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Buoyed by a love of the best game you can name
29 Jul

Sochi Olympic Hockey: The Russians are Favoured and Everyone Else will have to Go Big or Go Home

The Russians will be looking to end the hockey hibernation and will be like the proverbial hungry bear in Sochi.



With the Sochi Winter Olympics fast approaching (well, more like a three legged racehorse to those anticipating it like the hockey Christmas morning that it is) there is much talk around the internet as to who is likely to medal and in what position. It brings with it a lot of interesting analysis and discussion. These are the things that keep us hockey fans cold through the long, hot summer, right? The little chill in the evening in mid-fall means that while my neighbour is sniffing the air and saying "time to bring in the begonias, smells like frost", I am saying "time to renew the cable package, smells like hockey".

This year's NHL schedule, starts on October 1st at 7:00 PM with a puck drop, fittingly, in Bell Center, the home of the Montreal Canadiens, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the Toronto-Montreal rivalry is not quite as fierce and storied as the Montreal - Boston rivalry, often considered one of the greatest in professional sports, the Habs and Leafs make blood, if not boil, simmer on high. That means it is always good for entertaining, illuminating and sometimes agitating reads. Who hasn't laughed out loud at some of the things the beat writers and fans of such teams say to and about one another? Or laughed at themselves upon reflection of something said in the heat of that bad/good goal moment, called/uncalled penalty or heartbreaking loss/joyous win?

The Olympics tend to gather the 30 separate NHL fan bases and then, like a binary search, split the whole into two more or less equal portions. There are the Americans and there are the Canadians. It can bring fans of even the most contentious, carefully cultivated NHL rivalries, together in a shared dream. Of course, the second the final whistle blows in Sochi and the medals have been decided, it's back to the name-calling, ad hominen attacks and laughable tit-for-tat arguments that characterize all sports fan bases. Well, once the requisite neener-neener-boo-boo has been done, naturally. A fan has a duty, after all.

What Are the Odds?

According to OddsShark, the NHL fan of either stripe will be more likely to be engaged in mutual commiseration than in any other form of exchange. And while a silver or bronze medal is no small matter, it is not the gold. And the gold is the ... well, the gold standard. With the countries being ranked: Russia, Canada, Sweden and America, odds makers are setting up a battle of the underdogs, something that both Canada and America do not like to be called when it comes to hockey. No one wants to be the bigger underdog. At least no one on this side of the pond. Underdog tags are for countries like Latvia and Kazakhstan, not for the two teams that make up one of the greatest continental rivalries of all time. On behalf of both Canadians and Americans, "Grrrr".

As expected, the ice surface size is being touted as being one of the "x" factors, one of those things that can be used to evaluate a team's likely chances when all the usual evaluation metrics are accounted for. Jack Randall of OddsShark.com, says, "The bigger ice surface always presents challenges for North American players and it will dictate how teams are picked as well. You can't have grinders or guys who can't keep up, because that lack of speed will get exposed on the bigger ice."

While I agree that this is somewhat true and an accurate enough summary, I think I believe that home ice advantage is the larger boost to Russia than the ice surface size. I don't believe it represents enough of a handicap to the North American teams to be an actual handicap, in the odds and betting sense.

But let's talk about rinks first. Let's whip them out and measure them up, shall we?

Less Rinky Dink Rinks

In Sochi, hockey will be played at two different venues which will be located nearly side by side in the Olympic Park. There will be the Bolshoy Ice Dome (capacity: 12,000) and the  Shayba Arena (capacity: 7000). Both arenas will be "Olympic size" (61m X 31m), as opposed to the North American size (61m X 26m) rink used in the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Both rinks have the same corner radius of 8.5m. The Olympic rink is not longer, merely wider by 5 meters (15 feet).

The width is a factor and will tend to make the plays more diagonal than North-South and we will see more East-West action than we do in North America. Otherwise the significant differences occur in the spacing of the play lines. There is a wider area betwen the boards and the goal line in the Olympic rink which is measured at 4m (13 feet) while the North American counterpart is 3.35m (11 feet). So, a deeper "behind the net" area.

The blue lines are 17m (56 feet) from the goal line in the Olympic rink while the North American rink's are separated by 19.5m (64 feet) which translates to a smaller play zone from which to attack or to have to defend. Which means, of course, that the neutral zone, the space between the two blue lines and dissected by the red or center line, is wider by 3m (8 feet).

