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Archive for February, 2010

Hockey: If Goaltending And Fatigue Are The Deciders, USA Should Have An Edge Over Canada In Sunday’s Gold Quest

It’s been an exhausting two weeks at these Olympic Games. And that’s just for us journalists. I can imagine what it’s been like for the hockey players. Sunday’s game between the USA and Canada is what we’ve all been waiting for, but I wonder how the legs of the Canadian and American players are feeling.

Sunday will mark the fourth game in six days for Canada, an older team than the USA. And in the final moments of Friday night’s 3-2 hold-on-tight semifinal victory over Slovakia, you wondered if the fatigue factor was having an effect. Slovakia was all over the Canadians and could easily have tied the game.

Team USA, meanwhile, will be playing just its third game over those same six days because it earned a bye into the quarterfinals after an undefeated preliminary round. Also, in the other semifinal, the Americans pounded Finland into first period submission and coasted the rest of the way. Goalie Ryan Miller even sat out the last half of the third period as head coach Ron Wilson wanted to give backup Tim Thomas his first Olympic minutes. Thomas was thrilled to have that opportunity, by the way.

Which brings us to another potential key factor in Sunday’s matchup. The USA should also have the goalie advantage. Miller has been the best goaltender at these Games, with a goals-against average of 1.04 and a save percentage of 95.37.

Canada struggled earlier in the tournament with Martin Brodeur in goal — he was there for last Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the USA — and has replaced him with Roberto Luongo. The move has paid off, with Luongo winning three straight games on the same ice where he usually makes a living with the Vancouver Canucks.

Still, Luongo looked a little out of sorts in giving up Friday’s two third-period goals to Slovakia — although to his credit, he was in shutdown mode over a final hectic two minutes and got just enough glove on a point-blank shot by Slovakia’s Pavel Demitra in the final seconds to save the game. And there’s no arguing that his GAA (1.75) and save % (91.95) is not as good as Miller’s. Also, Miller was in goal last Sunday, so he has already seen Canada once and beat them. Luongo has not faced the USA.

The goalie comparison was obviously on the mind of Canadian coach Mike Babcock after Friday’s game in his postgame remarks. Babcock spoke at length about the challenge of facing Miller.

“The best goalie always makes you nervous and I think that kid has been really good for them,” Babcock said. “We were too easy on Miller the first time. We won’t be this time. I thought we had tons of chances on him the last time but we didn’t have enough second chances.”

The mission on Sunday for Luongo and Canada?

“What you have got to do,” Babcock said, “is to get your goalie to play better than their goalie for one game.”

Given all of the above factors, the tendency might be to pick the USA as the winner. But anyone who has sat inside GM Place (renamed Canada Hockey Place for the Olympics) for the past two Canada games can tell you that the home crowd has been a huge factor. If the pressure of winning-or-else doesn’t get to the Canadian players, it’s hard to believe that the atmosphere won’t create enough energy inside them to overcome any fatigue.

The goaltending? That’s another issue. Babcock is right. Miller is making Canada — the whole country, not just the hockey team — incredibly nervous.

Posted on Friday, February 26th, 2010
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Hockey: Canadian women chastized for celebrating

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Let’s get right to the Canadian double standard.

Just a week ago the Canadian press celebrated Jon Montgomery’s gold-medal in skeleton with tales of his “beer-swilling party animal” lifestyle.

“Moments after his electrifying win, he said his celebration would include ‘a pint,’” according to one news report.

Montgomery didn’t disappoint. He was seen walking through Whistler’s crowded pedestrian-only town plaza imbibing from a pitcher of beer. Once his Olympic competition ended, Montgomery got to bed at 5 a.m. after an all-night party.

“I don’t subscribe to necessarily all the things typical athletes do, and for me a pint now and then is a good thing,” he told reporters.

Juxtapose this portrayal with what transpired at Canada Place yesterday involving the gold-medal winning Canadian women’s hockey team.

