The Old Boys Club is Dead. Long Live the Program of Excellence!

Steve Tambellini has returned to his roots, which seem to be as deeply entangled in Hockey Canada as in Vancouver. Yesterday's double-hiring of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney provides the Oilers with a fabulous wealth of coaching experience at both the NHL level and across the international spectrum.

Ever the optimist, I would have found a reason to support, at least on a 60/40 basis, the hiring of either Quinn or Renney to the job. The creativity and flexibility shown by all sides to add both, has my 120% support. Coaching will not be a weakness for the Edmonton Oilers.

Pat Quinn may never have won a Stanley Cup, but in the current decade he has captured Gold Medals at the Olympic Games, the World Cup of Hockey, the Spengler Cup, the World Under-18 Championships and the World Junior Championships, a collection of goldware that almost certainly will never be duplicated.

Particularly encouraging is Quinn's recent success connecting with youngsters, including Oilers prospect Jordan Eberle who has already won two championships under Quinn's guidance. Not sure how those experiences will colour the Irishman's known preference for veterans, established in other times under other circumstances, primarily in big-budget markets in the pre-cap era, and mostly with Quinn acting as his own GM. That whole landscape has changed. Quinn -- who has posted an above-.500 record in 13 of his 14 complete seasons and made the playoffs in all but two of those seasons, winning 17 series -- wouldn't have survived this long if he wasn't adaptable.

I very much like the idea of a strong associate coach, especially given the established weaknesses of the new head man on the technical side of the game. Such an arrangement worked fine with Glen Sather and John Muckler. Renney has strong credentials as a head man -- post lockout his Rangers won 42+ games and made the playoffs every year, while he compiled an less-impressive-than-it-looks-but-still-pretty-darn-good 159-106-42 mark with what always seemed to me middling talent. He has experienced the constraints of the cap era including a few millstone contracts, and has consistently delivered competitive teams.

Critical to all this is what appears at this distance to be a complete absence of ego on Renney's part. After two years as a head coach in Kamloops, where he posted the best career Pts% (.714) in WHL history, Renney became head coach for the Canadian national men's team, a group he guided within a Peter Forsberg/Tommy Salo highlight reel of the gold medal in Lillehamer 1994. A couple of months later, Renney agreed to serve as assistant coach to George Kingston at the World Championships, and the pair successfully oversaw Canada's first gold medal in 33 years. A lesser man might have seen it as a demotion, a slap in the face even, but Tom Renney put that aside, answered the call, and delivered the goods.

Renney has continued to serve his country in a variety of roles at no fewer than 10 (ten) World Championships, compiling 3 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze. He also won silver at the 1999 World Juniors, losing the gold medal game in overtime. On the senior level he has appeared to transition seamlessly from head man (1995, 1996, 2000) to assistant, and has in fact achieved his greatest team successes (the golds) in the latter role. With a track record like this I have no problem envisioning Renney stepping up to -- but not overstepping -- a strong associate coach role.

Certainly between them Quinn and Renney have won everything worth winning on the international level. Quinn won the Memorial Cup as a player, Renney as a coach. Both are proven winners, yet share the same gaping hole on the resume, the Stanley Cup. If that fact -- more an historical oversight than a blemish -- serves to drive them through the gruelling days and nights of the long seasons ahead, so much the better.

The whole thing hinges on teamwork among the triumvirate that unquestionably now runs the Oilers. As Renney must support, advise and ultimately defer to Quinn, so must the Irishman himself defer to Steve Tambellini. It's his former protégé's job to have the overarching vision, and the coaches' to implement it. That said, I suspect Tambellini's and Quinn's Idealized Roster Manuals already share many of the same pages.

Steve Tambellini has won the Stanley Cup as a player (see picture), but his roots are also firmly established in the international game. He represented Canada on the ice at the World Juniors, World Seniors, and Olympic Games, and has since served Hockey Canada at the management level for those same competitions. As a player he was a participant (one bronze); as a manager, a winner. As Quinn's best success occurred when he was head coach with strong assistants (just say no to Ricky Ley), and Renney's occurred when he was an assistant on a strong staff, Steve Tambellini has had his best success as a manager with a strong coaching staff. Lo and behold, that is the position that each now occupies with the Oilers.

