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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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Canadians, Olympic excuses

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — So they’re not owning the podium as the host nation promised. Well, except that celebrated ice dance gold medal last night.

But now comes the excuses. And not from us. This is from Canadian officials, who have found a new reason to blame for athletic failure:

Boisterous Canadian fans may have thrown off its athletes, officials admit

By Damian Inwood, The Province

The boisterous and deafening barrage of maple leaf support at Olympic venues may have thrown Canada’s athletes off their game, admit officials.

And that may be partially responsible for the county’s low medal count so far, they say.

“We’ve never seen anything like that and maybe we were ill-prepared to how we would react to Canadian fans really showing their colours,” said Nathalie Lambert, chef de mission of the Canadian Olympic team Monday. “We’ve never seen this before.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee was sifting the entrails of the first 10 days of the Games, which saw Canada standing fourth with 10 medals and the U.S. almost out of sight with 25.

Lambert said that while the athletes are having “the time of their lives” at the village, in the city and at the venues, they may not have been ready for a city that has gone Olympic crazy.

“I think we definitely had some cases where nerves were not totally under control,” she added. “And that’s the only sad part of all this – that some athletes with great hope and great potential didn’t live up to their expectations and are really devastated right now.”

Posted on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
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Women’s hockey: Americans return to Olympic finale

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Angela Ruggiero was 17 when the United States upset Canada in Nagano, Japan, for the first women’s hockey gold medal in 1998. She was there when Canada repeated the favor in Salt Lake City four years later.

And then again in 2006 when Sweden upset the Americans in the semifinals. And, yes, there she was Monday when the United States swamped Sweden 9-1 to reach the gold-medal match that will be played Thursday at Canada Place.

“Honestly, we still have more in the tank,” she said. “I don’t think that was our best hockey.”

The U.S. men’s and women’s teams ate together recently when Ruggiero brought up the Salt Lake Games in 2002. Canada men’s and women’s teams defeated the host Americans for a hockey gold-medal sweep.

“There would be nothing better to repeat that but switch the page,” she said.

That’s going to be difficult to achieve as Canada is supposed to win gold medals in both tournaments.

Ruggiero doesn’t care.

“There is no better hockey game to play in than a U.S.-Canada game,” she said. “I keep saying it’s like Christmas.”

Posted on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
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Ice dancing, Olympics and judging

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Reflections the morning after covering the ice dance free skate, the third of three programs that culminates in Olympic medals.

The judges got it right: Elegant Canadian couple Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir deserved to win the gold medal on home ice at the Pacific Coliseum.

The judges got it all wrong: Elegant American couple Meryl Davis and Charlie White, friends and training partners with the Olympic champions, deserved a closer score after finishing with the silver medal.

According to the final results, the Canadians won in a rout by almost six points. They were deemed three points better in the free skate alone. 

Canada TV (CTV) this morning replayed the two programs back-to-back for a pretty good comparison. Even the pro Canadian announcers at the time suggested it was going to be close.

Only it wasn’t.

And that’s too bad. For those who pop in to watch the sport only when the Olympics are shown probably get confused by the inconsistency in scoring. Yes, it’s a subjective sport. But the judging is wildly unpredictable, leaving the uninitiated befuddled.

Even the skaters say they don’t know how it’s really scored. Davis and White laughed off questions about the discrepencies,  saying they were just pleased they had skated one heck of a program.

For another take on what transpired, here’s the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke:

From Vancouver, Canada

Home-field advantage is one thing.

Home-esteem advantage is quite another.

Just ask the U.S. ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who laced up their skates for the free dance Monday in second place . . . and with as much chance as an ice rink in hell.

Hours after the boss of Canada’s embattled Olympic team raised the white flag on his country’s “Own The Podium” medal predictions, a Canadian ice dancing team glided over the country’s despair and into a gold that seemed as destined as deserved.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the gold medal because they were beautiful, and precise, and in the right place at the right time.

The Pacific Coliseum was packed with hungry, screaming Canadian fans still hurting from Sunday’s hockey loss to the U.S.

The judging tables were filled with human beings who, despite positive changes in the scoring system, are still among the most subjective arbiters in sports.

The arena was buzzing with the day’s earlier announcement from Canadian Olympic chief Chris Rudge: “We’d be living in a fool’s paradise if we said we were going to catch the Americans and win.”

It all added up to a can’t-lose situation for the Canadian team, and they didn’t, defeating the Americans by more than three points in a free program that was at least equal, and by an amazing six points overall.

Said Canadian skating boss William Thompson of his winners: “You could almost see them absorbing the energy.”

Said the shaggy-haired American White: “This is their home ice, and I’m sure it inspired them.”

Were Virtue and Moir the better skaters? Perhaps. But there is no way they were six points better.

Yet on this night, unless the pair fell through a crack in the ice and turned this into synchronized swimming, there was no way they were going to lose.

“The crowd matters, the applause matters,” said Italian skater Massimo Scali, who teamed with Federica Faiella to finish fifth. “It would be very stupid if it affected the judging, but the crowd is a factor.”

If you don’t think the crowd and environment can affect judging, then you haven’t watched the referees in the NBA playoffs. Scali even admitted that he and Faiella picked one song during the competition that they hoped would inspire the Canadian-Italians in the crowd. “It didn’t,” he said, shrugging.

Entering Monday night, the U.S. had 24 medals and the Canadians had nine, with the Americans leading, 7-4, in golds. But when the skaters took the ice in the final pairing, that table turned.

Davis and White trailed the Canadians by less than three points, but it was suddenly as if the Americans didn’t exist. There were cries of “Ca-na-da” filling the rink even before the first of the final five teams went to work, as if this were another hockey game. There were more flags waved than teddy bears shaken, another skating first.

