Surprising Slovakia next hurdle for Canada
What to watch -- Canada was expected to be in this game; Slovakia was not.
The Slovaks entered this tournament as underdogs in their pool, which also included Russia and the Czech Republic. Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa and Miroslav Satan came to Vancouver with nagging injuries. Yet here are the Slovaks, in the medal round for the first time and just one win away from the gold medal game. They've already penned an incredible story are these Olympics. If they beat Canada, it would be like a bad fiction writer went far too deep into dreamland.
On the other hand, the Slovaks represent just another hurdle for the Canadian machine, which steamrolled Russia in what supposed to be the tournament's dream matchup. Canada has been getting better with each game -- and after a 7-3 shellacking of the Russians it found an identity, too.
It's the Canadian identity of working hard and working smart. Mike Babcock severely outcoached Russia coach Slava Bykov and the Canadian players took away all of the time and space the Russian players love to operate with. They'll have to do it again.
"I would say it's more of a North American brand now, because I think us and the United States play a very similar brand of hockey," Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman told NHL.com. "I think we're showing, Canada and the U.S., that the players have skill. They can skate, pass the puck and shoot the puck. They are creative and they can get it in there to play a strong game. I think it's the North American game and we showed that it's a good skill level, it's not just dump it in, chase it and outwork them."
Slovakia -- The Slovaks were so happy with their win over Sweden on Wednesday night that they decided to burn that celebration oil well into Thursday. Like the Canadians, they did not hold a practice. Unlike the Canadians, they were not ready to move on to the next game when morning dawned.
"We are still living what we accomplished last night," Slovak GM Peter Bondra said.
Slovakia has a lot to celebrate, but the Slovaks now have a lot to deal with, too. The Canadians pose an even bigger threat than the Swedes because of their overall size, skill and speed. Sweden also never got untracked offensively in the tournament, which is another reason it bowed out early.
What the Slovaks have going for them is the best special teams in the tournament. They are No. 1 on the penalty kill (18-for-19) and No. 1 on the power play (7-for-19). They scored a pair of power-play goals and were perfect on all three penalty kills against Sweden. They also killed off all five penalties when they played the Russians.
Canada -- It will be interesting to see how Babcock plays this one. Canada will get the advantage of having the last change as a result of a better goal differential in the preliminary round (7-5), and Babcock is hot on matchups.
He formed a five-man unit of Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, Rick Nash, Shea Weber and Scott Niedermayer to shut down Russia's top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. Slovakia smartly skates Hossa and Gaborik on separate lines, and both are right wings.
If Babcock keeps his same lines, he could use the Toews' line and Ryan Getzlaf's line to matchup with Slovakia's top two units. Richards and Brenden Morrow would be the left wings, but Babcock might have Nash and Richards swap sides, too, if he wants a bigger body guarding either Gaborik or Hossa.
The technicalities aside, Canada smells gold now and you have to think the Canadians won't let an upstart team like Slovakia stand in their way. It's not as if the Canadians need any more motivation, but they'll know what's at stake if Team USA beats Finland earlier in the day.
"I don't think I'm going to talk about that. It's still a long ways away," Roberto Luongo said of the potential for a U.S.-Canada gold medal game. "Like (Wednesday), a lot of people were talking about us playing Sweden, but we said you never know what can happen. There's no point in jumping ahead of ourselves."
Total NHL players on rosters -- Switzerland 13; Canada 23
Puck drop -- "I think the whole experience has been as good as everybody has talked about and it's really something to play in front of a crowd with that energy," Jarome Iginla told NHL.com. "To see Canadians get into it and be apart of it, on the streets and everywhere, it's great. It's been an awesome experience and as a group we have been enjoying it. As the tournament has gone on we have gotten more comfortable in that area and we're not looking at it as pressure. We are going to go out there as a team, be aggressive, physical and assertive and the rest will take care of itself."
NHL.com predicts -- Slovakia puts a scare into Canada, but only early in the game. The Canadians get rolling in the second period and put the game away early in the third. A nation starts looking ahead to what could be on Sunday in the gold medal game.
-- Dan Rosen