Team USA beat Sweden with a great team-effort in the quarterfinals, but could for some reason not find that game in the semis. The Americans are very good when they are playing with the lead, but not so good when they’re behind, and today they fell behind almost right away. Defenseman Pat Aufiero (Rangers) made a poor pass along the offensive blueline which was intercepted by the Czech’s and powerful center Milan Kraft (Pittsburgh) was sent in on a breakaway. Rick DiPietro made the initial save, but could not control the rebound which was jammed home by winger Michal Sivek (Washington). The US then had to put the pressure on to tie the score, and the offensive game has not been the strength of the American team this tournament. Energy, teamwork and dedication has, but the US even lacked this quality today. There were players who had their worst games of the tournament, already mentioned Pat Aufiero, goalie Rick DiPietro among many others, and few players who raised the level of their game. Winger Dan Cavanaugh, a Flames pick, got into the tournament on a banana-peel after defenseman John Liley injured his shoulder in the final exhibitiongame before the tournament. Cavanaughs icetime has increased every game, and he was given a chance to play with USA’s top offensive weapons – center Jeff Taffe and winger Barrett Heisten (Buffalo) today and did not disappoint. Cavanaugh was the Americans best forward showing good teamwork, good skating ability and very good passing ability. Cavanaugh got the Americans only goal on a rebound after setting up the play with a nice flip-pass in the offensive zone after carrying it with good speed and stickhandling. Jeff Jillson (San Jose) showed some flair every now and then, and played a decent game along with captain Adam Hall (Nashville). No one should take any credit away from the Czechs, though. They are a very worthy finalist and outplayed the Americans today. The Czechs have a big team, but it is still not short on skill and good skaters. The Czech’s have the best one-two punch of the tournament at center with captain Milan Kraft on the first line and the smart Josef Vasicek (Carolina) on the second. Both played very good games today generating chances offensively and buying into the team-concept defensively. On defense the Czechs are lead by big and skilled Petr Svoboda. Svoboda is a good passer and moves very well for a player his size. The Czech’s also have quality players in wingers Michal Sivek, Martin Havlat (Ottawa), Zbynek Irgl and Jaroslav Svoboda (Carolina). Zbynek Irgl has been passed over at the draft, but should get picked this summer in Calgary as he has had a very strong tournament. Irgl is small, but nifty with his stick, fearless and a very smart player.
The more interesting semifinal was the one between Canada and Russia. The most classical matchup on the international level anyone can think of. The Russians have assembled a perfect team for the big rinks in Europe and have adopted a very ”unrussianlike” style of play based on patience and strong defense instead of pouring it on offensively. The Russians try to win by scoring on odd-man rushes and having excellent specialteams, and they executed this tactic to perfection today beating Team Canada 3-2. The Russians have a medium-sized defense and small lightning-quick forwards who can beat almost any defenseman one-on-one and almost any goalie on the breakaway. The Russians ooze of pure skill and they are excellent stickhandlers and skaters. Canada is not a quick as the Russians and Russia used their strengths better than the Canadians, which means that Russia deserved to win. The fact that they allowed a couple of breakaways along with the fact that they didn’t get the excellent goaltending from Maxime Ouellet (Philadelphia) they have grown used to over the course of the tournament decided the game. The Czech’s will have a handful containing small forwards like Evgeny Muratov, Valeri Khlebnikov, Evgeny Lapin – all three way below 6 feet tall in the final. They are as quick as they come, have excellent skating-technique, and can handle the puck at top speed. The Russians also have an excellent forwards in leftwingers Dmitri Afanasenkov (Tampa Bay) and Oleg Smirnov (Edmonton). The Canadians had a very poor powerplay as usual in this tournament, and they could never generate the really dangerous scoring-chances with the man-advantage. The best Canadian forward today was Chris Neilsen (Islanders) who showed that he is a very smart player providing screens for his teammates and shutting down passing-lanes for the opposition. Neilsen also played a physical game and played his role to perfection today. The best defenseman was 16-year old Jay Bouwmeester who could skate with the Russians and stop them along the boards with his 6´4-frame. Bouwmeester is an excellent skater and puck-carrier and Canada will benefit greatly from having him on the blueline for the next two tournaments, barring injury.
The Canadians should not be ashamed in any way for this loss against a very strong Russian team who have gelled very well and can play a good team-game. The Russians were better on this day, and the weaknesses Canada has displayed throughout the tournament, mainly a very poor powerplay, shone through today. There will always be criticism in Canada after not winning a gold medal, and surely criticism towards the players. A lot more was expected from certain players and Montreal centre Mike Ribeiro is one of these players. Reports have been saying that he has had trouble getting his head 100% into the games, and if that is the case then just that is proof enough that he shouldn’t have been on the team. But, hindsight is always 20-20. Looking forward to next year, Canada could have up to seven returning players next year, namely goalie Maxime Ouellet, 16-year-olds Spezza and Bouwmeester, defenseman Barrett Jackman (St.Louis) and forwards Dany Heatley, Brandon Reid and Jamie Lundmark (Rangers). Canada should have atleast four of these players back barring injury and poor play, and the fact that Spezza and Bouwmeester will return will do a lot for Canada. Canadians shouldn’t be ashamed of this loss.