Still Here!

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

TFL has taken a while to recover from the Olympic situation.  The Twitter account (@firstlinehockey) has still been active.  I’ll start posting again soon with the off-season slate of college profiles and previews, and hopefully some interviews. 

American Fans: Something To Remember

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Good luck to the Canadians, who must live with both the joy and the incredible burden of their sport being so much more than a sport. 

Whatever happens tomorrow, we Americans are free from having our identities depend upon this game.  We care deeply about it, but it will not affect how we feel about ourselves as citizens or as a country.   That is very liberating. 

Given that we care deeply, it may be difficult to embrace the effort but not be overly concerned with the fruits of the effort.  Especially if the Canadians win and they stage a repeat of their somewhat unfortunate celebration in Vancouver (PLEASE DON’T DO THAT).  Cigars are gross. But no matter the outcome the players should be able to hold their heads high. They have worked incredibly hard. They have nothing to prove. They’re just here to play hockey. 

The Game Doesn’t Stop After A Bad Call

February 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Before we launch into that, let us pause for a moment to contemplate exactly how bad that call was.  It was probably top three in the worst call pantheon I have personally witnessed.  What makes it particularly egregious is that the referee knows she blew the whistle.  It was her own action, not a player’s.  It makes absolutely no difference that she blew it in error.  Unless you are that jerk who always finishes his lay-up after the whistle sounds, you stop what you’re doing when you hear that.  Even the jerk who finishes the lay-up does it in a haphazard way usually.  So Jessie Vetter didn’t think she had to know where that puck was.  The fact that they reviewed the play so they could then hear themselves blow the whistle, which was clearly audible on my broadcast and also apparently from the U.S. bench, is just the icing on the cake.  The terrible, terrible cake.  That is not even touching on the inconsistent enforcement of the checking penalties, and the instances they missed of too many players on the ice (you see how easy, Doc?)

But.  The U.S.’ job once they had absorbed that hit was to try harder, not to appear to be so discombobbled they handed the Canadians the game.  That giveaway at the blue line was inexcusable.  If they had played the whole rest of the period the way they did the last two minutes, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.  I singled out the Coyne line for defensive concern for a reason.  Decker took two huge penalties; Coyne let Wickenheiser’s assist go right past her; and unfortunately they tend to get paired with Marvin/Stecklein, who are porous.  But all of that would have been escapable if the U.S. hadn’t been so shell-shocked by their bad luck.

Now honestly most aspects of this game should give the U.S. little cause for concern.  In the first two periods the shot selection (I’m going to start trademarking that, given how often I mention it) was somewhat weak but honestly given Labonte’s surprising start throwing the puck at the net and seeing what happened was a decent idea.  Knight was getting great chances as were the Lamoureuxs.  Although I have never been more frustrated than when Jocelyne didn’t take that odd-player rush during a change right toward the goal.  Vetter stopped some tough shots.  The penalty kill was looking quite solid.  Then the wheels came off.

The Canadians have to be thrilled with how Labonte performed (although the scene in the final moments might give them pause if they were to be reflective about it).  They also were due some production from Spooner and they got it.  But they should be concerned about Poulin’s not really being a factor on the offensive side, and they really must start moving the defense forward.  Their offense continues to have long periods of stagnation and taking advantage of poor officiating is a lousy way to win.

I have assumed that Finland will come through to be the team the U.S. sees in the semis.  It was a bit shocking it took them overtime to beat the Swiss.  If Canada is to face any of the other teams, it will destroy them.  They are not going to go through a Swedish scare twice.  However if Canada faces Finland again, it will be interesting to see what adjustments Dineen makes.  I have an unfortunate suspicion he will make none.  I hope I’m wrong.  If the U.S. faces Finland they need to guard against complacence.  Luck played a huge role in their early lead too.  Being on the other end of a bad bounce could put them in Finland’s position quickly.  To be gold medalists, this group needs to be able to replace their lost wheels quickly, rotate them if necessary, and get back on the path.  This may come as a surprise but I am more comfortable with Katey Stone at the helm than I was with Mark Johnson a few years ago.  If she can get the players to follow her instructions (for instance taking advantage of the lively boards is brilliant), they should come through this.

Then we can start worrying about the rematch.

Who Wins Tomorrow?

February 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

The fact that the U.S. has looked the stronger team coming in means nothing in this rivalry.  As I’ve noted many times, at this point the match-up is 95% psychological and the teams are looking for that 5% separation any place they can find it.

