2010 Olympic Games: The Semifinals

[Today I am joined by WCBSTV.com Senior Sports and News Producer Jeff Capellini (@GreenLanternJet).
We will break down the two semifinal match-ups for the Olympic Games. Jeff will talk about the Finland vs. USA game and I will touch base on the Canada vs. Slovakia game. Hope you enjoy.]

For all of its perceived prowess Finland has never quite achieved at the Olympic level. Since 1952, the Fins have won just four medals, and have never been in the center spot on the podium.
But, make no mistake; the team that will face the United States on Friday in the semifinals is probably the best the Scandinavian nation has ever put on ice.

Try to block out the obvious. Yes, it's true, Finland has only won one international championship in its history -- the 1995 World Championship in Stockholm -- but has medaled in three of the last four Olympics, including silvers in 1988 in Calgary and 2006 in Turin, and three of the last four World Championships, most recently garnering silver in 2008.

Many of the players from the Turin Games and Worlds in Quebec City are in Vancouver and have contributed in a big way to Finland's run, which included a 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic on Wednesday in the quarterfinals and just four goals allowed in four games overall.

To the NHL fan, none of the names on the Finnish roster are alien. Many of the players are bonafide stars in North America's league. This list is sort of endless if you really break it down. Names like Teemu Selanne, the all-time leading scorer in Olympics history, Mikko Koivu, one of the most underrated playmakers in the NHL, Miikka Kiprusoff, at the very top of the NHL goaltending upper echelon, rugged center Olli Jokinen and defensive veterans in Toni Lydman and Sami Salo who always seem to know where to be and what to do.

Overall, Finland's current roster is made up of 18 NHL players and another four from the up-and-coming KHL, a league that's shown it's not afraid to throw big money around to get top talent.

The difference between the U.S., which is entirely made up of NHL players and Finland is the Fins have a ton of experience playing in games of this magnitude. The Americans, on the other hand, are loaded with talent, but are the youngest team in this tournament, with an average age of 26.5. Still, there has been no denying the prowess of the Americans. They seem to come at opponents in waves, rolling line after line with an aggressive dump-and-chase mindset that has decimated the opposition in the corners and created all kinds of havoc near the crease.

The Americans have gotten it done offensively with no one player. Their leading scorer is defenseman Brian Rafalski (4 goals, 2 assists). It seems someone new has stepped up every game, with Zach Parise being the latest to shine by scoring both goals in the 2-0 win over gritty Switzerland on Wednesday.

If there is one minor concern for the Americans it is the fact that sniper Patrick Kane has yet to really get going, registering just a single goal in the tournament. He has the ability to take over a game. It seems Friday would be the opportune time to showcase all that he can be.

Both Finland and the U.S. are complete teams, each solid in its own end and armed with enough snipers and playmakers to scare anyone anywhere at any time. The goaltending matchup, however, is one for the ages, even though on paper coming into the Olympics most experts would have taken Kiprusoff over Ryan Miller.

Four games later, Kiprusoff and Miller have proven to be the two best net minders in the tournament, with Kiprusoff posting a 1.33 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, and Miller carding a 1.25 GAA and .944 save percentage. Both are coming off shutouts in the quarters and seem unflappable on the biggest of stages.

Miller, who makes his living playing for the Buffalo Sabres, was viewed as a bit of a question mark prior to the start of the Games and was figured by many to maybe be the sixth or seventh best goalie in the tournament, but since stonewalling Canada with 42 saves in the Americans' stunning 5-3 win to conclude round-robin play he's become a bit of a folk hero in the States.

No matter how you slice it Friday's semifinal will be a war. It's hard to imagine it not being a one-goal game, perhaps one that's decided in sudden death or the dreaded shootout.

Despite being a non-descript matchup in name, the U.S. and Finland have a history in the annals of international hockey history. Back in 1980, the "Miracle on Ice" Americans beat Finland to win the gold. Oddly, the Fins did not earn a medal.

They'll get one this year. It just remains to be seen what color.

Prediction: U.S. overcomes its relative lack of experience with 3-2 win in what is likely to be remembered as an Olympic classic.
Dustin’s Prediction: Finland shows why they’re one of the most complete team and battle tested teams in the tournament – Fins 4-2.

