When week two of the 2010 Winter Olympics began, more questions surrounded Sidney Crosby
, Marc-Andre Fleury
and Team Canada than any previous entry to don the maple leaf sweater.
One of the co-favorites entering the tournament, Canada needed a shootout to defeat Switzerland, 3-2, and followed that up with a very disappointing 5-3 setback to a less-heralded U.S. squad.
Five days later, thanks to a goaltending change, new linemates for Crosby and an awakened offense, the Canadians have righted their ship. They once again find themselves in the driver’s seat on the way to Sunday’s Gold Medal Game following back-to-back wins over Germany, 8-2, and Russia, 7-3.
Their next stop on the journey takes place on Friday night at Hockey Canada Place when the Canadians face a surprising Slovakian squad at 9:30 p.m. on CNBC. The seventh-seeded Slovaks upset Sweden, 4-3, in the quarterfinal round.
Slovakia’s surprising victory presents another interesting subplot for Crosby, who goes head-to-head with former linemate Marian Hossa with a spot in Sunday’s championship game on the line.
If you recall, Hossa rode shotgun with Crosby in helping lead the Penguins to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, where the Penguins lost in six games to Detroit. That July, Hossa spurned the Penguins for a one-year deal with the Red Wings, saying he thought Detroit presented a better opportunity to win a Cup.
Crosby made Hossa eat his words last June when the Penguins overcame 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits in a Stanley Cup Final rematch to take the Cup away from the Wings.
Now, 48 hours after eliminating archrival Alex Ovechkin and the Russians, Crosby has a chance to end Hossa’s gold medal hopes as well.
Crosby, who ranks second on the Canadians with six points (3G-3A), will have plenty of help with his efforts, as Canada seems to have found the proper chemistry balance in outscoring their previous two foes, 15-5.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo, who took over for Martin Brodeur following the loss to the Americans, seems to have provided a calming influence on the rest of Team Canada. Subtle lines changes, such as throwing Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal onto Crosby’s unit, have helped diversify the Canadian attack. Fourteen different Canadians found the score sheet against Russia and 13 recorded points the night before versus Germany.
As if containing Crosby and Co. up front was enough of a chore, Canada’s defense is chipping in as well. Dan Boyle, one of the favorite in this season’s Norris Trophy hunt, was arguably the Canadians’ top player against Russia with a goal and two assists. He is not alone in supplying offense from the back end as Duncan Keith (0G-5A) and Shea Weber (2G-3A) have also been offensive forces.
While it’s easy to dismiss Slovakia based upon how well the heavily-favored Canadians appear to be rolling, doing so could pose major problems for the host country.
Goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who has taken over the No. 1 reigns for the Montreal Canadiens, is more than capable of stealing a game. He ranks among the leaders in the tournament with a .923 save percentage.
Offensively, while he will never win a popularity contest in Pittsburgh, Hossa has been one of the top performers in the tournament. He is tied for the overall scoring lead with seven points (2G-5A) through five games.
Pavol Demitra, who missed the beginning of the NHL season with a shoulder problem, is playing as well as any point in his career with two goals and five assists. Marian Gaborik appears to have shed the effects of a thigh laceration suffered just prior to the Games, as he leads the Slovaks with three goals.
Despite the strides the Slovaks have taken internationally with their play thus far in Vancouver, Canada is playing too well for those gold medal dreams to stretch beyond Friday. When these two teams line up to shake hands following the final horn on Friday, expect Crosby to once again be on the receiving end of a congratulatory handshake from his former running mate, Hossa.Notes:
Marian Hossa is not the only winger skating for Slovakia on Friday to previously share a line with Sidney Crosby
. Miroslav Satan, who scored the game-winner for the Slovaks against Norway in the qualification round, began last season on Crosby’s right side. Zigmund Palffy, who has picked up three assists in his final Olympic Games, notched 42 points (11G-31A) in 42 games playing alongside Crosby in 2005-06 before retiring in midseason. … Slovakia defenseman Martin Strbak, who ranks third on his team behind Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky in ice time, saw time with the Penguins in 2003-04 after arriving from Los Angeles in November 2003 in exchange for Martin Straka.