Pierre got one thing right (if you managed to wade through his attempts to compare every female player with an NHL player, because obviously one can only understand women in reference to men): this is a speed and precision U.S. squad versus a “sledgehammer” of a Canadian team.  The Canadians will knock you into the boards until they’ve worn you down, and if they get frustrated enough they’ll also just punch you in the face.  They have the skill players; they just don’t always utilize them in that role.  Normally I reject the false dichotomy between skill and physicality, but a concern for the U.S. is at least one of their lines is too pretty.  The Decker/Kessel/Coyne combo is not as adept on the defensive end (and it is paired with slightly weaker defenders) and its success still hinges too much on individual one-on-one virtuosity.  They’ve only played together for a month because of Kessel’s injury and are still gelling, which is crucial for players who rely on finesse.  This line has been productive in the past and could still be, based on its pure talent level, but if the players are getting their butts knocked around the rink they won’t get to show it.  The Knight and Duggan lines will be fine and can contribute significantly if they don’t let themselves be caught up in silly battles.  I’m looking at you, Jocelyne Lamoureux.

The Canadians must draw a significant number of penalties if they are to succeed.  They may still be getting used to the new type of power play Dineen has instituted (yet another reason you don’t want to change coaches this close to the Olympics), but it’s their best chance of using their offensive players to full advantage.  The Poulin-Johnston line remains the key to their even strength scoring; it would be nice if other lines stepped up here.  Spooner should eventually be rewarded for her dynamism, likewise Daoust (but she must leave her gloves on). The Agosta-Marciano line’s ability hinges too much on which Wickenheiser shows up to the game.  Although the Canadians don’t want to leave themselves vulnerable to odd-player rushes against a team with the pure speed of the Americans, they are also a better club when their defenders become involved in the offense.   Larocque in particular is a plus match-up on both sides of the puck and they need Fortino and Rougeau on offense as well.  All indications are that Szabados will start in goal.  She had a tendency in the Finland game to look down a second after the puck had hit her, and one long clearance almost snuck by, but she is still the best option they have.  The U.S. has the edge there, as they have all year.

A low-scoring game favors the U.S., since as we saw with Finland the Canadians don’t like to be kept off the score sheet and can get chippy.  A high-scoring game also favors the U.S. since they have open ice superiority.  So on paper the U.S. wins here.  But we’ve seen a better U.S. team lose before.  A mental error early in the game or a late penalty could significantly turn the momentum, which is everything in this evenly-matched series.

Waking up at 4:30 a.m. never looked so good.

Puck Drop In Sochi: Secret Weapons

February 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Here are some lesser-known pieces of the puzzle for Canada and the U.S., and a few stars who could be crucial to the other national squads.

Defense is the forgotten part of the U.S.’s game, largely because of its intermittently powerful offense and strong goaltending.  Anne Schleper is the defensive stalwart who doesn’t turn the puck over, is very tough one-on-one, makes good decisions at the blue line, and is not particularly interested in joining the offense.  That’s a plus in that the U.S. needs its best defenders to stay close to home when facing even a semi-stagnant Canadian offense, especially with Bozek so frequently playing the offensive point.

Canada’s new coach appears to still be fiddling with its lines, apparently in the hope that this can take the pressure off its goaltending woes.  The team been quite successful in the past playing Haley Irwin and Rebecca Johnston together, and they need contributions from both these players to win.  In its last tune-up, Johnston was playing with Poulin, and that seemed to be an explosive pairing.  But Canada would be wise to remember that its best scoring chances may come against the U.S.’ third defensive group, and Irwin could be a real threat there.  It should also be a concern that Brianne Jenner’s name does not show up in those recent box scores.

Stefanie Marty scored 11 points in five games at the 2010 Olympics for Switzerland and was among the tournament leaders in point shares.  With Florence Schelling in goal the Swiss could be excused for thinking they don’t have to score much, but they have really struggled in international competition of late, going winless at the 2013 Worlds.

As I’ve noted before, Mira Jalusuo’s contributions to Minnesota’s national championship squads have been somewhat overlooked.  Finland’s shutdown defense will be what keeps it in contention, and Jalusuo has to contribute both to keeping the puck away from Noora Raty at least some of the time (because even the best goalie in the world can’t stop everything), and by creating chances on the offensive end.  Finland’s finish (ARGH, sending myself to the corner) at the Four Nations overshadowed its shocking upset by the Russians at Worlds this year.  The team managed to score only one goal. Obviously they improved a lot between tournaments, but which team will appear in Sochi?

Sweden was also notably defensively successful in the Four Nations Cup, and they needed to be because they didn’t score for beans.  Goaltender Valentina Wallner almost upset Canada with a 41-save, .911 save percentage performance that also saw her team score three goals.   The power play needs to improve significantly if Sweden is going to be a factor.

Russia has a minor boom and bust cycle with its team.  It is a disgrace that a country with such a distinguished history in men’s hockey, and an alleged commitment to gender equality (which was sometimes nominal in the USSR but seems to have gone out the window completely now), pays so little attention to developing its women’s team.  But given the stakes as Olympic hosts, Russia has been focusing more on its program in order that the team not be embarrassed on the international stage.  There was much press given to GM Alexei Yashin’s bold moves.  As the surprise Bronze medallist at 2013 Worlds, Russia led the tournament in penalty killing, was efficient in shooting accuracy, and among the leaders in save percentage.  Inexplicably, their most stingy goalie, Nadezhda Alexandrova, is not with the current team.  Their two top scorers, such as they were, the Yektarinas Smolina and Lebedeva, also return.

