Sunday, February 12, 2006

Winter Olympics rule

Ever since the NHL started sending its players to the Olympics, the hockey competition has moved its way into my top 5 favorite sporting events, up there with the World Cup, NCAA basketball tourney, Stanley Cup playoffs, and baseball playoffs. Olympic hockey is beautiful to watch--the larger ice surface and reduction of checking means it's more like soccer on ice, and it's fascinating to watch the contrasting styles of different nations. The archetypes generally hold true--Canada and USA play with one hand on the stick, dump the puck and drive hard to the net, while Russia and the Czech Republic keep the puck on a string, cycling, passing, and probing until a weakness is found. The Scandanavian teams, especially Sweden, combine the two styles with great success. In short, if you want to introduce someone to hockey, have him/her watch the Olympics.

This year's competition has Canada as the obvious favorite because of their supreme depth. Virtually everyone on the team has been an All-Star caliber player at some point in their careers, and they have the perfect blend of youthful vigor and veteran wisdom and leadership. That they will be defending their first gold medal in 50 years is added incentive. To top it off, they have Martin Brodeur between the pipes, who proved in 2002 that he is the premier international goalie. Brodeur hasn't been as dominant in the NHL this season, but I expect he'll rebound quite nicely. Canada's only possible weakness is that their defense has only one true playmaker in Scott Niedermayer. It will be up to Wade Redden and/or Chris Pronger to provide an additional attacking option from the back.

The Czechs are regarded as Canada's top challenger. They have similar offensive depth, and arguably have more skilled players up front. Jaromir Jagr's rebirth this season surely bodes well for their chances, and Dominik Hasek, though old, must be regarded in the same light as Brodeur. Like most of the other nations, however, the Czechs are not very deep on defense. If it came down to a final against Canada, Marek Malik and Jaroslav Spacek could be defending against Joe Sakic, Simon Gagne, and Dany Heatley--guess who's going to win that matchup. Still Hasek could save them and carry his team to victory like he did in 1998.

It's pretty much a running theme for the rest of the nations that there is a lack of stellar defensemen. Each team has one or two standouts, like Matheiu Schneider for the USA, Nicklas Lidstrom for Sweden, Kimmo Timonen for Finland, but beyond that, teams will be forced to rely on their goaltenders. Teams like Russia, Slovakia, and Sweden also have a plethora of offensive firepower, but questionable goaltending. I expect this tournament to be very high scoring.

So as it so often happens, these games will come down to the goaltending, which is the main reason why Canada and the Czechs are favored. Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden and Evgeni Nabokov of Russia could get hot, and allow their teams easy victories up to the medal round, which should be Canada, Czech Republic, Russia, and Sweden.

Watch out for Slovakia, though. While their goaltending and defense is decidedly inferior to the above 4 teams, they just might have the most explosive offense in the tournament. You'd be hard pressed to find a better line than Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra, and Petr Bondra. The attacking lines go three deep as well. I wouldn't be surprised if Slovakia upsets either Sweden or Russia to make it into the medal round. Their goaltending just isn't enough for me to pick them, however.

Notice that I haven't mentioned the United States yet. That's because they don't figure to be medal contenders. They'll certainly make the quarterfinals, but I don't like their chances going up against any of the 4 favorites. With no more Mike Richter in goal, the US has 3 mediocre goalies. More importantly, with Mike Modano, Bill Guerin, and Keith Tkachuk on the tail-end of their careers, the Americans lack true offensive sniper. Don't get me wrong, the US have a ton of decent players, but nobody who is truly world class at this point. If they are to contend, and unsung player like Brian Rolston, Brian Gionta or Craig Conroy will have to shine. Even if that happens, I don't think Rick DiPietro or Robert Esche will be able to stand up to the offensive assaults of teams like Russia or Slovakia.