After treating the hometown fans to a 2-0 victory over the United States, the players, still in uniform, returned to the ice to celebrate after almost everyone had left. They were drinking beer. Some also had cigars.

This led to an International Olympic Committee condemnation. Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director of Olympic Games, said, “I don’t think it’s a good promotion of sport values. If they celebrate in the changing room, that’s one thing, but not in public.”

Hockey Canada almost immediately released a statement apologizing “In the excitement of the moment, the celebration left the confines of our dressing room and shouldn’t have.”

Perhaps Hockey Canada could have defended its players who toil in obscurity all their lives and have one chance to showcase what they dedicated their lives to doing. It’s not as if they defamed the flag during the medal ceremony or made disparaging remarks about any of their opponents.

It seems OK for baseball players to celebrate with champagne when winning a World Series. It has become part of sport tradition to enjoy the spoils of victory with alcohol. Jon Montgomery certainly did, and did so in a much more public place than the hockey players.

It begs the question of whether the IOC had problems with the behavior because the athletes were women.

Posted on Friday, February 26th, 2010
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Bobsled: More crashes on Olympics track

 VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – Even as the 2010 Winter Olympics come to an end this weekend, problems at the Whistler Sliding Centre continue to be one of the biggest issues of the Vancouver Games.

On a track where a Georgian luger died Feb. 12 crashes continued to be the focus today when USA-2 turned sideways in its second run of the four-man bobsled.

“It went really quiet for a second then I was on my head,” said Chuck Berkeley of Clayton. “When it goes quiet, you know something’s going to happen.”

Berkeley’s driver, John Napier, said he just made one mistake.

“When you’re going at 95 miles per hour if you make a mistake there’s no time to catch up,” he said.  “I’m just happy  one was seriously injured and that’s a blessing.”

 Britain’s John Jackson also had a harrowing crash but his crew also escaped injury.

 For Napier, “it’s more my ego that is bruised. This is the biggest race of my life and I crashed.”

 Mike Kohn, pilot of USA-3, on why so many crashed in the first two of four heats:

 “People might just be trying to get the perfect line and when they do that, things might get a little hairy. But for me, the track is fine.”

 Added Monterey’s Nick Cunningham, who is Kohn’s brakeman: “It’s bobsled. Anything can happen on any given day.”

 That might be true. But it is doubtful this particular track will overcome the questions that left one man dead.

Posted on Friday, February 26th, 2010
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Hockey: USA’s Semifinal Romp Over Listless Finland; Canada Next For The Gold?

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

Observations from today’s USA semifinal game, a romp over Finland that I certainly didn’t see coming:

— I expected the USA to win this game, but leading by a touchdown in the first period was not what I had in mind.  Wow. I was making a joke about the USA still not being satisfied with the 6-o lead because it couldn’t convert the extra point . . . when I suddenly ran into 49er offensive tackle Joe Staley on the concourse. He was wearing a large USA jacket and was also here for the quarterfinal game against Switzerland. Hoping to attend Sundays’ gold medal game. Staley is a big hockey fan (he went to college in Michigan) and I’ve seen him at many Shark home games.

— The remarkable part about that first period was that Finland totally dominated the first two minutes of play and the USA couldn’t even get the puck out of its defensive zone . . . and then the puck finally goes into the offensive zone on a dump-in and Finland goalie (and former Shark) Mikka Kiprusoff totally misplays the puck and gives it away to the USA’s Ryan Malone for what amounted to an empty net goal. That seemed to rattle Kiprusoff and the assault was on.

— As I noted in my pregame stuff that appeared in today’s Mercury News print edition, Finland is the oldest team here (average age a little over 31) and the USA is the youngest (avrage age a little over 25) but I never expected that to be a factor until the third period when legs get weary. Instead, it was a factor right away as the older and visibly slower Finns kept taking penalties. The USA scored on their first two power plays of the game ith Zach Parise, who in my estimation has been the USA’s best skater in this tournament (goalie Ryan Miller has been the best player), getting the first one. Then the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski fought for the puck behind the net on the next power play and made a scrambly backhand feed to Erik Johnson for the third goal.

