Olympic Hockey 2014: The Biggest X-Factors to Watch in the Knockout Rounds
The preliminary round of the men's Olympic hockey competition is over, and teams can now prepare for the knockout rounds, where every game counts.
There were some entertaining games, with Russia vs. United States being the highlight of the first round of play.
But fans can now settle in to watch what should be some high-skilled hockey that will feature the best players on the planet as they try to bring some hardware back to their nations.
In no particular order, here are the biggest X-factors to watch for in the knockout rounds.
All stats can be found on the International Ice Hockey Federation's Olympics website unless otherwise noted.
The Swiss Team's Defensive Play
With everyone playing for keeps now, expect the defensive-minded teams, like the Swiss, to ratchet it up even more.
Led by the Anaheim Ducks' Jonas Hiller, the Swiss have been excellent in their own zone. Swiss hockey has improved immensely over the past decade with wins in Turin against the Czech Republic and Canada in 2006. The Swiss also took Canada to a shootout in early play at the Vancouver Olympics.
Hiller is good enough to steal a game. With the ability of the Swiss to defend, life could be miserable for opponents moving forward. Switzerland has to get by Latvia first, but a Canada vs. Swiss matchup would be intriguing, with Hiller needing to thwart his Anaheim teammates Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
With two shutouts in the books, expect Hiller to continue to be stingy between the pipes.
Finland's Injury Woes
Plucky, inspired and gritty are three words to describe Team Finland's play in Sochi so far. The team is led by the Anaheim Ducks' incomparable Teemu Selanne, who continues to defy time with his speed and skill.
The Finns have been decimated by injury at the centre-ice position. They are missing Minnesota Wild star Mikko Koivu, Florida Panthers rookie sensation Aleksander Barkov and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Valtteri Filppula.
Despite that crater-like hole down the middle, the Finns took Canada to overtime in the round-robin portion of the tournament and scored eight goals in their first game against Austria.
All of the teams will play some physical and demanding games in a short period of time. Even if they dial it back offensively and try to win on the back of Boston's Tuukka Rask, Finland will be challenged to produce offensively against the quality teams.
Zdeno Chara and Slovakia's Improving Play
Team Slovakia looked outclassed against the powerful United States team, getting pounded 7-1. That was followed by an uninspired loss to Slovenia.
But the team looked much better against Team Russia to close out round-robin play in a 1-0 shootout loss on Sunday evening.
The Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara has the game to limit other teams' best players shift after shift. He's playing more than 23 minutes per game in Sochi, which should go up even more in the knockout rounds.
Slovakia will face its fiercest rival the Czech Republic next. If the team improves on its previous play, it should move on against the veteran Czech squad.
Team Sweden's Defence
Canada's defence group has received a lot of adulation, and well it should. Team Sweden's defence corps is also impressive and might be even more talented from top to bottom.
Led by the tandem of the Phoenix Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson, the Swedish defence is big, skilled and mobile.
The team has suffered key injuries to Vancouver's Henrik Sedin and Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. Those injuries have had a negative impact on the Swedish offence. Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson have combined for eight points so far.
Much like Canada, scoring has come in bunches from the blue line.
The Swedes will need more of the same from this talented pairing. If Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson continue to produce at this rate, Sweden just might be atop the podium next Sunday in Sochi.
Jaromir Jagr's Will to Win
New Jersey Devils forward Jaromir Jagr has no business being this good for this long. He's been counted down and out more times than the legendary Butterbean.
The Czech superstar celebrated his 42nd birthday in Sochi, and he continues to dazzle with the puck. The Czechs have not looked great in Sochi, but facing their archrival Team Slovakia could motivate the team to come together.
With expectations quite low given their play and lineup, Jagr and the Czech Republic could surprise people in the knockout rounds if they take advantage of their veteran leadership.
Phil Kessel's Continuing Inspired Play for the United States
American Phil Kessel has continued his hot play at the Sochi Games. He has been flying on every shift.
His skill at high speed has been on full display in Russia, and the line of San Jose's Joe Pavelski and Kessel's Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk has been dynamite. They will face some tough defenders in the games to come, but if Kessel can continue to dominate, the Americans will be in great shape.
He leads the tournament in scoring with seven points following round-robin play, and his creativity on offence could be the spark that leads the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal.
A potential U.S. vs. Canada semifinal will pit him against the likes of Nashville's Shea Weber, the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty and the Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith.
That will be the most important test for Kessel, if that semifinal game materializes.
Sidney Crosby's Offensive Game
Sidney Crosby has played some outstanding two-way hockey in Sochi. He and his linemates always face the opponent's top shutdown pair of defenders. At this level of play, that means he's facing the best defensive players in the game outside of Canada.
He also thrives on a lot of minutes but hasn't been getting a lot of time on the ice in Sochi relatively. He is playing just less than 16 minutes per game, yet he has contributed two assists in three rather meaningless games.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain will be motivated to be even better as the games gain in importance. If Crosby can contribute with some timely scoring and be so sound defensively, Canada should be in very good shape.
Russian Home Cooking
So far, so average for Team Russia in Sochi.
Russia has very good goaltending, some quality defenders and an embarrassment of riches at forward, but those qualities have not translated into exceptional play at the 2014 Olympics. When the team has pressed, it has reverted to individual play rather than relying on the passing abilities of top talents like the Pittsburgh Penguins' Yevgeni Malkin and the Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk.
Russian fans are rabid. They love the game every bit as much as Canadian hockey fans. If you want some recent evidence, look no further than the protest they mounted at the U.S. embassy against referee Brad Meier and his call to disallow the overtime marker by Russia's Fyodor Tyutin.
Russia will have support unlike any other team in the competition. This could be the decisive factor in motivating this talented group to Olympic gold.
Overtime/Shootout Format in the Knockout Rounds
There will be no marathon overtime sessions in the knockout rounds in Sochi.
Unlike the NHL playoffs where games can creep into the wee hours of the morning, even the gold-medal game will be limited to 20 minutes of overtime play before the shootout. All other knockout rounds will feature 10 minutes of overtime prior to a shootout.
As we've seen, the shootout procedures are also different, where shootout freaks of nature like T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues can shoot multiple times. He must have had a lot of time on his hands as a kid with the number of shootout moves he has developed over time.
It seems a shame that the gold medal could be won on a one-on-one contest between two players, but a team's ability to win a shootout contest could be the deciding factor in Sochi.
Teams that fail to plan adequately for the shootout will do so at their own peril.
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