So I'm gonna go like this:

Gold: Canada
Silver: Czech Republic
Bronze: Russia
4th: Sweden

Sunday, February 05, 2006

DAS UBER BOWLEN

Ah, the Super Bowl. The time every year when every sports reporter turns into an ombudsman, and all the stories are about every other sports reporter's overcoverage and undercoverage. The media turns into a giant, amorphous, asexually reproducing blob. Why? Because for god's sake, one lousy football game does not 2 weeks worth of news make, even if it's not actually a lousy game. ESPN has a hard time filling up 2 hours of actual pregame shows without resorting to gimmicks during the regular season when 14-16 games a week are happening. It's not surprising when the whole thing turns into a navel-staring contest. See look, they've even got me doing it! I've now joined the legions of "critics" pointing out media oversaturation!

Oh right, the game. I've been a big fan of Matt Hasselbeck's all season long, probably because he was my fantasy quarterback in all three leagues I was in. He's very much a right-handed Steve Young Lite, adequate arm strength, pinpoint accuracy, soft touch, nimble on his feet, and above all, decisive. His one pick in the last 6 or so games is no fluke. But all that isn't why I picked him on all my fantasy teams. Why then? Because the NFC West is home to some of the worst defenses in the NFL. And that's the dirty little secret about the Seahawks--they haven't had a convincing victory over a healthy, good team all season. It's important to consider all those adjectives in the previous sentence. Their victory over the Giants was not convincing, and had the game been played outside of Seattle, likely would have swung the other way. Their two playoff victories came over two exhausted teams. The win over Carolina was almost convincing, but jeez, Carolina was playing like their 5th string running back and only have one offensive player capable of doing anything!

But just because the Seahawks haven't yet had a convincing victory over a good team doesn't mean they are incapable of it. Their offense may have padded its stats against the underbelly of the NFL, but the fact remains that they can really move the ball. It's true; Seattle doesn't see much of the 3-4 in the NFC, but since Seattle is usually a run-first team and has one of the best offensive lines in the league, this shouldn't be a problem. Oh, and there's that Shaun Alexander guy too. I love Troy Polamalu, but if there's one thing he does, it's bite on play-action fakes. I've seen him do it many times this year against quarterbacks of much lesser quality than Hasselbeck. Why the Colts didn't try this more often is beyond me. So yeah, the Seahawks are gonna score.

Unfortunately for them, so is Pittsburgh. Lofa Tatupu aside, Seattle doesn't really have too many "plus" defenders. Pittsburgh's offensive line has been terrific in the playoffs in pass protection which will allow Ben "Drink Like a Champion" Roethlisberger the time to find open receivers. And yes, they should be open. No one in the league can cover Hines Ward in the red zone, and I don't expect Seattle to start the trend. Tatupu might be able to cover tight end Heath Miller, but if Pittsburgh calls enough running plays, Miller should be able to slip into those intermediate zones and gain 15 yards at a time like he did against Indy and Denver. To me, both Indy's and Denver's defenses are superior to Seattle's, and Pittsburgh had no problem handling them through the air and then running down clock on the ground. Of course, Pittsburgh's dirty little secret is that they haven't rushed very effectively in the playoffs and that much of their success can be attributed to 3rd down conversions, traditionally a finicky statistic that fluctuates rather randomly. In other words, they've been lucky. Like the time when Champ Bailey dropped a sure interception and it bounced into the arms of Hines Ward. Again, however, Seattle's defense doesn't pose as menacing a threat as either Denver's or Indy's.

When the game plays out in my head, I see a less drastic version of the Pittsburgh/Indy game. Pittsburgh will go up early, maybe 14-0 or 14-3, and hold that lead for a while. Seattle will mount a comeback in the second half after making adjustments and maybe cut the lead to something like 23-17 at the start of the 4th quarter. But this time Pittsburgh will punch it in instead of fumbling, making it 30-17 before Seattle scores an ultimately futile touchdown in the waning seconds. That would make it Pittsburgh 30, Seattle 24.