— Finland replaced goalkeeper Mikka Kiprusoff with Niklas Backstrom after the USA’s fourth goal but it didn’t matter. The USA scored two goals in 16 seconds to more or less clinch the win with seven minutes still remaining in the first period. Amazing. The two power play goals were the first time any team here at the Olympic tournament has had more than one in a game.

— The six goals ties a USA modern Olympic hockey record (since 1956) for most goals scored in a period. But it’s the fifth time it happened, most recently against Germany on Jan. 31, 1964.

— The USA’s first period might have been the most impressive opening period of any team here in any game . . . although Canada’s big start against Russia two days ago was probably just as awesome. The score at the end of that first period was Canada 4, Russia 1, but Russia was a much better team than Finland.

— Wonder if Kiprusoff and Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov (who gave up six goals in that game against Canada) would like to sit down over dinner and commisserate? They were once Shark teammates, as you’ll recall. Nabokov has already left town, though. Wonder if he’ll even watch the rest of the tournament games? If I know him, he was probably already at Shark practice today . . .or tomorrow, for sure.

— The second period was a sluggish meh . . . the USA still leads, 6-0, and man, the Finns really do look old and slow, and now not very interested as the game moves into the third period. The 39-year-old Teemu Selanne (another former Shark) looks like he’s ready to have a vodka martini, then climb into his Porsche and drive back to Anaheim . . . but the Finns will still have to play in the bronze medal game tomorrow, probably against Slovakia.

— Obviously, the gold medal game everyone wants to see will be Canada vs. the USA on Sunday and I expect the Canadians to take care of business tonight at 6:30 against Slovakia . . . but trust me, it’s going to be tough to beat Canada twice in Canada.

— Vince Vaughn, the actor, is also here for this game wearing a USA hockey jersey. He looks like he weighs more than Joe Staley. In a between-periods interview shown on the big scoreboard television screen, Vaughn complimented Vancouver and Canadian fans but when asked about a possible Sunday rematch, said: “Well, we already settled that once but we’ll go at it again, I guess.”
Glad he’s confident. I’m not. In a rematch, I think the USA will need to hold on for dear life in the first period and hope for a close game heading into the third with a chance to win.

Posted on Friday, February 26th, 2010
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Hockey: Will Nabokov Recover From The Ugliness?

Wednesday was a conundrum for Shark fans: Did they want Canada to win the game with the Shark players playing a starring role — but scoring on Shark goalie Evgeni Nabokov and possibly ruining his big-game confidence for the playoffs?

Or did they want Nabokov to shine, with the consequence that the Canadian Sharks — Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley — might look bad and be booed by a full house of upset Canadians?

As it turned out, they have the first question to worry about. Nabokov was not very good in the 7-3 loss, being pulled after the first six goals. I thought he could have stopped three of those six. The other three, I’m not sure anyone could have stopped. The Russian defensemen were playing at a vapid intensity level and allowed way too many easy shots by a motivated Canadian team.
However, stopping just those three shots that I thought Nabokov could have stopped would have still given Russia a chance to win. So a chunk of the defeat definitely falls on his shoulders.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time that Nabokov gave up six or more goals for the Sharks was more than a year ago in a 6-5 loss at New Jersey. But this time, he didn’t just have a team named after a state coming at him. He had an entire country assaulting him in waves.

As backup goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who replaced Nabokov, said of Team Canada’s aggressive start: “They came out like gorillas out of a cage.”

One thing I don’t buy, though, is that this will affect Nabokov in his Shark play the rest of the season. It was one game. He has won big games for Russia in the past, including world championship gold medal games, and has played much better — but then still has been a losing playoff goalie. There’s no reason he couldn’t be a winning playoff goalie after this defeat.