So, to sum up, the Olympic rink is wider, the behind the net area is deeper, the playing zones are shallower and the neutral zone is deeper. Otherwise everything else remains the same, from faceoff circles, net placement and referee's crease to the player benches and penalty boxes. In terms of square footage, or ice surface, the Olympic rink is 1891sm and the North American rink is 1586sm. A total surface difference of 305sm or 16%, all of it in width.

I do not personally believe the actual size difference is the most important difference in terms of game style. I believe the line variations, the structure of the game board, is more important than the extra width.

It's a Game of Slippery Chess

You hear a lot of talk, from the management and coaches of both North American teams, how they're selecting players for their speed and ability to cover more ice on each shift. That translates pretty simply to "no old guys need apply". They don't just want faster legs, they want legs which can skate longer at peak performance. Which may be a mistake if you are of the school of thought, such as I am, that player speed is not really the biggest factor to be considered. Conditioning, yes. Endurance, yes. Speed? Not so much. 

The North American game is played at breakneck speed, much faster than the European game. This is due to a reduced "decision area" with the smaller neutral zone and a larger "playing area" in each end. There is much less time in North America to set plays through the NZ and a much larger playing space in which decisions must be made quickly; the play is more "hot potato" than "eenie meenie minie moe".

It's why players like Evgeni Malkin, raised on the big ice, tend to do better when they can come into the play zone with puck possession and go all the way to the net while players like Sidney Crosby tend to do better when they are engaged in the play area melee and score from up close, gaining puck possession as part of a scrum or an in-zone play. Their game styles were set when they were young and they were set on different sized rinks. Malkin's biggest advantage will not be his skating speed, it will be the time he and his linemates have to set their play while skating through the neutral zone with the puck; the momentum they gain on the approach, which will be less impeded than on the smaller rink.

This is primarily where the wider surface comes into play, no one, neither the forwards nor the defense, can be chasing players all over the ice, so the NZ will be much less congested and less a part of the active playing area than North American players are used to. Instead of plays which collide at the center line, going this or that way, with a constant intensity, there is almost always a tempo change in between opposing puck possessions. Players are still milling about, but they are less engaged with one another, the team with the puck possession is setting the play and the opposing team is waiting to see what they will do, with only a small amount of actual pressure. The big ice means one very important thing: you can't over skate the play or you will be lost in the hinterlands. This, in turn, translates to: you can't over engage in the neutral zone  or you will over skate the play.

To use an in-context example, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the closest thing the NHL has to a European style team. The Boston Bruins might well be the epitome of the North American style. There is NO way the Bruins could have done what they did to the Penguins in the 2013 playoffs on the larger ice surface. They would have died from exhaustion inside the NZ. Only Chara would have been left standing.

The rink is 16% larger but the neutral zone is a whopping 30% larger. In my mind, it's not the larger ice surface that poses the problem, it's the Prince Edward Island sized neutral zone.

In fact, it's in North America that you need faster skaters. Or, at least, quicker ones, because the play changes so fast between zones and the playing zone is much larger. In an Olympic sized rink the play inside the active zone is much closer and tighter, more frenetic, but the time between zones is much slower and more controlled. In short, unless they're Douglas Murray's slower cousin, most players will be fast enough. Inside the playing zone, everyone either team could send is likely fast enough.

On the larger surface the more important quality is what we tend to call "hockey smarts". It changes the game from something like the "lightening chess" it resembles in North America to something closer to the game the Grand Masters play where it's all about how many moves ahead you can see, not how fast you can decide what move to make. Giving up the "old guys" with their patience, expanded experience and the "smarts" that come with it, may be a mistake both North American teams will make. Or, at least, from early reports it seems to be one they are aimed most resolutely towards.

It bears saying that many players have both smarts and speed, so patience may be the defining factor. That's a harder thing to find in a young player and, not coincidentally, the faster they skate, the faster they execute their plays and patience is not a thing they have developed. While this won't prove as problematic on the offense (giving up the experience and "smarts" for the speed), where speed is definitely more important in general, it might actually work against them on the defense. 

North American players tend to have an intuitive approach to the game, especially the forwards, and what can stymie players, especially young players, is having too much time to make a decision. They will have to work hard to overcome the "second thinking" and over analysis that comes with the extra time.

