By Daniel Friedman
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With a loss to Slovenia on Tuesday, his Austrian squad was eliminated from the Olympic tournament.
But by all accounts, Michael Grabner had a phenomenal run.
Grabner’s recent struggles have been well-documented. The 26-year-old winger has nine goals in 56 games this season for the Islanders. In Sochi, however, he notched five goals in four games, showing the type of poise and capability that has been absent on this side of the Atlantic Ocean for quite some time.
He made quite the impression on the international scene, and the hope is that it will continue when the Isles resume play on Feb. 27.
Grabner kicked off the tournament with a hat-trick against Finland and a few days later added two goals in a win over Norway. Contrast that with the play of Thomas Vanek, his teammate on both Team Austria and the Islanders, and Grabner was a superstar. Vanek did nothing.
Now, it’s important not to jump to conclusions based on a small sample size, but I think there’s already enough previous evidence to suggest there’s something that can be gleaned from Grabner’s Olympics.
I’ll start by mentioning that Grabner has put up numbers at the NHL level. He scored 34 goals in his rookie season, 20 the following season, and in 16 in 45 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.
I’d also say that you don’t light up Tuukka Rask for a three goals by accident. Grabner did that while facing not only Rask, but also a strong Finnish team that more or less dominated the Austrians.
The wider international ice surface might’ve been a factor, but Grabner has never had trouble finding open ice for himself in the NHL. His problem has been finishing.
The nets used at the Olympics are the same size as those used in the NHL. From what I understand, a wrist shot also works the same way regardless of the country you’re playing in.
What that tells me is Grabner’s NHL production this season has been the anomaly. He’s more like the player who scored 54 goals during his first two seasons.
He just needs to show it.
It’s all a matter of confidence. The skills are absolutely there, and that’s why you don’t give up on Grabner. Perhaps he’ll return to the NHL and light it up; perhaps he won’t. But there is no denying the tools are there.
THOUGHTS AND THEORIES
I think it’s fair to say Slovenia has surpassed everyone’s expectations. I think it’s also fair to say we’ll see more Slovenians in the NHL.
Switzerland isn’t an Olympic Cinderella story anymore. The Swiss were expected to compete and beat teams like Latvia with relative ease. What happened Tuesday, a 3-1 defeat, was a huge upset, no matter how you slice it.
As for the Czech Republic’s 5-3 win over Slovakia on Tuesday, if you’re the Slovaks’ head coach how do you not start your best goaltender in an elimination game? Better yet — why did Vladimir Vujtek think it was a good idea to tell Jaroslav Halak that he wouldn’t be playing any more games? Vujtek should be fired. His actionswere unacceptable and not befitting of a coach at this level.
The round of eight begins Wednesday at 3 a.m. Here’s how I think it’ll all play out:
SWEDEN VS. SLOVENIA
Anze Kopitar and Slovenia have a lot to be proud of. The mere fact that this is the little country’s first Olympic appearance and it is still alive is an outstanding achievement. But its road will end here. Sweden will be too much for the upstart Slovenians and will cruise into the semis.
CANADA VS. LATVIA
Latvia pulled off what I consider to be a major upset of Switzerland. With former Islanders’ head coach Ted Nolan at the helm, the Latvians have been fairly competitive in Sochi. But, as they’ll learn the hard way, fairly competitive isn’t good enough against a team like Canada. Sidney Crosby and Co. haven’t quite broken out offensively yet, but I expect that to finally happen Wednesday — just in time for their medal run. One way the Canadians can jump-start their offense is by moving John Tavares off the fourth line, perhaps onto Crosby’s wing. He knows a thing or two about producing.
USA VS. CZECH REPUBLIC
The Americans have looked very good to this point, beating Russia in a shootout and then blowing past Slovakia and Slovenia by a combined score of 12-2. It won’t be an easy game — Czech Republic has solid depth and its power play has been outstanding. I think the speed of Team USA, combined with its superior goaltending will be the difference.
RUSSIA VS. FINLAND
If not for its plethora of injuries, Finland would arguably be the favorite in this contest. Rask is as good a goaltender as you can ask for, and the Finns play a strong defensive system that forces opponents to the outside in the offensive zone. Even when teams do breach that barrier, they still have to solve Rask. But you can’t lose Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov, and expect to wrestle with the heavyweights. Russia’s goaltending has been very good as well and, depending on who you talk to, the Russians either boast the world’s best or second-best offense. I expect it to be close, but I expect the Russians to win.
Gold — Sweden (defeats Russia in semifinals, Canada in gold medal game)
Silver — Canada (defeats USA in semifinals)
Bronze — USA (defeats Russia in bronze medal game)
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI
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