Then the Americans took the ice as the first of the final group and somebody hit the mute. As Davis and White wonderfully danced to “The Phantom of the Opera,” the crowd acted as if they were wearing a mask with one half of their face covered.

Certainly, there were cheers for several moves, particularly an amazing straight line lift in which White skated backward while Davis, perched atop his back, appeared to go forward. But their routine was done mostly in silence, with the majority of cheers coming afterward.

Two teams later, the roar returned. Skating to Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler, they were elegant and refined and athletic. They were also cheered as if they were Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, seemingly every move greeted with applause, every lift met with oohs and screams.

Even with all the cheers, the Canadians’ score of 110.42 was stunning. Moir even stood up from his kiss-and-cry seat as if stunned, staring at the ceiling in amazement.

“To have that moment with the home crowd and with each other, and to have all that hard work pay off — it’s amazing,” said Moir.

The Americans, although they wouldn’t say it, appeared just as surprised.

“It’s hard to say,” said White, laughing after hearing the question.

When told by several people that the Americans were at least the Canadians’ equal, he laughed again.

“I’m glad you saw it like that,” he said. “I hope the world sees it like that.”

On this night, anyway, the Olympic world saw that the winner had to be Canada, placing Virtue and Moir atop the podium, giving them a standing ovation even before they took the ice for the medal ceremony.

Finally, for only the fifth time this fortnight, the Canadian anthem played. Finally, fans here had a chance to join Virtue and Moir in singing their weary hearts out.

It couldn’t have happened to two better skaters.

And it couldn’t have happened any other way.

Posted on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
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Hockey: The Real Ramifications Of The USA Victory – And Notes From The Sunday Tripleheader

Now that I’ve filed my column for tomorrow, I have time for a few other notes from today:

1. Wish you all could have been here for USA-Canada. Nothing like being inside the building of a big international game. As some of you know, I did cover the 1980 Miracle On Ice game and nothing will top that. But for the USA to beat Canada on Canadian home ice at the Olympics with at least 90% of the building rooting for Canada . . . pretty damn cool. Unless you were a Canadian player.

2. Evgeni Nabokov looked great in Russia’s victory over the Czech Republic this morning. He had to make just 23 saves but some were spectacular. One of the goals he gave up was a 5-on-3 and he was screened on the other. After the game when his teammates came out to congratulate him, a few even gave him big hugs, something I’ve never seen after a NHL game. After the game in the dreaded “mixed zone” where reporters fight to talk to players, I had to fight with all the Russian-language reporters to get just one question asked in English but this is what Nabby told me when I asked him to assess the Russian team at this point, which has won two of its three games with one overtime shootout loss (with Ily Bryzgalov in goal for that one, not Nabokov):

 “It’s too early to make any decisions, any conclusions. We’ve got to put together another good game next time. But it’s been a good start for us.”

3. At the time we spoke, Nabby didn’t know about what I consider to be the biggest bummer of the Canadian loss to the USA. Because of the convoluted way the tournament works, it very much appears that Canada will now meet Russia in a quarterfinal game. THat means one of those teams will not advance to the semifinals, which means one of them is guaranteed of not winning a medal. Canada has only itself to blame but something is still wrong with a format that will eliminate one of the best four or five teams in the round of 16.

4. Milan Michalek, the former Shark, is having a good tournament for the Czech Republic–he had a goal Sunday against Russia– and has been watching all the tournament games either in person or on television. I agree with his assessment: “It’s a short tournament and anybody can beat anybody if their goalie can be hot that day. Coming here, I thought there were four teams that could win it all. Now I think there are five or six.”

5. Yes, that hit by Ovechkin on Jagr was a crusher and a real turning point when Russia scored a few seconds later. I think Jagr still must be seeing stars. But I liked his quote about it when asked how it felt: “I don’t really care how I feel. If I get hurt, it always heals. It just doesn’t look good.” But as Michalek said: “The biggest turning point is when they scored after it.”

6. I’m not going into a lot of Canada-USA stuff because I wrote about it for my column in tomorrow morning’s paper (although I wish I’d had more time; I only had an hour to do interviews and then write it — but no whining on this bus). I’m also going to save thoughts about the four Canadian Shark players for a future column. So stay tuned to MercuryNews.com. But let me just say I would not have wanted to be Marleau, Thornton, Heatley or Boyle heading out onto the streets of Vancouver on Sunday night. The whole city/country was so jacked up about this game. I envision young Canadian children crying over the defeat. Seriously.

7. I’m now watching Sweden beating Norway, 3-0, in the third period. I want to stick around and talk to Douglas Murray afterward. He’s playing about four or five shifts per period, steady as she goes. This is a big victory for his team, though, because it gives them the second seed in the tournament — although the way I figure it (this format is so complicated), Finland will also now get a bye as the fourth seed. By my reckoning, assuming this score holds up and Sweden doesn’t score three more goals to overtake the USA in a tiebreaker, the qualification round matchups for Tuesday will look like this though I’d still wait for it to be confirmed by Olympic honchos:

Czech Republic vs. Latvia (winner will play Finland in the quarterfinals)

Canada vs. Germany (winner will play Russia in the quarterfinals)

Slovakia vs. Norway (winner will play Sweden in the quarterfinals)

Switzerland vs. Belarus (winner will play USA in the quarterfinals)

If you really want to go all out and project way too far, we could be looking at a USA-Finland semifinal and a Sweden vs. Canada/Russia semifinal. Wow, now I am beginning to realize just how big Sunday’s victory was. I didn’t realize it when I was writing my column because (A) Sweden had not played Finland yet tonight and (B) I didn’t have time to really figure out all the possibilites.

And while I disdain jingoism, let me just say: Every kid in the USA who plays hockey ought to be proud tonight.

Posted on Sunday, February 21st, 2010
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