Speaking of roots, some of them can get pretty tangled. Check out this Hockey Canada news release from March 2005:

CALGARY –Tom Renney, Head Coach and Vice President of Player Development of the New York Rangers, and Craig MacTavish, Head Coach of the Edmonton Oilers, have been named Team Canada’s assistant coaches for the 2005 IIHF Men’s World Hockey Championship, Team Canada’s General Manager Steve Tambellini announced on Thursday.


It's hard to put Kevin Lowe's fingerprints on the departures of Craig MacTavish and Charlie Huddy, in fact so little has been seen of K-Lowe that it seems safe to conclude that he too is now at arm's length and the Old Boys Club is officially histoire. All that remains of the old guard is Kelly Buchberger, who spent more time as MacT's winger than he did his assistant coach. As I (ever the optimist) wrote in defence of Bucky yesterday over at Lowetide's place:

As for Buchberger, I understand the frustration but as was the case when he was a young player, patience is key. When he broke in he was like Zack Stortini was two years ago, all warts and rough edges. The object of no little derision especially at first, Bucky worked harder than anybody, soaked up information like a sponge, and drove the twin engines of heart and desire to capacity on a daily basis. He was, and presumably remains, the ultimate team player. As a coach he perhaps achieved better results in Springfield than it seemed at the time, and who knows what he did or didn't accomplish last year. He's clearly the #3 man on the new totem pole, which is fine by me. If he had somehow been given the head job, that wouldn't have been fine at all, but the current situation calls for a little mortar between the bricks which is a role Kelly understands well. It's a hell of a learning opportunity for a young coach to put it mildly. I wish him well.

Finally, I also wish nothing but the best to outgoing coaches Charlie Huddy and Billy Moores as well as Craig MacTavish. While MacT's time had come, I'm less sure about Huddy and Moores who were caught in the crossfire of change. Both have been fixtures on the Edmonton hockey scene for three decades, with Huddy winning 5 Stanley Cups as a player for the Oilers, Moores 5 national titles as a head and assistant coach with the Golden Bears. Both came within a hair (pardon the pun) of adding a Stanley Cup as a coach in 2006. That near miss notwithstanding, both men are winners, and both men are class acts. Like MacT, they will be both missed and remembered fondly. For what it's worth, one Edmonton-area hockey fan of long standing says Thank You.


Myths of the Northwest

A popular myth maintains it's difficult for a dominant team to emerge in the Northwest Division cuz it's such a tough group top-to-bottom. There's no way to fatten up on the dregs the way Detroit has done for years in the weak Central, or San Jose did this year in the suddenly-soft Pacific. Every team in the poor old Northwest faces a "tough schedule".

But in 2008-09, not so much. Here are the combined records of the NHL's six divisions:

Division .... GP * W - L - OT * Pts * Pts%
Central .... 410 * 219-141-50 * 488 * .595
Northeast .. 410 * 205-151-54 * 464 * .566
Atlantic ... 410 * 209-159-42 * 460 * .561
Pacific .... 410 * 201-162-47 * 449 * .548
Northwest .. 410 * 201-170-39 * 441 * .538
Southeast .. 410 * 195-165-50 * 440 * .537

In recent years this method has been complicated by the infernal Bettman Point, whose effect can be clearly seen above in that the worst division in hockey collected 53.7% of the available points. The Pts% of the league as a whole is a fluctuating value which seems to have found its level at ~.557 in each of the last three seasons, as about 23% of games reach overtime and generate the "free lunch" point.

The former laughing-stock Central is now the league's best division: first in Wins, Points, GF, GA, and by extension Win%, Pts%, goal differential.

Meanwhile the Northwest fares poorly by almost any standard: 5th in points (1 measly point ahead of the perennially poor SouthLeast), tied for 4th in Wins, 4th in goal differential, 6th and last in GF. Vancouver had the lowest points total of any division champion.

The local picture hardly improves for the post season:

Division .. Playoff Teams .. Series Wins
Central ........ 4 .............. 4++
Southeast ...... 2 .............. 3+
Atlantic ....... 4 .............. 2+
Northeast ...... 2 .............. 1
Pacific ........ 2 .............. 1
Northwest ...... 2 .............. 1

That's just through two rounds of course, but three divisions including the Northwest will be doing no further damage in 2009.

