Single elimination changes everything. Every shot, every goal, every mistake drastically increases in importance. An off night may cost a team its shot at a medal. With a thin margin for error and a medal well within reach for both teams every shift matters and that’s what makes international hockey so fun. It’s unpredictable and because it’s unpredictable, it’s dramatic.
The U.S. Men’s National Team, for the first time in a long time, looks like it is a legitimate contender. Team USA has been in this spot before, but fallen short so many times. However, it has been decades since an American squad has come into the medal round so hot.
Team USA will meet Finland at 11:30 a.m. EDT on NBC Sports Network with a shot at the semifinals and the winner of Russia-Norway.
Finland is a veteran team playing on home ice in Helsinki. The defending champs have plenty of guys who know what it takes to win at this level and won’t go lightly playing in front of its countrymen. Though the U.S. beat Finland 5-0 in the prelims, it would not be wise to expect a similar result Thursday.
The U.S. comes into the game with the confidence of the best start to a tournament since 1939, winning six of its first seven games at the tournament. Team USA has scored 32 goals in tournament play and seems to be clicking.
Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at the USA-Finland match-up, U.S. players to watch, quick notes on the other quaterfinal match-ups and some pre-game links.
Coming into Thursday’s contest, there’s pressure on both teams. The U.S. has the pressure of expectations, something most American teams at this tournament have not had to deal with before. The Finns have the pressure of trying to defend a title on home ice, with the eyes of a nation upon them.
Handling pressure is a funny thing. Some teams thrive on it, others crumble under it, and there’s really no telling which will do what in this situation. If what has been happening with Team Finland of late is any indication, however, they might be falling into the crumbling category.
Looking back at the 5-0 game between the U.S. and Finland, it was Team USA’s high-speed, high-pressure game that completely overwhelmed the Finns. The host team hasn’t really looked the same since blowing 3-1 lead en route to a 5-3 loss against Canada. Meanwhile, starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen is listed as day-to-day and did not practice Wednesday. If you don’t think the Finns are beginning to feel the pressure, there’s this:
Finland is in panic mode at the worlds. They tried to hold a secret practice today and keep it from reporters. They face U.S. in quarters.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 16, 2012
Can the Finns get it together for Thursday? Odds are they can. They usually do and have last year’s championship to point to as an example.
While the intangibles could prove important, here’s a look into some of the numbers of this match up…
Team USA has been scoring at a high clip, averaging 4.57 goals-per-game, while Finland put up 21 goals in the preliminary round, good for a 3.00 goals-per-game average. The U.S. has a 2.32 team goals-against average, while Finland is at 2.00.
The American power play ranks seventh in the tournament, operating at a 25 percent clip, while Finland ranks fifth with a 30.6 percent success rate. Team USA’s penalty kill has been very good at the Worlds, ranking third overall at the tournament, killing 86.3 percent of its penalties against. Finland is right there, coming in at fourth with an 85.7 percent kill rate.
Both teams are awfully similar on paper and this should be a pretty evenly matched contest, which should make it a pretty fun game to follow.
If the U.S. can find a way to play that up-tempo, in-your-face style that made them successful against Finland in the prelims, it could be a long day for the home side. It has become abundantly clear that this U.S. squad is there to win. The competitiveness shown down the stretch, save for the lackluster effort against Kazakhstan, has been unlike any I’ve seen in some time at this tournament.
There is a drive with this U.S. squad. Perhaps that’s been the missing ingredient over the past 20 years, with the U.S. only having two bronze medals to show for it in that span.
Finland was not its normal self in that 5-0 win. Finnish national teams at every level are typically, grind-it-out teams that play solid defense and don’t get easily intimidated. There are few national programs that are better at taking the middle of the ice away, especially in the defensive zone. It makes it tough to establish a net-front presence, get pucks through to the net or make rink-wide passes. More than likely, the U.S. is going to have to be the better team in transition to have offensive success.
The game plan probably won’t be a lot different for the U.S. coming into the quarterfinals, but with higher stakes, execution has to be spot on. If the U.S. can take advantage of the chances it gets, it should have a lot of success.
Let’s take a look at the Americans to watch in the quarterfinal contest:
Max Pacioretty — The Montreal Canadiens forward has been all-world in this tournament. With 12 points (2g-10a) in just seven games, Pacioretty has been producing in a way not seen since 1975. No, seriously. No American has had as many points as Pacioretty since at least 1975. He has registered at least one point in every game so far. He and Paul Stastny have played on Team USA’s first line for the entire tournament, with a few different wingers on the opposite side. It has been a productive group. We haven’t seen anything but Pacioretty’s best in this tournament and there’s no reason to expect that to change in the quarterfinals.