Nabokov, by the way, was terrific in facing the media after the loss. He spent maybe 10 or 15 minutes with Russian reporters and another 10 or 15 with English-speaking reporters. Of course, maybe he just didn’t want to go in the locker room. You can read most of his comments in my Thursday column in the Mercury News.

Some quotes I left out, however, were his compliments about his Shark teammates. Dan Boyle was responsible for the first two Canada goals. He made one of his patented forays deep into the offensive zone and swept behind Nabokov before sliding a perfect backhand assist to Ryan Getzlaf for the score. Then, on Canada’s second goal, all four Sharks were out on the Canada power play when Boyle teed up a long-range shot that Nabokov didn’t see because he was blocked by Marleau in front of the net.

“He’s a difference-maker,” Nabokov said of Boyle. “But so are all of those guys. I thought Patty did a helluva job when he screened me on that goal . . . That’s Canadian hockey right there. They stay in front, they shoot and they’re there for the rebound.”

Boyle said it wasn’t weird to keep firing shots at Nabokov — in fact, Boyle said it was far weirder to jump into the arms of Getzlaf (the Anaheim DUck who’s been a thorn in the SHarks’ side). But Thornton admitted it was strange to shake Nabokov’s hand in the handshake line after the game.

But if you want another positive twist on what happened from the Sharks’ angle, look at it this way: Nabokov will have six days rest before he starts the Sharks’ first game after the Olympic break, next Tuesday against New Jersey.

Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
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Hockey: Jonas Hiller Almost Strikes Again–But USA Wins

Shark fans must have felt a very familiar ugly pang in their stomachs Wednesday afternoon as they watched the USA men’s hockey team try to beat Switzerland in an Olympic quarterfinal.

As the game moved on through the first two periods, the USA was outshooting the Swiss, 32 to 8. But the game was still scoreless, mostly thanks to the play of Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller.
The very same Mr. Hiller, of course, was the Anaheim Ducks goalie who shut down the Sharks last spring in their first round playoff defeat.
Eventually, the USA figured out a way to push a goal past Hiller and win the game, 2-0 (the second was an empty net goal). But getting there was not half the fun. In fact, it was no fun.
“He’s a great goalie,” said USA forward Joe Pavelski, who felt the same Hiller-angst as a Shark player 10 months ago. “He’s done that to a lot of teams in this tournament. He seems to get better as it goes along.”
Pavelski said, though, that a bizarre finish to the second period — when the USA appeared to score a goal but had it nullified when a replay showed the puck had crossed the line two-tenths of a second after the period ended — might have worked in favor of the USA. Hiller had looked bad on the play as the puck wobbled like a butterfly off his own shoulder and glove before trickling into the net.
“That might have gotten into his mind,” Pavelski said, noting that the USA eventually did score on a smiliar play two minutes into the third period, when Zach Parise tipped a shot by Brian Rafalski and the puck again fluttered past Hiller.
“It was still unfortunate we didn’t get that first one, though,” said Pavelski. “How close is two-tenths of a second, really? This isn’t speed skating.”

Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
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Alpine skiing: Vonn falls, Mancuso waits in GS

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Lindsey Vonn’s crash today in the fog at Whistler Creekside ended her chances in her worst event, the giant slalom. But it also might have spoiled teammate Julia Mancuso’s chance to defend her Olympic title.

Vonn dipped her right shoulder high on the course, couldn’t recover, and fell into a fence. It appeared she hurt her right hand. It took folks a while to get her up. In the meantime, Mancuso had started her run directly after Vonn but was pulled off the course once it was clear Vonn needed assistance.

That left Mancuso, from Squaw Valley, unable to immediately return to the starting gate. She ended up at the bottom, walking through the mixed zone and looking to take a gondola back to the top of the run.