You see this problem with the juniors, especially the Under 18s, when they play in international tournaments for the first time. They are so unused to having so much thinking time that they do too much of it. The confuse over analysis with patience. It takes the advantage away from the player with the puck and instead of organizing the play in his head, he's second guessing his decisions, or seeing too many options unfolding on the surface in front of him.

So, if you're going to have a lot of young players, selected for their speed, you have to get them to do a lot of patience building drills and off-ice mental exercises. The patient player keeps the puck longer, in simple terms. Puck possession is always one of the keys, but it's the master key at the Olympics.

The advantage to the North Americans is the team rosters are liberally laced with players with international experience. Let's hope they haven't forgotten the lessons learned.

No Brash, Impatient or Goal Scoring Defensemen Need Apply

But nowhere will patience count more than with the defensive corps. You will see a lot more European defensemen "standing around" and waiting for the play to come to them on the larger surface. Sometimes they seem more like preliminary goal tenders than what North Americans are used to seeing in a defenseman. A defender can't compensate for an offensive threat until he sees what it is and the larger neutral zone allows teams to create offensive plays that are more like football plays than North American hockey plays. 

There's a lot of misdirection and diversion in big ice hockey. Tactics that there is no room to perform in the smaller NZ of North America. A good positional defenseman who has the experience and smarts to not be fooled by the diversions and the patience to wait in place until the play is within reach is what the teams need. Of course, if the defense is constantly fooled into moving out of position, they will definitely need speed to get back into it again. But that's selecting for failure scenarios which is no way to select an Olympic team. Better to select for the right initial qualities and not the compensating kind.

Younger, more brash and less patient defenders will be tempted to chase the play like they do in North America, to move too far outside their home dots and with the wider rink and smaller play area could well find themselves out along the boards in the neutral zone, scrambling to get back to a play that is already over. Defenders will have to be more of the "stay at home" and shut-down style than the wandering, offensive-minded kind. They need defenders who are protective of their assigned area, more concerned with keeping the play out of it at the front door than trying to steal an opportunity by meeting the foe at the front gate.

In other words, if a defenseman has an urge to make a clever little pinch, he had better be damn sure he's going to intercept the play because the resulting failure will not be pretty. In fact, my advice to the defensemen about pinching: don't. Just don't. The boards are farther away than you think and the only thing to stop your momentum is your legs and in case you failed physics classes, here's a clue: there is no "opposing force" in your legs. It's dead stop and start again under your own steam. You can count that delay in whole seconds. Games are won and lost in whole seconds. The boards don't just stop you, they help get you going again.

In fact, the boards might as well have a big sign on them saying "Here there be monsters" because they are not your friend on the big ice. They are definitely your enemy and if you're playing along them you're playing the game wrong and will likely lose.

No mistake, defenders will need to be fast, the opposing players have had a longer time to get organized and gain speed, but we all know that by the time a defenseman is actually chasing someone, the battle is already lost and it's all about damage control and in the care of the guy wearing the giant leg pads. No surprise that most of the "good" penalties defenders take are in these scenarios where the hook is all that's left to stop the scoring chance.

Possession is Nine Tenths of the Win

It comes down to puck possession, really. The same as it does on either side of the pond. The game doesn't change and both the fundamental approach to it and the underlying base objectives are the same. Get the puck. Keep the puck. Put the puck in the net. It's all about the possession.

How the two sides of the world deal with puck possession is, in fact, quite different. Using Sweden, the highest ranking non-Russian team, as an example: they don't play the boards, finding those board battles to be wasteful of energy, time and space, they almost never forecheck because that eats up energy and with such a wide rink it's like chasing a two year old around the coffee table (sure, you'll catch him but will be too exhausted to hold him) and the dump and chase is a laughable way to manage that much space. 

If you're a North American team playing against them, they prefer to stymie your offensive effort and take the puck off you when you fail by taking one of those cowboy shots the North Americans are famous for ... shoot from everywhere, shoot without a real chance of scoring .... just shoot. Let's call that the Ottawa Senators rule. A low shooting percentage in an international tournament is the Last Post playing softly in your ear.

