Burning Questions for the Elimination Round at Olympic Hockey Tournament
With Sunday's games in Sochi, the group round of the men's Olympic hockey tournament came to a close. From now on, every single game will be an elimination contest, with the winner advancing to take on an even more difficult foe and the loser being struck from the tournament.
We know now where each of the tournament's 12 teams will be seeded, but our knowledge is dwarfed by our ignorance. This year's games have already featured numerous surprises—from the surprisingly potent Slovenian team to Russia's failure to make the quarterfinals to the implosion of Slovakia—and if history is any guide, more are on the way.
What, then, are the most pressing questions as we head into the elimination round? That's what the following slideshow will answer.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of IIHF.com and current through February 16.
Will Russia Be Eliminated Before the Quarterfinals?
Of international hockey's four big medal threats (five, if one includes Finland), only the Russians run the risk of being eliminated before the quarterfinals.
Russia faces a Norwegian team that has yet to win a game but isn't completely nonthreatening. The Norwegians held the potent Canadian offence to just three goals in the group segment of this year's Olympics, and back in 2010, they forced one-goal decisions against both Switzerland and eventual fourth-place finisher Slovakia.
Our guess: Russia will decisively defeat Norway and advance to play Finland in the quarterfinals.
Which Team Will Be the Biggest Disappointment in This Tournament?
The most disappointing team at this tournament will be determined during the elimination games on Tuesday. That's because not only are four of the world's eight best hockey teams playing in the elimination round, but two of them are facing off against each other.
Russia, considered in the previous slide, will play Norway. Switzerland will face off against Latvia. A Russian loss would be catastrophic and a Swiss loss deeply surprising, but neither is likely to happen. Slovakia and the Czech Republic, however, will play each other, and a loss for either will be a deep blow.
The Czechs, replete with NHL stars, have not been able to avoid controversy. They left players like Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata off the roster, choosing instead to bring 42-year-old Petr Nedved. Their tournament has been plagued by questions. They are, however, better off than the hapless Slovaks, a team that has yet to win a game despite boasting NHL stars like Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa.
At least one of those four teams will fall in the qualification round and earn the title of most disappointing in 2014.
Our guess: Slovakia is already well on its way to this title; it seals the deal with a loss on Tuesday.
How Far Can Slovenia Go?
Every Olympics, it seems some plucky underdog punches dramatically above its weight and delivers an incredible performance. This year it's Slovenia, the tiny country of less than 2,000,000 that is listed by the IIHF as having just 148 senior-level male hockey players.
Slovenia had never previously qualified for the Olympics, but thanks to a shocking win over Slovakia in the group round, the country is poised to finish well above its 17th-place world ranking. Slovenia plays the Austrians on Tuesday and is considered the higher seed in the match by virtue of superior goal differential (like Slovenia, Austria had a single win in the group round).
If Slovenia can beat Austria, it is guaranteed a finish no worse than eighth overall and will play Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Our guess: Slovenia makes it to the quarterfinals but loses there to Sweden.
How Many Underdogs Will Play in the Quarterfinals?
While there generally seems to be a clear separation between the top four or five countries in men's hockey and the rest, there's another split between the top eight and the bottom four at this tournament. Entering the games, the expectation was that Slovenia, Austria, Norway and Latvia would all be eliminated in the qualification round due to their comparatively weak programs.
That won't happen now.
The match between Austria and Slovenia guarantees that at least one of these minnows will survive to reach the quarterfinals, and if Latvia or Norway can upset Switzerland or Russia, respectively, we could see as many as three in the next round.
Our guess: Only Slovenia survives the elimination round.
Will We See a Swiss Game with More Than One Goal?
If one team in this tournament could capture the heart of former Minnesota Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire, it would be Switzerland.
For years, an underpowered Swiss team has made use of two key strengths to hold greater powers at bay. Switzerland seems always to have at least one very high-level goalie, and its players have been taught that the only way they can win internationally is through rigid adherence to an airtight defensive system.
In combination, those strengths have helped the Swiss be competitive with much stronger teams and even beat them at times, as they did the Czechs this year and both Canada and the Czech Republic in 2006. The flip side is that Switzerland almost never scores: This year's tournament has featured 1-0 wins over the Latvians and the Czechs and a 1-0 loss to Sweden.
Our guess: The floodgates open and Switzerland blows out Latvia by a lopsided 2-0 score in the elimination round.
Can Michael Grabner Lead the Olympics in Scoring?
The current goal-scoring leader on the men's side of Olympic hockey doesn't hail from Canada or the United States or Russia or any of the big powers. Not only does he play for the less renowned Austrian team, but he wasn't even expected to be that country's offensive leader.
But Michael Grabner ranks first in Olympic goal scoring with five markers and second in total points with six. In doing so, he has eclipsed not only better-known teammate Thomas Vanek (one assist) but also has outshone some of the best players in the world offensively.
He has a chance to pad his lead with an extra elimination game some other scorers won't get and faces a beatable Slovenian opponent in that contest.
Our guess: Austria is eliminated in the qualification round, and Grabner tumbles down the scoring ranks thanks to an early exit.
Can Ondrej Pavelec Continue His Strong Play?
With a .935 save percentage over two starts for the Czech Republic, Ondrej Pavelec has fought his way back into the starting role after being a healthy scratch for that country's first game.
The Winnipeg Jets' No. 1 goalie has his share of detractors due to a checkered resume in the NHL, but he has excelled in previous tournaments. He posted a .939 save percentage at the 2011 World Championships and posted a very similar .938 in 2013, being named a top-three player on his team both times.
Our guess: No. Pavelec is likely to be tested against Slovakia, and if the Czechs win, they will face an extremely strong American team. Shutting down Latvia and Switzerland will have been a cakewalk by comparison.
Who Will Emerge as Russia's Offensive Leader?
The Russian team is ridiculously loaded with offensive talent, but no one player has really emerged as the team's leading man offensively.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and mercurial KHL star Alexander Radulov currently share the team lead with three points. Defending NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin is one back, as is Pavel Datsyuk, who starred in Russia's game against the United States. And that's not even mentioning Ilya Kovalchuk or Alexander Semin.
Our guess: Evgeni Malkin.