MANNHEIM – Fans and journalists have very different ideas on what makes a good hockey game. Fans like exciting games, while journalists favour lopsided games. It's no different for the World Championship quarterfinals.
Why is it this way? Well, fans watching the games can enjoy a few beers, scream their lungs out, and just revel in the action without getting analytical, unless they feel like it. Journalists have to file an intelligent (or at least intelligent-sounding), coherent game story moments after the final buzzer has sounded.
Generally, it's easier to tell the tale of, say, an 5-1 Russian victory over Sweden than a 3-2 Finnish win over the Czechs. Especially if that 3-2 game sees the Czechs leading 2-1 with two minutes to go before the Finns pop a pair in the last minute. If that happens, you have to change your whole story on the fly.
With that said, let's hope that the quarterfinals are good for the fans on Thursday. Forget about the journalists! Let them bruise their typing fingers and bloody their keyboards while we all suffer through some thrill-a-minute hockey.
The games that really stand out are the ones that are decided by one goal. Preferably on the last play of the game. And recent history has dished up a ton of quarterfinals that fit that description.
Go back in time to the last IIHF World Championship staged in Germany: 2001. It was Wayne Gretzky's debut as executive director of Team Canada, and the red Maple Leaf squad was aiming to build momentum heading into the Salt Lake City Olympics the following year. But in the quarterfinals, it took just 32 seconds into overtime for journeyman American forward Darby Hendrickson to tip a Jeff Halpern pass past Canadian netminder Fred Brathwaite and give the U.S. a stunning 4-3 win.
Sure, Gretzky won Olympic gold in 2002, but you can bet he still remembers that Hendrickson goal. A quarterfinal loss is especially heartbreaking because it guarantees you're going home with nada, except the proverbial bad taste in your mouth.
Speaking of that, the Finns woke up with one Helsinki of a hangover the day after dropping their 2003 quarterfinal to rival Sweden – on home ice. It looked like anything but a one-goal game when the star-laden blue-and-white team built a 5-1 lead over Tre Kronor on the strength of a Teemu Selänne hat trick. But the Swedes proved unstoppable on the comeback trail, and when P-J Axelsson scored a PP goal with 4:54 to make it 6-5, everyone in Hartwall Arena sensed it was the winner.
It remains arguably the biggest “katastrofi” in Finnish hockey history. “This is a nightmare finish to the tournament for us,” said Finnish coach Hannu Aravirta.
The Czechs and Americans staged back-to-back shootout thrillers in 2004 and 2005. Both quarterfinals ended with a score of 3-2, and both came down to a one-on-one duel between Czech netminder Tomas Vokoun and little-known American defenceman Andy Roach (a four-year member of Adler Mannheim), who was blessed with a knack for creative shootout moves.
In '04, Roach almost put on the brakes before putting a forehand deke home, shocking the partisan Czech crowd at Sazka Arena. In '05, Vokoun took his revenge by foiling Roach with a glove save on a high backhand attempt. "Obviously I knew a little bit more about [Roach] this year, and I think it really helped me," said Vokoun. The Czechs went on to win the '05 gold in Vienna, making that moment doubly memorable.
The 2004 gold medal went to Canada, and its 5-4 quarterfinal victory over Finland was an absolute see-saw miracle. The Finns never trailed in regulation time, grabbing leads of 2-0, 3-2, and 4-3. But in the extra frame, Canada's Dany Heatley put himself on track to capture tournament MVP honours with a huge goal, blowing the puck over Finnish goalie Mika Noronen's shoulder.
In 2006, the standout QF matchup saw Russia's Alexander Ovechkin attacking the Czech net at his usual breakneck pace, along with teammates Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. But it wasn't a big name who got the overtime winner at 7:58 in this one-goal classic. Instead, it was the vowel-challenged Czech forward Zbynek Irgl. He coolly stickhandled the puck into the net past Maxim Sokolov after a Czech faceoff win. Russia's gold drought wouldn't end until two years later in Quebec City.
We could go on and on. How about Jere Lehtinen emerging as the hero in Finland's 5-4 quarterfinal win over the Americans in Moscow 2007, scoring the lone goal in the shootout? Or Russia's hard-fought 4-3 triumph over spunky Belarus last year in Berne, coming (naturally) on a third-period Ilya Kovalchuk tally?
In terms of IIHF.com visitor numbers, the web site inevitably peaks during the quarterfinals, the time when eight top hockey nations are ruthlessly cut down to four. No international hockey fan can look away. And tight quarterfinals even (to stretch the point a tad) force the journalists to bring their game up a notch.
Now, of course, there are some fans who just want to see their teams win every game 8-1 so that they can feel really superior about themselves and never break a sweat. Well, forget about them too! Bring on the one-goal games.