The Swedes do a thing better than anyone else, a thing that may be the tipping point in the tournament. They know how to recognize a lack of scoring chance and regroup without losing possession. With passing plays and a bit of cagey give and take, you see them like a swarm of bees ... one moment all over the place and making a charge at the net and then falling back and into a new pattern, the puck still in their possession.

Have I mentioned I think Sweden is the team to beat?

The Russians and Fins play a more North American style than do the Swedes and the Czechs, with more forechecking and board play and less-than-perfect shots on goal, but less so than the actual North Americans. These things, in my mind, are the most glaring potential weaknesses the North Americans must overcome: giving in to the temptation to take shots on goal that are very unlikely to be successful, getting lost in forechecking traps and thinking the corners and boards are, somehow, their friends. In many areas, they have to play against every bit of NHL experience they have. All this talk about speed feels a little like being concerned with making sure they CAN make those mistakes, as opposed to avoiding them.

This is where the patience pays off and if the North American teams can instill this patience into their players they may prevail on their talent, either of them. The quick list what skills the players selected to the team need, in my opinion, reads like this  (1) the ability and willingness to be patient and hang onto the puck and not to lose possession except to a very good scoring opportunity or another player in a better position; (2) the ability to refrain from engaging in board battles because winning them is not quite fruitless, but not quite as effective as an open ice engagement and has pitfalls; and (3) the ability to stifle the urge to forecheck and otherwise agitate which can turn into a bait and switch pretty fast on the big ice. I wouldn't even put "skating fast" on the list, to tell the truth. I'd be more worried about their conditioning and ability to know when to stop skating and wait for the play to unfold.

Home Sweet Home

While Russia does play a more puck possession style than the North Americans, and traditionally they pass more and shoot less, waiting for the high-quality scoring chance, they are less patient than the Swedes, wiling to take slightly more offensive risks. Their game has been influenced heavily by the North American style and has become progressively more westernized since the Summit Series back in the seventies. Some folks believe it is this "sitting on the fence" posture, playing something of a hybrid style, which has accounted for their declining Olympic performance. Some of that can't be helped with so many NHL players on their national team, but some of it is a deliberate and intentional shift in style related to, surprise-surprise, the marketability of the KHL on-ice product. Fans love those shots on goal and the back and forth style and pace of North American hockey.

It is fair to say that, within the top five or six teams,  no particular team has a roster advantage. Canada's dream team-esque roster has some big names on it, but more than most team sports, hockey is an actual "team sport" that relies more heavily on style, game strategy and the individual players' abilities to carry out that overall game plan in a cohesive fashion than it does on individual breakout performances. Canada, more than any other team, except maybe Russia, risks the "superstar syndrome" where, individual players will try and carry the play, particularly when the game plan is not working out so well. Patience there will also be a factor.

For the Russians, talent and style wise, they stand as good a chance as any of the top 5 or 6 teams of winning the gold so their home ice advantage cannot be discounted. Like it was for Canada in Vancouver in 2010 they have the double advantage of not only home ice, but home ice size. The energy that comes from an adoring and expectant crowd has the potential to be a positive reinforcement if they are playing well but has the double edge of being able to demoralize them if they are playing badly. Like all "hockey countries" the crowd is informed and aware, familiar with what is and is not good hockey. If the Russian team does not let the crowd down, the crowd will not let them down. They don't have to win all the time, but they have to play well all the time.

Like Canada, it will be gold or bust for the Russians. Their crowd and their players will find no solace in a silver or a bronze. Sochi, coming as it does, right after Vancouver, will have the overtones of a grudge match against the two hockey giants and a failure by Russia to win at home will have the same devastating effect it would have had on Canadians. Hockey, there as here, is serious national business and every player on the Russian team knows it.

I believe the Russian "hockey soul" is as prideful and determined as the Canadian one and I believe that while Sweden could surprise us all with their patient, organized and strategic approach to the game, it is most likely that Russia will, in fact, take the gold.

That said, if it ends up as a Canada-Russia gold medal game, all bets are off, of course, because that takes the thing into a whole other realm and I wouldn't put a single cent on either team because, frankly, I can't imagine either of them losing that one. One would, of course, but I wouldn't know which way to turn my bet.



Previously on Sidelines:
Pittsburgh Penguins: Their Loss of Brenden Morrow will be Someone Else's Great Gain

Next on Sidelines:
The Golden Years: Winnipeg Jets 1.0