yet proven that he can play well over an extended period of time in the NHL but Halak has been dominant in every league he has played in since crossing the Atlantic six years ago.

Carey Price on the other hand has been highly scrutinized since his first few seasons in Tri-City and has lived up to expectations, until this year. Many are disappointed by Price’s play this year despite his above-average 0.910 save percentage. One thing everyone seems to forget however is that he is still only 22-years old and that goalies take longer to develop. Here are a few stats you might want to consider:
Marc-Andre Fleury: 0.902 save percentage in his first 117 games (21-22 years old)
Roberto Luongo: 0.915 save percentage in his first 129 games (20-22 years old)
Martin Brodeur: 0.908 save percentage in his first 91 games (19-21 years old)
Carey Price: 0.911 save percentage in his first 129 games (20-22 years old)

It’s true that Brodeur played in a different era but still, none of these goalies were among the league’s best early in their career and Price’s numbers are very good for a goalie that age. The expectations are way too high on Price and in my opinion there’s no doubt that one day, he will be an excellent #1 NHL goaltender.

This then brings up the obvious question, what should Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier do? Both have very good numbers so far in the NHL, are very young and will be restricted free agents at the end of the year. The one difference between the two is that, in my opinion, Price has a much higher value than Halak on the market. If the Canadiens have the same evaluation as I do of these two goalies, the right decision would be to trade Price; not because Halak is better but because both are excellent and one has a higher market value than the other. Halak’s performance in the Olympics should have increased his value, and only GMs know how much they value each of these players, but, I believe, the consensus is still that Price has a much higher value because of his younger age.

The Vancouver Sun has an interesting article on the sellers and buyer at the deadline and it seems like the Blackhawks could be one of the very few teams in the market for a goaltender. There’s no doubt that Gauthier will test the market and see what he could get for both of his keepers but a decision probably won’t be made until the summer as there are very few teams, if any, that could afford to make a strong offer for Halak or Price at this point.

Canada – Slovakia: What to expect?

A few days ago I said that Canada was by far the most talented team in the tournament and they showed it on Wednesday night by defeating Russia 7-3. Everyone talked about Russia’s high powered offense but they weren’t nearly as talented as Canada, and it showed. Russia’s top seven (Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Datsyuk, Semin, Markov and Gonchar) are all as good as Canada’s top players but the rest of the Russian team isn’t even comparable. There’s no one that compares to Canada in terms of talent but, as everyone knows, there’s one way to upset a better team in hockey: goaltending.

Jaroslav Halak has been very solid this season in the NHL and has continued his stellar play against the world’s best with a 0.923 save percentage in five games so far. Despite being young and relatively unknown, Halak has shown that he has the ability to win a game all by himself. Jonas Hiller almost did it early in the tournament, Ryan Miller had more offensive support but was still his team’s best player against Canada and now, Jaroslav Halak will get his chance. The difference between the last two games of the round robin tournament and tonight’s game for Canada is that they’ve had much more time to build chemistry and will make it much tougher on the Slovak defense and its 24-year old goalkeeper.

Canada can’t underestimate Slovakia’s ability to score some quick goals with the speedy Marian Gaborik as well as scoring leaders Marian Hossa and Pavol Demitra. Canada’s defense has been caught off guard a few times in this tournament and despite their lack of depth, Slovakia has a few players that have the speed to get a couple of breakaways and score quickly. I’m ashamed of myself for using such a cliché and saying that Canada will need to be disciplined but it’s especially true in this game. Slovakia has three or four excellent players who can be contained at even strength but if they get some time on the power play, one or two quick goals could put some pressure on the Canadian players.

Despite saying all that, I expect Canada to win this game relatively easily but you can be sure that Halak won’t let in four goals in the first period like Nabokov did. In my opinion, Canada will more than double Slovakia’s shots and come away with a 3 or 4 goals victory.

Shouldn’t Canada be winning easily?

Sunday’s loss to the United States was a shocker for most hockey fans and most are still trying to understand how it happens. Sure Miller played a great game and the Canadian players aren’t playing all that well together but when you compare the talent on both teams, it’s not even close. Here are the statistics in the NHL so far this year for both teams:

Canada Forwards 764 311 421 732
Canada Defense 418 61 218 279
USA Forwards 762 235 352 587
USA Defense 406 28 147 175

At forward that’s a difference of 0.2 points per game and about 0.25 on defense. The difference of 109 goals between both teams is bigger than the difference between the top offense in the NHL (Capitals) and the worst (Bruins) which is only 98 goals. Add to that the difference in defensive talent and these two teams aren’t even close.

Canada isn’t playing nearly as well as they should and it’s not a huge surprise because they didn’t in 1998, 2002 (even though they won gold) and 2006 either. Canada has won 10 of the last 18 IIHF U20 Championships and probably would have won a couple more if they didn’t have so many U20 players in the NHL. So why doesn’t this success transfer over to the Olympics? The easy answer is the lack of chemistry but it can’t be the only reason. Sure players in the U20 Championships have more time to practice and NHL players obviously practice a lot more together but then how come Heatley, Thornton and Marleau or Getzlaf and Perry aren’t producing more? The best explanation I could find for Canada’s struggles is that hockey is a sport where upsets happen much more than in other sports. A team might have 10-15 scoring chances in a game and only score 3 or 4 goals but it only takes one to score a goal. If Brodeur hadn’t tried some sort of two-pad stack for no reason and if Miller hadn’t made a miraculous glove save with a few minutes left I probably wouldn’t be writing about this.

Good or bad upsets happen in hockey much more than in football or basketball and we have to live with it. Over an 82-game season or a 7-game series the best team will usually come out on top but in one game, anything can happen. The good news for Canada is that it happened in a game that didn’t matter; they just have to hope it doesn’t happen again.