Jack Johnson — Team USA’s captain has been a workhorse. Having logged 170:24 of ice time so far in tournament play, Johnson is the busiest skater for the U.S. by 30 minutes. That’s right, he’s played a period and a half more than anyone on the team. From Day 1, Johnson has been one of the best competitors for the U.S. and has earned his captain’s title. His offensive production has trailed off, but he’s been very strong defensively for the U.S. Johnson still has three goals and an assist, so he can absolutely jump into the offensive play still. He’s the most seasoned veteran when it comes to the World Championship. No doubt this is the year he wants to get over the hump.
Justin Faulk — The youngest player on Team USA has been one of its deadliest. The Carolina Hurricanes rookie has four goals, tied for the team-high with Bobby Ryan. An absolute weapon on the power-play, Faulk has shown off his tremendous shot on multiple occasions, while also showing a maturity beyond his years. He was playing in the U18 World Championship just two years ago and the WJC last year. He gets the international game and has played well for a player of any age.
Paul Stastny — Quietly, Paul Stastny has put together a sensational tournament. As the top centerman for Team USA, Stastny has been brilliant at both ends of the ice and in the faceoff circle. He’s won 66 percent of his draws (third best mark in the tournament) and posted nine points (3g-6a), good for second on the team. He and Pacioretty seem to have clicked as linemates, and when Bobby Ryan joins them on the power play, it gets pretty interesting. Stastny has shown good work ethic, getting to the net and creating offense. He might get a lot of flak for his play in Colorado, but he’s been a standout for this U.S. squad and a big key to its success.
Bobby Ryan — Ryan has scored four goals in the tournament and looks as though he’s heating up a bit, too. As a 2010 Olympian and 30-goal scorer at the NHL level, he has to be the go-to scorer. His incredible goal against Switzerland showed that natural goal-scoring ability he possesses. Ryan got moved off of Team USA’s top line, and the results have been positive with the Anaheim forward skating with Craig Smith and Kyle Okposo, making the American top-6 formidable. When he’s on and can get pucks to the net, there are few Americans as dangerous as Ryan. Finland can be incredibly stingy on D, so Ryan will have to take advantage when he gets an opening.
The Rest of the QF Match-Ups
All of the quarterfinal match-ups will air live on NBC Sports Network. If you can get up for the first one, you’ll be able to have your entire day comprised of IIHF World Championship Hockey. Not a bad little Thursday. Here’s a quick look at the quarterfinal match-ups.
Canada vs. Slovakia — 6 a.m. EDT
Canada’s lone loss came at the hands of the U.S. in overtime. Ever since, the Canadians have been on a roll. Slovakia needed a last-day win against France to even make the medal round. That said, Slovakia is a pretty scrappy group. Can Zdeno Chara and company find a way to slow down the vaunted Canadian attack?
Russia vs. Norway — 8:30 a.m. EDT
If you want star power, Russia’s got it. Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, and Pavel Datsyuk are all in Stockholm. Meanwhile, Norway surprisingly enough, boasts the tournament’s leading scorer in Patrick Thoresen, who has six goals and 10 assists. Russia certainly looks to be the much better team, but Norway has been extremely hot. It should at least be entertaining. Winner of this match-up takes on the winner of USA-Finland, so there’s reason to check this one out.
Sweden vs. Czech Republic — 2 p.m. EDT
The Swedes have a pretty stacked lineup and its biggest star, Henrik Zetterberg has been leading the way with 13 points including a tournament-best 11 assists. The Czechs, led by Ales Hemsky’s five goals, have a tall order going up against the Swedes on home ice. This will also be Sweden’s last game in Stockholm regardless of the outcome, as the tournament moves to Helsinki in full for the remainder of the tournament. Expect a spirited effort out of the co-hosts.
The IIHF playoff-round bracket can be found here.
Patrick Thoresen is the tournament’s leading point-getter with 16 points, followed by Evgeni Malkin (14), Henrik Zetterberg (13) and Team USA’s Max Pacioretty (12). Here’s the tournament leader board.
USAHockey.com’s Brian Pinelli has a quarterfinal preview of his own with comments from Team USA players and staff.
Here’s video of Scott Gordon’s presser previewing USA-Finland.
USAHockey.com is hosting a live blog during the USA-Finland game, found here.
And finally, the bird most associated with Finland vs. the bird most associated with America.
Ah, heck… and just for good measure:
Photo Credit: The Bald Eagle comes courtesy of fine American photographer Norman Hayward. Check out his other excellent photos at bigmanwithacamera.com