Third Star: David Backes (United States)
While the top line for the American side has been gaining all of the headlines in Sochi, it was the team’s checking line that really came to the forefront on Wednesday, as Backes and company racked up several key goals in the American 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic.
On Backes’ first key play of the game, it was his defense as much as his offense that was on full display. In the neutral zone, Backes was able to catch up with Jaromir Jagr along the half-boards, and he ended up muscling the wily veteran off the puck. After Ryan Suter brought it into the offensive zone, he found Backes just below the face-off circle. With a precise pass, Backes found Dustin Brown camped out just past the opposite post, and the Los Angeles Kings’ captain finished off the goal with a one-timer as they took a 2-1 lead.
With just two seconds left in the first period, Backes’ offensive skills were on display once again. On a brilliant sequence, Ryan McDonagh somehow fended off two different Czech defenders and got a pass back to the point to Suter. Suter’s shot ended up going wide of the net and ricocheting off the boards, but Backes was there to score from the sharp angle to give the USA a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
Backes is known mostly for his gritty, physical style in the NHL, but as he showed in the American victory, he is also capable of doing some gorgeous things offensively, and he was a key as the U.S. sealed a matchup with Canada in Friday’s semi-finals.
Second Star: Kristers Gudlevskis (Latvia)
Normally the Three Stars column is reserved for players on winning teams, but Gudlevskis’ performance against the Canadians on Wednesday, while not victorious, was still one for the ages.
In the game, the Latvian goaltender (and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect) ended up making 55 saves, including an incredible 21 saves in the third period as Canada fired away in an attempt to advance to the next round of the tournament. Unfortunately, Shea Weber’s slap shot from the point on a late power play ended up beating Gudlevskis to give Canada a 2-1 victory.
One particular moment in the third period summed up the incredible effort that Gudlevskis put into the game. After making an incredible sequence of saves against a Canadian onslaught, a trainer from the Latvian side came onto the ice and wiped sweat off of the goaltender’s face and neck. He looked completely spent, and even though Weber’s goal came shortly after that, it was a perfect representation of how he carried his team on his back.
For now, Latvia will be left to look back on this Olympics as a measuring stick for the incredible progress they’ve made as a hockey nation, and perhaps to look forward to the 2018 Games in South Korea as they make another attempt to get onto an Olympic medal stand.
First Star: Mikael Granlund (Finland)
While the big story from Wednesday’s quarterfinal game will be the host nation Russians falling to Finland, another big component of the narrative has to be the incredible play of Granlund as he helped his team advance to a semi-final matchup with Sweden on Friday.
In the first period with the game tied at 1-1, Granlund made a remarkable play as he beat defenseman Slava Voynov back to the back in the offensive zone, and in one fluid motion he made a great pass to veteran star Teemu Selanne, who deposited a tap-in one timer into the back of the net to put the Finns up by a 2-1 margin.
Later in the game, Granlund made another outstanding play with Selanne providing the assist this time. With Granlund in front of the net on a Finnish power play, Selanne fired a shot in from near the point that ended up hitting traffic, but Granlund was able to scoop up the rebound and put it into the net past Semyon Varlamov to extend the lead to 3-1.
Granlund and Lauri Korpikoski have been two of the most exciting players in these Olympics for the Finnish side, and they will both be critical as they attempt to win their first gold medal of the NHL Olympic era.