The Central continues to dominate in the post-season, having produced both conference finalists and a guaranteed pennant winner. In the process the Central's second-best club, Chicago Blackhawks, handily dispatched both NW representatives.

Given that Southeast teams have won 3 series with Carolina still hanging around, it seems that division has surpassed the Northwest for overall performance in 2008-09. The inescapable conclusion is that the local group has been the worst division in the NHL this season.


Live blog: Canada v. Russia

Pregame -- Canada 0, Russia 0

I love international hockey.

Maybe one has to be a certain age to care as much as I do, but I'll make no apologies for that. I've followed the game at the national level since Father David Bauer's valiant squad of amateurs lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to the Soviets in the final game of the Innsbruck Olympics, then got
cheated of their bronze medals by a crooked judging decision.

I've watched (mostly on TV, very occasionally live) pretty much every significant international game available to me since then: World Seniors, World Juniors, NHL tours, Canada/World Cups, Olympics. Most but hardly all of these involved Canadian teams; memorable games that didn't include the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid and especially the epic 1969 battle between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in Stockholm in the first meeting of the Iron Curtain rivals after the Prague Spring. I still rank that 3-2 Czechoslovak victory over a Soviet team at the peak of its powers on the very short list of the greatest hockey games I've ever seen.

I suffered through the "shamateur" debates that resulted in Canada's withdrawal from the 1970 Worlds that were to be hosted in Winnipeg and the 7-year hiatus that followed which included two Olympiads. I watched, intently and intensely, every game of the '72 Summit Series, and still haven't forgiven Mr. Sprisak, my Physics 30 teacher, for scheduling an exam during the first period of the decisive Game 8.

Canada finally returned to the world stage in the 1976-77 season, hosting the first Canada Cup before sending a team that included a number of out-of-playoff NHL players to the Worlds that spring. The team was competitive but never victorious, capturing 3 silvers and 4 bronzes from '77 to '93, before finally breaking through in a Gold Medal Game with a memorable shootout win against the Finns in 1994. That was the first of 5 world titles over the last 15 years.

Bill Ranford backstopped that '94 squad. Today, another Edmonton Oiler, Dwayne Roloson (pictured), gets the opportunity for some gold medal heroics. Roli, the only player on either team who was alive during the '72 Summit Series, gets the start for Canada in what is arguably the biggest game of his career. His fellow Oiler Shawn Horcoff, meanwhile, plays a sudden death game for all the marbles for the 4th time in 7 years.

Despite an impressive 24 gold medals apiece, the historic rivals have met just twice in the final since the format was changed from round robin to single elimination games. The Soviet Union won the first such encounter in 1989, while Russia stole the gold in overtime last year on Canadian ice.

It's payback time.

Backgrounder: Program of Excellence

Russia returns 14 players from last year's Gold Medal showdown, Canada just 6 (Hamhuis, Spezza, Heatley, Doan, Roy, St.Louis). This might be seen as a disadvantage, however I'm not worried due to the wealth of international experience representing the red-and-white today:

30.Dwayne Roloson -- 2nd WC (1 gold + ?)
50.Chris Mason -- 3rd WC (twice as reserve)
37.Josh Harding (res.) -- 1st WC, 1 WJC

2. Dan Hamhuis -- 4th WC (1 gold), 2 WJC
3. Drew Doughty -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
4. Chris Phillips -- 3rd WC, 2 WJC (2 gold)
5. Luke Schenn -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
6. Shea Weber -- 2nd WC (1 gold), 1 WJC (1 gold)
7. Ian White (inj.) -- 1st WC, 1 WJC
29.Joel Kwiatkowski -- 1st WC

44.Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- 1st WC
55.Braydon Coburn -- 1st WC, 2 WJC (1 gold)