The German squad returns all but one of its players from a decent campaign at 2013 Worlds.  Franziska Busch is their minor offensive weapon, with four goals in five games.  Jennifer Harss put up excellent numbers, including a .947 save percentage.  But with literally one person on the team producing a positive +/-, Germany will not be breaking into the Big Two territory any time soon.

Japan qualified out of Group A, the lesser tier of international play, beating out traditional hockey nations like Denmark (to which it had a close overtime loss), Norway, and Slovakia.  Hanae Kubo tied for the tournament lead in scoring with 7 points and a +5.  The team scored in bunches (including several five-goal performances) and ended up potting ten more goals than it allowed.  However it is in the Olympics to round out the field, so hopefully its players don’t get too demoralized.  In the past Japan has handled its place in world competition with great dignity.

The Olympic hockey tournament kicks off on February 8th, with a very important Finland/U.S. tilt, plus Canada versus Switzerland.

Yes, Finland Has Some Excellent Players

January 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

A discussion has led me to the understanding that I need to be more precise with my wording from the end of the last post.  Finland has a lot of very strong position players (although if you look at the rosters posted where I just did they are all Swedes, since the names got switched).  A more accurate way to express what I was trying to say is: I am concerned about what will happen if they don’t show the same level of dynamism/commitment/general high level of play they produced at the Four Nations, especially given that a not-insignificant percentage of that play was produced by someone fairly old by international hockey standards.  But they also have Karvinen, who has carried North Dakota this year.  They have Jalusuo, who was an underrated part of Minnesota’s national championship teams.  They have Hiirikoski, who friend of the blog wwhyte has identified as a player to watch going forward.  That’s just a start.  Of course the key to this team is Raty, who can be the best goaltender in any tournament if she plays to her top form.  Finland beat the United States.  They played quite competitively against Canada.  I would like to see that same team show up in Sochi.

Sochi, Here We Come

December 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

Comparing the top two teams in women’s hockey seems almost useless if sweeping pronouncements and firm predictions are the goals.  The attempt to find an edge, however slight, has dominated the rivalry and it results in small swings of momentum but no true separation.  Women’s Hockey Stats shows the U.S. leading by a wide margin in point shares, but that is based on 2012-2013 statistics and my sense is that this has been a much different year.  Certainly there was a string of Canadian victories to begin the season.  That has now been followed by a U.S. winning streak.  It’s despair for the analyst but great fun for the fan.

What Canada needs: faster starts, goaltending clarity, a youth movement.  It can only get one of those in advance of the tournament.  I think Hockey Canada will point to the fact that the last two games of the pre-Olympic tour were significantly closer to justify their precipitous action on the Dan Church front (I hadn’t realized Church left on the morning of the Dec. 12th game rather than afterward; that is a stunning lack of professionalism on somebody’s part).  Yet this is still a team that lacks a complete identity.  Is it a gritty, physical group of grinders in the Wickenheiser mode?  It is transitioning to Poulin-style speed?  Canada has lost effectiveness and confidence in goal.  The shootout in St. Paul was a foregone conclusion, and the selection of shooters sure didn’t help.  The team has no clear number one given Szabados’ recent struggles, but should stick with her international experience and positive track record in the absence of a strong alternative. Canada also needs to find a way to score when not on special teams.  There seems to be an inordinate amount of trust placed in certain older players that is not current-performance-justified (see the absence of Daoust from the first three in the shootout).  However, the team has managed to play its way out of deficits and if the young forwards continue to take advantage of the lack of U.S. focus, Canada can repeat its trip to the top of the podium.  Although please let the players not repeat their poorly-chosen celebratory tactics; cigars are disgusting.

What the U.S. needs: to play all three periods, more dynamic scoring, smarter shot selection.  Wow, this record is stuck in a groove, isn’t it?  (Alert: outdated metaphor).  After a mostly challenging 2013 that featured several lopsided losses to Canada and a ridiculous upset to a determined Finland at the Four Nations, the U.S. has pulled together four consecutive victories heading into the Olympics.  The team still shows weaknesses, the most significant being the inability to finish games, especially defensively, and long periods of offensive stagnation.  The Kessel injury has definitely played a role there.  But at least two and ideally three lines are going to have to take advantage of Canada’s defensive struggles and score some even-strength goals.  Knight’s line and the power play cannot be the only production.  Stack has been the key to that line, but returning her to centering Jocelyne Lamoureaux might spark some action.  A plethora of shots from the point are not going to get it done, especially in a lower-scoring Olympic contest.  Taking advantage of turnovers and smart puck possession will make the difference.

Dark horse team: Finland.  If Finland can play as well as it did at the Four Nations, it will win bronze in Sochi and potentially challenge the top tier.  Unfortunately its best non-goaltending player is over forty.  Keeping it close against a more prepared U.S. team in the opening game will tell all.

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