- Jeff Capellini

With the previous being said about USA-Finland, many believe, including myself, that the Canada-Slovakia game will be at the entire end of the spectrum.

Canada enters the Semifinal match-up on a high, after crushin’ the Russian’s 7-3 in their quarterfinal game Wednesday night while Slovakia enters the game on a high note, following their upset of the 2006 Gold Medal winning Swede’s, 4-3 in the nightcap.
So let’s be honest. Despite some big names on the Slovakian roster, on paper, it looks like it’s going to take a miracle for the Slovaks to be upset the favorite – Canadians.

Following Canada’s worst ever finish at the 2006 Games in Turin, Canada entered the 2010 Winter Games as the heavy favorite. After it took a shootout win to beat Switzerland and a 5-3 loss to the USA, our friends north of the Border entered the knock-out round as the number six seed and needless to say, all was not well in Canada.
Oh, how quickly things can change.

In what many thought would be the Gold Medal game, Russia-Canada, the Canadians absolutely dominated for 60 minutes and erased any doubt that they were overrated. They struck early and often and used a complete team effort to send home the Russian’s with their worst ever finish at the Olympic Winter Games.

Canada can roll all four superstar lines and not miss a beat and I expect them to do so against the Slovaks. The Games’ top-four scorers with seven points each - Dany Heatley, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra - will be on display tomorrow night in Vancouver.

But in my opinion, despite the Slovakians getting scoring from their big-name roster players, their roster comes nowhere close to that of the Canadians.

Heatley (4g, 3a), Toews (0g, 7a), Jerome Iginla (5g, 1a), Dan Boyle (1g, 5a), Eric Staal (1g, 5a) and Sidney Crosby (3g, 3a) lead Team Canada on the stat sheet, but their contributions are endless and come from every single player on their roster. Name wise – we know every Canadian on the roster and who they play for – they’re the best of the best.

Entering the knock-out round and a 1-1-1-0 record for the Canadians, my thoughts were this:

“Canada is hands down, without a doubt, the most talented team in the tournament. So how do they barely hang on to beat a terrible Suisse (currently losing to Norway 2-1, hmmm) squad? Same reason why ‘Dream Teams’ and All-Star teams always fail. It’s never the team with the most talent that ends up winning, unless there is some kind of chemistry and superstars take on the part of being a role player. Who besides Mike Richards/Brenden Morrow takes that roll on this team? I guess we’ll find out. But the fact it took a shootout to beat a team with two NHLer’s should raise a red flag, and tell you a lot.”

Well, the chemistry has formed; all of players look as though they’ve been playing together for weeks and 15 goals scored in two games should answer all you need to know.

Slovakia enters the semifinal round as a bit of a surprise. They’re the last team standing from the dreaded “Group B” and have a lot of momentum following their 4-3 upset win over Sweden in the quarterfinals.

After going through the preliminary round with a win, loss and shootout win, being the last team standing from a group that Russia and the Czech Republic called home, says a lot.

But they’re still your typical overachievers.

The Slovakians are the underdogs and will be picked to lose across the board. They have a very aged roster, bode plenty of players who will be appearing in their last Games and needed a third period goal to defeat Norway in the opening game of the knockout round.

In addition to Demitra and Hossa being tied for the Tournament lead in points with two goals and five assists each, contributions have come from wingers Richard Zednik (2g, 3a) and Marian Gaborik (3g, 1a) playing alongside veterans like Jozef Stumpel, Ziggy Palffy and Lubos Bartecko. But for the Slovak’s to somehow mustard a win against the mighty Canadians, it’s going to have to be a Ryan Miller-esk performance from keeper Jaroslav Halak.

Halak enters the semifinal with a 1.97 goals against average and a 9.23 save percentage and has the ability to steal a game. But will he be able to do it in Canada’s home turf? Highly unlikely.

Don’t look now, but the Canadains have their swagger back.

- Dustin Leed

Prediction: Canada rolls and proves why they’ve been one of the best teams ever compiled for an Olympic Tournament, they win 5-0.
Jeff’s Prediction: I like Canada over Slovakia big, something like 6-2.