8. Scottie Upshall -- 1st WC, 2 WJC
9. Derek Roy --2nd WC, 1 WJC
10.Shawn Horcoff -- 3rd WC (2 gold)
12.Mike Fisher -- 2nd WC
15.Dany Heatley -- 6th WC (2 gold), 1 World Cup (1 gold), 1 Olympics, 2 WJC
16.Travis Zajac -- 1st WC
17.Steve Stamkos -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
18.Matthew Lombardi -- 2nd WC (1 gold)
19.Shane Doan -- 6th WC (2 gold), 1 World Cup (1 gold), 1 Olympics
20.Colby Armstrong -- 2nd WC (1 gold)
26.Marty St.Louis -- 2nd WC, 1 World Cup (1 gold), 1 Olympics
28.James Neal (inj.) -- 1st WC, 1 WJC (1 gold)
91.Jason Spezza -- 2nd WC, 3 WJC

Of 19 players apt to the see the ice today (shown in bold, reserves in italics), 17 have previous international experience at 46 major tournaments, 14 have won gold (20 gold medals total) including 9 at the senior level (14 gold medals total). I didn't even track previous exposure at events such as the U-17 and U-18 tourneys. Suffice to say the Program of Excellence is actually delivering on its blueprinted promise.

First intermission -- Canada 1, Russia 1

A frenetic period with a running time of just 33 minutes. Russians appear to be getting the better of it to my eye, although Roloson was the great equalizer with a number of fine stops, including two on a game-opening powerplay. Canada responded with a nice goal on a great backhand pass from Doan to Spezza, and things stabilized for awhile. However, I thought Canada was guilty of losing its composure at times, especially in the second half of the period. A few too many "hero plays" for my liking, guys running around out of position or leaving their feet to (try to) make defensive plays. If the Russians exhibit a little patience with the puck they will find plenty of holes to exploit. The speed of the game was exceptional, though I would like to see a little more old-fashioned physical play from the red-and-white. More guys need to follow the example of Dan Hamhuis who stopped a couple of Russian attacks with textbook body checks.

Second intermission -- Canada 1, Russia 2

A better period for Canada, but a worse result. Canada dominated play territorially, outshooting the Russians 16-5, but failed to capitalize. Couldn't beat Bryzgalov, couldn't get a bounce, and at times gripped the sticks a little too tight and whiffed on a good opportunity. Russian defenders also made a couple of emergency defensive plays by keeping their heads and their feet. Unfortunately the same can't be said for Chris Phillips on the goal, an odd-man rush against the flow of play. Mike Fisher hustled back to eliminate the passing option but Phillips overplayed Radulov, going down and sliding out of the play as the Peripatetic Predator stepped around him and hammered a perfect finishing nail past Roli. Exactly the kind of play I was concerned about after the first. I expect Canada to keep pressing in the third, but they need to keep their heads; the Russians are deadly on the counter attack.

Postgame -- Canada 1, Russia 2

What a heartbreaker. Canada continued to carry, at times dominate, the play, but never could find a way to beat Bryzgalov a second time. Shots on net were 27-9 Canada over the final 40 minutes, with many more chances thwarted by a stick check, a bad bounce, a blocked shot, a fumbled pass. All 18 Canadian skaters generated at least 1 shot over the course of the game as the red-and-white really pushed the play. The Russians played Hang On Harvey hockey in the third especially, but it worked. I even saw Ilya Kovalchuk playing dump-and-not-even-chase a couple times.

Another classic moment in the bizarre world of European television coverage occurred in the dying seconds, when after two long delays to put a second back on the clock, they finally did get around to dropping the puck for the crucial faceoff with the camera focussed on Russia`s back-up goalie looking on from the bench.

Kovalchuk played 30:33, over 12 minutes more than any teammate. The defence-by-committee played a solid game, with all 8 guys playing between 12:31 and 16:30, not a typical recipe for success. Canada relied heavily on the Nashville pair of Shea Weber (31:58) and Dan Hamhuis (28:39) who did a solid job mostly matched against Kovalchuk. Up front Derek Roy led the way with 22:31, including a head-scratching 10:40 in the third after he had banged up his wrist crashing the net late in the second.

For the first time, Canada`s tournament-leading powerplay didn`t get a sniff, getting only 2 opportunities as the refs decided to put their whistles away after enforcing Kitchen Sink rules for most of the tourney. The battle on special teams -- and ultimately the game -- was lost when the Russians converted on a puck-over-glass penalty in the first. The cheapest of all penalties has cost Canada a goal in each of the last two gold medal games ... both one-goal losses to the Russians. That`s pretty harsh medicine for what is generally an innocent play. Proving yet again that hockey, like life, isn`t always fair.