So, instead of starting in the enviable No. 18 slot, it looks like they’ll stick her in about 30th. The course is deteriorating and it’s doubtful she’ll pull off a great time in the first of two runs.

Stay tuned.

Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
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Figure skating: Kim Yu-na, Mao Asada and long program

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – It doesn’t always work out this way in the high-stakes atmosphere of Olympic figure skating. But for one magical night Tuesday the world’s best skaters performed almost flawlessly, forcing the judges to score them on their merits, not their faults.

The six who will skate in the dramatic final group Thursday night in the all-important free skate put on a compelling show for the 11,000 spectators at the Pacific Coliseum.

About the only flub came from Arcadia’s Mirai Nagasu, 16, who had planned to try a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination jump. She did only two rotations on the second jump after landing the lutz a bit awkwardly. “I think I made the smart choice,” Nagasu said of backing off the difficult triple jump.

Nagasu seemed resigned to the fact she has little chance of earning a medal at the Vancouver Games.

“The next Olympics I’ll know how to feel,” the teen said.

These Olympics belong to Canada’s Joannie Rochette. Her moving skate overshadowed everyone else because of the sudden death of her mother here two days ago. Everyone’s heart went out to the Canadian champion for obvious reasons. No matter what happens Thursday Rochette will be a celebrated Olympian.

The audience also was treated to two of the greatest skaters of their generation competing back-to-back. Mao Asada and Kim Yu-na have gone toe loop to toe loop since they were juniors. “She’s my rival, but in a good way, because we are kind of friends as well,” Asada said. “We have been skating together for a long time and we are the same age, but once you hit the ice and you start skating you just concentrate on your own skating.”

Japanese champion Asada went first, making a powerful statement. She skated to a harsh waltz that seemed incongruous to the free flowing lines she cut across the ice in a wine-colored lace costume.

Then came reigning world champion Kim of South Korea who represents the modern marriage of artistic and athletic skating, a Michelle Kwan with an arsenal of high-flying jumps. The short program performed to a medley of music from James Bond films was superb in every way. Kim, in an elegant black gown, fell into character while gliding effortlessly across the Coliseum surface. The short program was worthy enough to recall Kwan’s famous Rachmaninoff of 1998. Kim, 19, blew away her rival, building a lead of almost five points.

When asked if it was too much to overcome, Asada, also 19, laughed. “She usually has a 10-point lead,” Asada said.

Now the skaters will have to repeat their efforts in an intense, four-minute segment. One misstep could change the dynamic completely. Kim is not immune to errors even though she has lost only twice –both times to Asada – since 2008.  “My goal is to focus on each performance. I have one more day to practice, and I’m not worried because I think I have the best coach,” Kim said of Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist for Canada.

Colorado’s Rachael Flatt, the U.S. champion who is fifth, has perhaps the best American chance to snag a bronze medal should Rochette (third) or Miki Ando (fourth) falter. Flatt, 17, is known for her consistency. If she does as expected it could add to the pressure of the two in front of her.

One of the biggest question marks in the long program will be how Rochette recovers from her emotional night Tuesday. She elevated her skating just two days after her mother Therese died of a heart attack then broke down in tears when it ended.

“’I watched her before she skated, it looked like she was struggling emotionally, then she pulled herself together,” said William Thompson. CEO of Skate Canada. “Her performance was magical.

“She’s on a difficult emotional roller coaster that’s not going to end tonight. No matter what she does, she’s already done enough. I think her mother is up there jumping up and down.”

Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
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Men’s Giant Slalom: Bye Bye Bodie

All right, so I make the three-hour haul up to Whistler Mountain to see Bode Miller try and win his fourth medal of these Games and . . . in the first run of the Giants Slalom, he skiis off the course in the middle of the race and leaves town.

