OTTAWA - Slovakia’s incredible 5-3 victory over the highly favoured United States last night highlighted the best and worst of any playoff elimination game. On the one hand, it was a well-earned victory thanks to many contributing factors. On the other hand, it denied the possibility of a second Canada-United States game in this year’s tournament. The first, a tight 7-4 victory (embellished by two empty netters) was one of the most exciting junior games in U20 history.
But first, to Slovakia’s win. The team opened the scoring off a quick shot by Adam Bezak that deflected off a defenceman’s stick and past goalie Tom McCollum. When the Americans tied the game soon after on a power play, it seemed the course of the game had been straightened out and they would begin a scoring spree.
Unfortunately for them, Slovak goalie Jaroslav Janus played the game of his life and the Slovaks scored two more fortuitous goals before the end of the period. A scoreless second period indicated the Americans were in for a mighty fight if they hoped to advance to the semi-finals.
They scored early in the third period to narrow the gap to 3-2, and again it seemed this would be the goal to get them going. But the Slovaks responded with another goal--the back-breaker--and they went on to win, 5-3. It was a thoroughly deserved win. They capitalized on their chances, and the Americans didn’t. They got phenomenal goaltending; not so the Americans.
But in truth, the Americans still have a significantly superior team. The Slovaks are not particularly strong skaters and they coughed up the puck in front of Janus countless times. They spent much of the game merely chipping the puck out of their end, and they were lucky enough to score on most of the very few good chances they had. But if these teams played ten games in a row, the Americans would almost certainly win the next eight or nine. And the likelihood of the Slovaks beating the Swedes on Saturday afternoon--with the same goaltending and timely scoring--is slim, indeed.
Really, the tournament has suffered thanks to the early departure of the United States. The problem with “upsets” is that one lesser team plays way over its head to defeat a superior opponent, but that team can almost never string together a series of victories. Think back to Salt Lake City when Belarus stunned Sweden 4-3 in the quarter-finals. Sure, it was a remarkable moment in Olympic history, but the next game--a semi-final “showdown”--was nothing more than a routine 7-1 slaughter by Canada. Surely a Canada-Sweden semi-finals would have been vastly more entertaining, close, and unpredictable.
Upsets have their place in hockey, but they are best experienced in the preliminary round when the losing/superior team can recover, learn from its error, and go deep into the tournament. Fans love to see an upset on any particular day, but they don’t like the ramifications of the surprise result. Yesterday it was clear the fans at Scotiabank Place enjoyed the Slovakian victory, but ask them, or anyone on the streets of Ottawa, whether they would find a second Canada-United States game more palatable and the overwhelming majority would say yes, of course.
In one sense, having the same best teams win all the time is boring and predictable, but it also makes for the best games. It is rarely if ever possible for a Wimbledon final between, say, Roger Federer and an unseeded player to be as captivating as a Federer-Nadal final. Imagine a 100-meter final without Usain Bolt because some lesser racer eliminated him in a heat. Shocking, yes, but desirable? Recall how interest in golf waned during the second half of 2008 when Tiger Woods was injured and couldn’t play in the big tournaments. Imagine a Stanley Cup final between Detroit and, say, Atlanta or Columbus.
No. Upsets are not good for sport in a determining game or series. The final games of an event are when the big boys come out to play, to give the fans the best possible games, to showcase the speed and skill of the game at its best. Kudos to Slovakia for an amazing victory, but the U.S. elimination will likely make for a weaker final weekend for the greatest junior hockey show on earth.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.