Live blog: Canada v. Sweden

Semi-final day at the World Championships, and what's not to like? Russia-USA on now, followed by Canada-Sweden (noon MDT on TSN, not rebroadcast on tape delay until 1:30 a.m. -- believe it or not TSN is showing a rebroadcast of something called the Diamond Hill Plywood 200 during late prime time, an event which will have already just been shown on TSN2 for all those NASCAR buffs in their audience. Meanwhile people with day jobs will be left in the lurch for the IIHF World Championship semi-final. Sheesh.)

I'll be watching both games live, and doing updates on the Canada game here during the intermissions, with briefer entries in the comments section during the action. Do drop in and join me there.

Quarterfinal review -- Canada 4, Latvia 2

TSN just showed a weird stat that the four quarterfinals collectively produced 0 goals in the first period and 17 in the second. Say what? I watched much of the Canada-Latvia contest on tape delay, and while it was far from Canada's best game they got the job done against a Latvian group that hung in admirably. The 48-23 margin in shots -- including 22-4 in the decisive seond period -- suggests Canada was fully deserving of their 4-2 edge on the scoreboard. The Latvians twice cut a two-goal deficit in half, and had golden opportunities to do so again late in the third when Canada ran into penalty problems for the second straight game. Of particular interest was a rare 6-on-3 advantage the Latvians enjoyed with about 4 minutes left, but Chris Mason and the Canadian penalty-killers held the fort. Major contributors were Shea Weber (26:13 TOI, 6½ minutes more than any other defenceman) and Marty St.Louis (22:09, 5 minutes more than any other forward).

Pregame -- Canada 0, Sweden 0

Unlike the other three combatants today, the Swedes have no current Oilers, but do feature Oilers past (Dick Tarnstrom) and future (Linus Omark, pictured above and at right). I caught some of Omark's flashy skills at that Millennium Place prospects camp, but nothing that foreshadowed the big splash he made this year in the SEL not to mention Youtube. Young Lee-nus has also done himself at the proud at the Worlds, where he leads the Swedes in scoring with 2-8-10.

A key player for the Swedes on the back end is the old war horse Kenny Jonsson, who logs major minutes, contributes on the scoreboard (3-3-6) and leads the tourney by a wide margin in plus/minus (+12).

Canada will continue to rely on excellent special teams, including an awesome powerplay that has been clicking at 43.9% on 18-for-41. The PK unit has been solid allowing just 4 goals on 39 opportunities (89.7%), including a couple of extended 3-on-5s and even that 3-on-6. Only Austria of all countries has a better PK rate, while Canada's PP is far ahead of the pack. Of particular interest today is Sweden, who rank middle of the pack in both categories at +8/-8.

Thanks largely to special teams and goaltending (combined .948 Sv%), Canada leads the tourney in both GF (39) and GA (12).

To paraphrase the old saw about statistics, all of the above and $7.75 will buy you a beer at Rexall Place. Or it would, if Rexall were (ahem) open for business.


Update: Lindy Ruff has shuffled his top two lines, moving Shane Doan on to the Spezza line and bumping Heatley to the port side. Derek Roy assumes Doan's former spot with Stamkos and St.Louis, with MSL presumably lining up on the starboard side. The explanation was that the Ottawa duo needed to be shored up defensively. That's what Doan already Was doing with the Tampa tandem. Speaks volumes about the wonderful two-way game that Marty St. Louis brings to the table, but is less complimentary of Spezza and Heatley. The one constant in all this is that whatever line Shane Doan winds up on, he will help.

Game ON.


First intermission -- Canada 1, Sweden 0

Terrific first period. Both teams are flying, Canada a little higher and full value for the lead. What a beautiful goal it was, with tournament scoring leader Marty St.Louis burning Mattias Weinhandl along the end wall with a quick inside move, darting behind the net and drawing Weinhandl, the front-of-net defenceman, and the goalie to their right before slipping a back feed to Derek Roy lurking at the nearside post. With no defenders in sight, Roy merely had to make a high-skill play of taking the pass off the back of the cage, pull the puck just in front of the goal line, and roof one over a lunging Gustavsson from a very sharp angle. A sweet goal, especially for me. (I have "owned" both St.Louis and Roy long-term in my keeper league hockey pool, and am a big fan of both.)

