With the rosters named and the Olympic ice hockey tournament slated to start just over a month from now, it's a good time to answer some common questions about the structure of the tournament and how the rules overseas differ from those commonly seen in NHL play.
Read on for answers to those frequent questions, as well as for an explanation of how those answers will impact the tournament.
Twelve teams will participate in the Olympic tournament—nine owing to their position in the 2012 IIHF World Rankings and three others (Austria, Latvia and Slovenia) by winning their respective qualification tournaments (Austria squeaking by Germany, Latvia doing the same with Kazakhstan and Slovenia beating Belarus cleanly).
Based on the teams' respective positions in those IIHF rankings, they were divided into three groups, with the winner of each group and the best non-winner in the round-robin segment getting a bye to the quarterfinals while the remaining eight teams play in a qualification round. The groups and IIHF rankings are as follows:
- Group A: Russia (1), Slovakia (6), United States (7), Slovenia (18)
- Group B: Finland (2), Canada (5), Norway (8), Austria (15)
- Group C: Czech Republich (3), Sweden (4), Switzerland (9), Latvia (11)
The groups don't really reflect each roster's strength because they are heavily weighted on World Championship results, a tournament which competes for players every year with the NHL playoffs.
After the round-robin segment, every game is an elimination match.
It’s a truism that European hockey players traditionally embrace a more East-West style than those trained in North America. That’s because while an Olympic standard ice surface shares the same length as one in Canada or the United States (200 feet) it is 15 feet wider, which adds a total of 3,000 square feet to the ice surface.
That extra space makes a huge difference. The Score’s Justin Bourne had a fantastic piece on the full implications of moving to the larger ice surface, which is well worth reading, but to summarize everything down to one point, the gist is that possession matters a lot more.
When a European player is criticized for trying to make the perfect play, what we’re seeing is a result of trying to play a game suited to the European ice surface—where just throwing the puck on net isn’t viable because it’s going to be extremely difficult to get that puck back. It doesn’t work in the NHL because players don’t have the time and space that they do overseas. Similarly, a team that plays a traditional North American game is going to spend a lot of time trying to recapture the puck possession it lost on an ineffective dump-in or wasted long-range shot.
Under IIHF rules, each team is allowed to dress 20 players and two goaltenders rather than the NHL standard of 18 players and two goalies.
This allows teams to dress four sets of forward lines and four rather than three defence pairings. Other combinations are also possible; a team might have four forward lines, three defence pairings and a spare player at each position or employ three sets of defencemen and two-thirds of a fifth forward line.
There are a number of variations between the NHL and the IIHL (whose rule book is followed in international play). Here are some of them:
- No trapezoid. Puck-handling goalies who are limited in the NHL by being forbidden to play the puck in the corners will be freed. The IIHF allows goalies to play pucks anywhere they would like, not limiting them to a painted trapezoid area.
- No-touch icing. Plays that see a team ice the puck are blown dead as soon as it crosses the goal line.
- Penalties. Penalties are stiffer in international play. Some penalties (butt-ending, checking from behind, spearing) are automatic double-minors or come with a 10-minute misconduct. All major penalties come with an automatic match penalty, as does fighting. All blows to the head come at a minimum with a two-minute minor penalty and a 10-minute misconduct.
- Equipment adjustment. Any goalie needing to fix his equipment (something occasionally used as a delaying tactic in the NHL) has to do it on the bench and is replaced by the team's backup.
- The crease. Goals are disallowed if a player or his stick enters the goal crease, except as a result of interference from a defending player.
The tournament's hockey games will be split between two arenas.
The primary arena is Bolshoy Ice Dome, a 12,000-seat arena that was first opened in 2012. All of the games from the semifinals on will be held at this venue, as will all but two of the games in the qualification round and the quarterfinals.
The secondary venue is the smaller Shayba Arena, which has a capacity of 7,000 and will handle a portion of the round robin as well as one game in the qualification round and a final game in the quarterfinals.
The entire tournament will span 11 days. A single team that both appeared in the qualification round and made it to the finals would play seven games in that span, which is an exceptionally busy schedule by both European and NHL standards.
For this reason, it will be especially important for teams to play well in the round robin. The quarterfinals will be held the day after the qualification round, and there will only be a one-day break between the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Any team that plays in the qualification round will be tired and facing a higher seed in the quarterfinals and will then be playing its third game in four days in the semifinals. After playing three games in four days in the round robin, fatigue is certain to be a factor.