All right, not exactly. He skiied slowly sideways off the mountain and back to the condo where he and some US ski teammates were staying. But what this means is, he is now ineligible to ski in the second run this afternoon when the medals will be decided. I was at the bottom of the mountain just finishing up an interview with Gary Radnich on KNBR when I looked up at a giant television screen and saw it all happen. I had figured I didn’t need to be up there until this afternoon’s run because that was the money race and Miller wasn’t going to talk to the media until after that, anyway.

Oh, crap, I thought when I saw what had happened, and I hustled onto the chair lift up to the finish line. Not to worry. Miller had stopped briefly farther up the hill to talk briefly to a course worker but certainly hadn’t stopped to talk to any journalists (print or broadcast) on his way back to the condo. So I didn’t really miss anything except a closer look at him skiing off into the distance.

I’m always curious about why athletes do this kind of stuff . . . I never take it personally when they blow off the media because I get paid the same no matter what happens, but don’t athletes understand that writers and television journalists are basically the conduit from themselves to people who are interested in the athletes’ personalities? So by blowing off the media, they’re basically blowing off the public? (And not helping their chances for commercial endorsements, although I guess that’s their own business?)

I still plan to write a column about my day on the mountain . . . just not sure what form it will take . . . especially if the other USA skiier with a chance to medal in this event, Ted Ligety, comes through this afternoon. He’s in eighth place following the first run with a time of 1:17.87, which is 0.60 behind the leader, Carlo Janka of Switzerland. My ski-expert friends say that Ligety still has a 50-50 chance of winning some sort of medal because he usually picks up time on his second pass down the hill.

And who knows? Maybe good old Bode will come into the press tent afterward, join us for hot chocolate and tell us some funny ski jokes.

Not counting on it.

 UPDATE AT 12:30:  Full marks to Associated Press reporter Pat Graham, who apparently tracked down Miller at his condo (I don’t have the phone number).  According to Miller, he missed a gate and decided to drop out because . . . well, here was Miller’s explanation: “I’m taking more risk than everyone else. That’s partly why I’m able to get medals. It looks easy when you make it. When you crash like today, it’s like, ‘Oh, huh?’ I did a good job today, too. I was right there. I was right on the edge.”

       I assume when Miller said “crash” he was using it as a substitute word for “fail” because he did not really crash and wipe out.  He just hooked a gate and got out of whack and then skiied off . . . and maybe he thought he was “on the edge,” but he decided to quit when he was more than a second off  the leader’s pace.

     I guess when you’re a world class athlete, you’ve got to rationalize to keep up your confidence. I don’t blame him for that.   But he would have earned a lot of empathy if he had finished the run, then come through the interview area and said, “Hey, I tried hard but it didn’t work out today. I’ll ski the second run for fun and enjoy it.”    Instead, he’ll be watching the second run on television.  I don’t rule out that Miller just wants to save his legs for Saturday’s non-giant slalom race, his last attempt at a medal here.   But it would be okay if he said that, too.

      Anyway, on to the medal run in about 20 minutes.  Good luck to USA’s Ligety.

Posted on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
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Hockey: Swedish Shark Douglas Murray And His Grandfather

Followers of the Sharks know that defenseman Douglas Murray was extremely excited about making the Swedish Olympic hockey team for these Games because it was part of a family tradition. Murray’s grandfather, Lars [Lasse] Bjorn, won a bronze medal at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo playing for the Swedish hockey team. Bjorn is also a member of the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame.

It’s a very cool story because Murray is wearing the same No. 3 jersey number for the Swedish national team that his grandfather did 48 years ago in Oslo. Murray had hopes that Bjorn could fly here from Sweden to watch the Games in person but Murray’s grandmother is not in the best of health and Lars decided to stay home with her. Plus, laughs Murray, Lars did some calculating about how much the trip to Vancouver would cost.

“So he went the way of buying a new large flat-screen TV to watch all of my games,” Murray said. “You know, all that material stuff he used to say was unnecessary. We’ve talked on the phone after every one of my games.”

And what’s the advice Lars gives him?

“Hit more people.”

Posted on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
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