Roy was flying all period, later making a superb play to receive a wayward pass outside the blueline, cut sharply to beat his man, drive wide and slip a seeing-eye pass through to Spezza for a dangerous deflection that Gustavsson did well to stop.

At the other end Roli was suctioning up pucks, wrapping himself around them and waiting for the whistle, secure in the knowledge that Canada has 3 guys in the top 20 in faceoffs, Sweden none. A couple of nervous moments in the late going though, especially when he failed to hold a muffin with a couple of seconds left in the frame.

On the blue, the impressive Drew Doughty has been paired with another fine youngster, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, with both getting Top Four minutes while Chris Phillips has been placed with Braydon Coburn on what seems to be the third pairing. The studly Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis are clearly the top pair.


Second intermission -- Canada 3, Sweden 0

The comments section is rolling now so I'll keep this brief. Things continue to go well, with rapid fire goals by Horcoff at evens followed by Roy on the PP. Roli playing well. Swedes were bringing it at the end of the period, and will have a partial PP to start the third. Huge kill required ... I don't get the sense the Swedes are done, 3-0 or no 3-0.


Postgame - Canada 3, Sweden 1

Objects in the mirror were much closer than they appeared, as the Swedes carried their momentum into the third, dominating play in the Canadian end for shifts at a time. The Canadians seemed a step slow to loose pucks and had a terrible time clearing the zone. Inevitably the Swedes capaitalized with a goal 6 minutes in, as the Spezza-Heatley combination got burned yet again. As PDO mentioned, that pair has been on the ice for every ES goal against but one in the tournament, as well as the 1 shortie against Latvia. Great on the powerplay but ...

The Swedes continued to bring it as my knuckles whitened. The turning point was a penalty to Roy around 9 minutes in, which the Canadians killed far more effectively than they had been killing the clock at evens. The game stabilized at that point as the Candians raised their effort to match the Swedes, winning more puck battles and earning a far better distribution of zone time. Heatley and Spezza languished on the bench for the most part, as can be seen in Lindy Ruff's distribution of ice time:

20:41 Fisher
19:22 Horcoff
16:01 Zajac
15:44 Roy
15:39 St.Louis
13:28 Lombardi, Stamkos
12:33 Doan
12:00 Upshall
10:53 Heatley
10:49 Spezza
10:36 Armstrong

While we're at it, let's look at the blue, where the new pairings achieved a clear hierarchy:

24:12 Hamhuis
23:28 Weber
22:10 Doughty
21:58 Vlasic
13:39 Coburn
12:13 Phillips
00:00 Schenn, Kwiatkowski

Any thoughts that Drew Doughty was being protected by Phillips can safely be dispelled. He has a poised all-ice game that is reminiscent of a young Raymond Bourque in that both looked completely at home in the NHL from Day One. Doughty has responded to his first World Championships by posting a creditable 8 GP, 1-6-7, +5 at age 19. Clearly Lindy Ruff likes what he sees; it's interesting to compare ice time for Doughty and fellow high draft pick (and fellow stud) Luke Schenn.

To finish the ice time review, Roloson played all 60 minutes between the pipes and delivered a strong performance with 25 stops. While Mason still has the statistical edge, Roli (2.20, .936) has faced the stronger opponents. Lindy Ruff has an interesting decision to make Sunday.

Speaking of Sunday, Oil Droppings will once against host a Game Day Thread. After an early-morning appetizer of Omark and O'Sullivan, the Gold Medal Game gets underway at half past Noon MDT. Canada-Russia, the classic rivalry, the rematch of last year's overtime thriller. The winner will be the first country to win 25 World Championships.


Canada v. Finland

If you are planning to watch today's World Championship game on tape delay and don't want to know what happened, don't read on ... (until later please!). Thus for now I am not recording the score in the subject header, but it will be revealed in the text that follows. All I'll say about the game up top is that it was a fun game to watch.


