Group play for men's hockey at the Sochi Games has come to a close with Canada's 2-1 overtime win over Finland on Sunday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia,
The victory finds Canada atop Group B with eight points.
After beating Slovenia 5-1 on Sunday, Team USA won Group A with eight points. Group C winner, Sweden, was the only team to pull out a perfect nine points from group play.
It is now onto elimination play for all 12 teams. Have a look at Sunday's results, and then I'll break down the biggest storylines circling the ice.
|Day 9 Olympic Hockey Results|
|Austria 3||Norway 1|
|Russia 1 (SO)||Sloviakia 0|
|United States 5||Slovenia 1|
|Canada 2 (OT)||Finland 1|
|Russia 6||Japan 3|
|Finland 2||Germany 1|
Can explosive Team USA be stopped?
Team USA will have a bye in the first round of elimination play in the race for gold. They earned that by looking incredibly strong.
The Americans have outscored their three opponents 15-4 in Sochi. The plus-11 goal differential is easily the best of any nation.
On Day 9, Phil Kessel picked up a hat trick for the Americans as they dominated Slovenia from start to finish and emerged with a 5-1 win.
Kessel now has four goals in Sochi.
Team USA's center David Backes realizes the importance of Kessel and his knack for coming up big when it matters.
Kevin Allen of the USA Today passed along this Backes quote:
He's a guy who has grown on the ice and he has shown he can handle the big-time situations. He is out there making plays all of the time. He's got composure. He doesn't get rattled when someone is in his face. That growth is great for our team.
It also helps Kessel that he is often playing alongside his Maple Leafs teammate James van Riemsdyk. As PhiladelphiaFlyers.com insider Anthony San Filippo points out, these two, along with Joe Pavelski have helped form a formidable line.
Team USA has a lot of work left, but this team has clearly shown they can handle any opponent.
Can Russia save its Olympics?
The Russians want this hockey gold on their home ice. This is a country that loves hockey and has a rich tradition in the sport, steeped in Soviet-era Olympic dominance.
Vladimir Pozner, a prominent Russian journalist, spoke to the importance of hockey in the following quote provided by Dave Sheinen of the Washington Post:
Hockey is the most important sport in Russia in any kind of winter competition. And after really getting blown out in Vancouver . . .it was seen here in Russia as being shameful. There is a huge desire to set the record straight in Sochi.
This is a team that faces the hopes and expectations of their country in a greater way than their opponents. This is also a team that didn't win its group and will be active in the first round of elimination play.
Russia won two of its three games in round-robin play, but did so while accumulating a goal differential of just plus-three. Two of Russia's games went to a shoot out, and that included their Day 9 victory over Slovakia.
Russia emerged with a 1-0 victory after the stellar play of Slovakian goalie Jan Laco stymied his opponent's fierce attack.
Russia looks good moving into elimination play, but they also look vulnerable.
That lack of dominance could certainly be eroding this proud team's confidence, and confidence will be especially vital to this group.
It is hard to even scratch the surface on the giant ball of pressure this team is under. Just a few seeds of doubt could turn the support and passion of the home fans into a suffocating blanket.
Should Sweden be considered the favorite?
As I mentioned, Sweden is the only team to pull a perfect nine points out of group play. The Swedes are talented, have momentum and advance as the No. 1 seed.
There is a lot to like about this team. That includes the elite goalkeeping of Henrik Lundqvist.
Of course, it is Lundqvist himself who points out why it is far too early to hand Sweden the gold. In a quote captured by the Associated Press and passed along by ESPN, Lundqvist had this to say on his team's near future and recent past: "We're going to play better teams. It will be more intense."
With Lundqvist in goal, the Swedes can beat anyone, but this team is moving into the knockout portion of the competition against teams who faced stiffer challenges in early rounds.
Teams like Canada, Russia and the Americans have the firepower to beat Lundqvist, and Sweden would have to play a complete game to beat those teams.
That is certainly not out of the question, but it's part of the reason why I wouldn't name this country the favorite to take hockey gold.
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