GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – Hockey is a game of mistakes and it’s on display in fine form at the Olympics.
It doesn’t look beautiful, of course, with players all outside the NHL turning the puck over for point-blank scoring chances or leaving opponents wide open in front. The talent level is lower, so the risk factors and the entertainment level are up. Goaltenders have to be on their toes for unexpected, game-saving stops even more than usual.
“It’s a short tournament: A few mistakes can decide your fate,” Finland goaltender Karri Ramo said Saturday. “You try to create more than carry it out of the zone, so obviously teams are trying to keep the puck and create scoring chances, so those mistakes happen. You’re not going to win if you play safe.”
There’s not a whole lot of safe, low-risk play so far, and scoring has increased as a result. After each team played twice, games were averaging 5.1 goals, up from 4.7 in Sochi with NHL players on the rosters.
Four years ago, the bigger international ice allowed eventual Olympic champion Canada to hold on to the puck and simply wear out other teams. This time, it’s being used as a canvas for offensive masterpieces being authored by players such as Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen , the United States’ Ryan Donato and the Russians’ Kirill Kaprizov.
Players with the ability to create and finish are taking advantage of the mistakes being made all over the ice and turning them into goals.
“I think every team’s mentality is to come here and play for a win, not to play not to lose,” Ramo said. “So you’re trying to push it, and you’d rather lose trying than lose by playing too safe. It’s great to see. I think it’s great for the fans, and it’s great for the players, too, to get to kind of play that kind of game once in a while.”
Germany coach Marco Sturm said every team is trying to minimize mistakes while also pressuring teams hard, so there are more opportunities to force turnovers.
“A lot of teams now, they make the pressure up ice and that’s why a lot of mistakes we’re making,” Sturm said. “It seems like that’s the trend right now.”
Canada gave up a goal when veteran defenseman Chris Lee whiffed on a puck and another when former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens’ attempt to rim the puck around the boards went right to a Czech Republic player. Canada lost in a shootout that happened in part because the Czechs capitalized on blunders.
“It’s just different (than the NHL),” former NHL winger Martin Erat said.
In the NHL, Switzerland goaltender Jonas Hiller could count on sound play in front of him. In a blowout win over South Korea, Hiller said, “a lot of stuff happened by accident, and that’s kind of tough as a goalie to read what’s going to happen.” Carey Price and Jonathan Quick in Sochi showed the value of great goaltending, and the impact is even bigger now.
“You have a good goaltender, he gives you an opportunity to win every night,” South Korea coach Jim Paek said after Matt Dalton made 38 saves to keep a game against the Czech Republic close.
A lot of games have been close, too. Six of the first 12 games were decided by a goal, and two of them went to overtime, which is a wild, back-and-forth Broadway show of 3-on-3 on big ice.
This is the first Olympics with 3-on-3 OT on ice that is 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, so Ramo doesn’t believe teams really prepared as much for it as those in North America. Canada and the Czech Republic went through a full five-minute OT and traded scoring chances for much of that time.
“All of us are in Europe, so we’re used to it,” Canada forward Wojtek Wolski said. “You’ve got to really be ready to be jumping.”
Canada coach Willie Desjardin said the OT format was “hard to play” Sturm said “it’s a lot of skating,” and turnovers in OT – those mistakes again – can lead to not one scoring chance but many.
“It certainly is a game of possession,” Ramo said. “Small details can decide who’s going to get the odd-man rush, who’s going to get the breakaway. … Whichever team has the possession of the puck more is more likely to win the 3-on-3.”