Pregame -- Canada 0, Finland 0

It's been clear sailing for Canada so far at the Worlds, with an unbroken run of convincing victories. Have watched all or part of every game until yesterday's date with overmatched Norway, who did themselves proud by holding red-and-white to a modest 5-1 result. Norway scored the first meaningful goal allowed by Canada at the tourney, as it briefly tied the score midway through the first. The other 5 goals allowed by the good guys have all occurred with the team enjoying at least a 5-goal lead! This "home and cooled out" effect has resulted in some sloppy third periods, while both halves of the former Czechoslovakia significantly outshot Canada over 60 minutes. A great powerplay hides a lot of sins, but it's not all sweetness and light with Team Canada 2009.

Today's match-up with always-tough Finland is perfectly timed to give the squad a harder tune-up just before they play for keeps in the medal round. First place in Group F is on the line, as the Finns can overtake Canada by taking all 3 (!) points with a regulation win.

With the recent additions of splendid young blueliners Braydon Coburn and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Canada now has a wealth of riches on the back end. However just Travis Zajac was added up front. With the departure of James Neal due to an unfortunate eye injury, the forward ranks is down to exactly 12 players, with Ian White pencilled in as a swing man. Not sure why the team used yet a 9th defender, Joel Kwiatkowski, in a couple of preliminary games that they easily could have won shorthanded. Because they did, the club has now used the maximum 25 players and needs to stay healthy up front from here out.

Dwayne Roloson starts in goal for the biggest game of the tourney so far; the break in the rotation that saw Mason play the Norwegians yesterday appears to have been done to accommodate Roli in the #1 role. Nashville's Pekka Rinne, who this Oilers fan has seen far too much of this season already, starts for Finland.

Game on. More to come at the intermission.


First intermission -- Canada 1, Finland 2

Finns came out like gangbusters, more or less exactly as I had expected and hoped, and Canada was no match for them early on, as I half-expected and feared. The first 10 minutes were a fire drill and Canada had no idea of the escape routes, constantly pinning themselves in outmatched situations. The Roy-Spezza-Heatley line had a dreadful time of it, conceding both Finnish goals and a couple more chances of the Golden variety. The Finns were harder on the puck, more physical, more opportunistic, more everything. Exactly what the doctor ordered, frankly.

The red-and-white finally began to respond in the last third of the period, led by a dominant grinding shift by the Upshall-Lombardi-Armstrong trio. Upshall had a great shift, nearly scoring, decking Rinne in the crease while somehow drawing a penalty, and a scrum ensued which dispatched one more from each team to the box. The puck even wound up in the net, just after the whsitle unfortunately.

Still, that set the stage for the deadly Canadian powerplay, which clicked quickly to cut the lead in half. Spezza PP (St.Louis, Weber) has been a pretty typical outcome of a Canadian man-advantage, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The game is now stabilized with lots of time left. The Finns are continuing to bring it, but Canada is starting to match their speed and intensity.

Late in the period the Helicopter Line of Horcoff-Zajac-Fisher had an outstanding shift, with Horc making a great play to win a puck battle, slip the disc through to Zajac, and back up into perfect position for a booming one-timer which just missed the post.

So the grinders are doing their jobs, and the snipers are starting to do theirs. The defence needs to calm down a bit and stop pinching, as the Finns are clearly attacking the holes they leave behind. Roli needs to settle down a tad too, he's fighting the puck. Fortunately, he fought a few pucks to successful outcomes, by no means is the 2-1 deficit on the goaltending.


Second intermission -- Canada 2, Finland 3

The Finns continue to bring it, and the Canadians more than has their hands full today. TSN had the shots on net at 37-20 Finland just before the end of the period. A significant contributor that period was a series of 5 minor penalties to Canada in not much more than 10 minutes. After killing consecutive 4v5 situations, Canada got a brief powerplay that got cancelled by Doan's infraction which was apparently "two minutes for whacking at the rebound". Then Hamhuis got "two minutes for being strong on the puck", and Canada was facing an extended 3v5. A great sequence ensued with Horcoff, Weber and Vlasic playing the triangle with textbook precision.

But when Doan took yet another minor (his third, Canada's fifth of the period) the goal seemed ineveitable, and Niko Kapanen quickly made it so. That made it 3-1 late in the second. Fortunately Canada was quickly given a consolation powerplay and just as quickly converted, this time a snipe by all-time scoring leader Dany Heatley on a sweet deflection of Roy's bullet pass. That's 2-for-3 against a Finnish PK unit that entered he game at 96%.

Two incidents involving the ever-entertaining Jerkko Ruutu, both with happy outcomes. First of all Shea Weber just hammered him hard into the end boards. Ruutu went down and stayed down, apparently dead or quadriplegic, for about 1.5 seconds when he realized that Mr. Stripes wasn't buying, so he hopped to his feet and got into the play. I'm certain it hurt at least a little -- Weber really crushed him. :) Then in the dying seconds Jerkko got into it with Steven Stamkos, drawing two retaliatory shots from the youngster. Again Ruutu went down and, with the whistle already safely blown, stayed down, milking it for everything it was worth. Which turned out to be two minutes to each player. Ruutu's was for diving, a gutsy but correct call. It would seem European zebras have seen Jerkko's act before.

On to the third. Canada needs one point from this game ... tying it up and getting to overtime is all that really matters at this point. Still, would be nice to come all the way back and win it. It's a tall order, today.


Third intermission -- Canada 3, Finland 3

Tie is of the essence. Canada has wrapped up first in the group and a quarter final match-up with Latvia, courtesy a third powerplay goal. The Ottawa teammates who each scored earlier in the game, this time teamed up on a fine rush and pass by Spezza and solid finish by Heatley with his second goal in a row. Nervous moments at the end as Finland pulled the goalie to go for the regulation win, and even got a PP with 8 seconds to go. The PP will carry over into the immediately impending OT, but the outcome of the game is already in.


Postgame -- Canada 3, Finland 4 (SO)

An uptempo overtime and an entertaining shootout later, the Finns emerge the "winners" even as Canada wraps up first place. Under quirky international rules, the shootout briefly became a one-on-one between St.Louis and Ruutu. Both went 2-for-3, with each connecting on a pair of backhands before missing on the forehand. St.Louis is the only shootout specialist I'm aware of who goes to the backhand the whole way, not just at the end of a deke but carrying the puck towards the net. Finland finally put it away in the 7th round on a nifty move by Hannes Hyvönen, the 4th puck to elude Roli in the showdown.

Back to the real hockey game which preceded it, where Roli certainly did deliver the goods, stopping 47 of 50 shots. A couple of bad rebounds, and a poor puckhandling play which led to the 3-1 goal, but a whole lot of solid stops and general hanging in there under pressure. Roli's confidence grew as the game went on, as he increasingly got into the faces if not the heads of the Finnish shooters.

Canada has a wealth of riches on the blueline with several guys making their case for an Olympic spot. I expect 7 of these guys to be at Olympic camp this summer. Shea Weber is the clear #1 on this club, playing 24:31 including nearly 11 minutes in the third and 5-minute OT. His partner and Nashville teammate Dan Hamhuis also soaked up the ice time again today. Given their ongoing solid play Stevie Y & Co. will have to seriously consider them as a pair. The new additions Vlasic and Coburn formed a second effective pairing, while Chris Phillips and Drew Doughty show an effective mix of experience and exuberance. Doughty and seventh man Luke Schenn are both on the radar for 2014, but the other guys have a legitimate shot at Vancouver 2010.

Same can be said up front, where only Doan and Heatley are likely comfortable with their spot in Vancouver, but St.Louis and Spezza are proving their worth on a nightly basis in Kloten. Meanwhile, guys like Horcoff, Roy, Fisher, and Lombardi may all be vying for the same spot of 13th forward in February.

Of more immediate concern is the current tournament, where all of the above are comfortably in the top 12 and contributing to Canada's greatest strength in the international scene -- depth of talent. We got at least two teams worth of wannabe Olympians, thus can always ice a competitive team even when the European season is over and half of our teams are still involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's the healthiest form of competition, where each guy makes his personal case by being a good team player.

On to the quarterfinals, where Canada faces Latvia on Thursday morning, 08:15 MDT. Not quite a bye, but by (barely) passing today's test Canada has earned an easier route in the medal round, and acquired some badly-needed battle scars in the process. An excellent dual result.

I like our chances entering the sudden death round. Then again, I say that every year. :)