We have finally reached the playoffs of the men's ice hockey tournament at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The action thus far has been fast-paced and intense all around, and it looks as though we have a very even field heading into the playoffs.
On Tuesday, eight teams will face off in the qualification round in hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals to face the four teams that earned first-round byes.
With the gold medal completely up for grabs here, these teams will have to be in top form if they are to advance through what should be highly contested matchups.
Let's take a closer look at the teams involved in the playoffs and determine which ones appear to be the favorites throughout the remainder of the tournament.
Team USA is riding high right now. After two decisive victories against Slovakia and Slovenia, it faced long-time rival Russia on Saturday.
After a defensive first period, Russia took a 1-0 lead after Pavel Datsyuk found the back of the net. However, just seven minutes later, the United Stated tied it up with a goal off the stick of Cam Fowler. During an intense third period, Team USA briefly took a 2-1 lead when Joe Pavelski broke through Russia's defense. But three minutes later, Datsyuk struck again, tying the game.
That score forced overtime.
During the shootout, T.J. Oshie was phenomenal. He scored on four of his six attempts, including the game-winning goal. American goalkeeper Jonathan Quick made a brilliant save against Ilya Kovalchuck to put the game away for Team USA.
That win could not have been more important for the Americans. It gave the United States an undefeated record throughout the preliminary round as well as a first-round bye entering the playoffs. More importantly, it gave the team a great deal of confidence.
Members of Team USA spoke of the contest during an interview with Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News.
U.S. defender Cam Fowler simply said, "You're not going to see something like that ever again."
Head coach Dan Bylsma added, "The game pretty much had everything in it in an unbelievable setting and atmosphere."
A strong cast of players, great head of steam and an enormous deal of confidence certainly makes the United States one of the gold-medal favorites heading into the playoffs.
Either the Czech Republic or Slovakia will be heavily tested, as the winner of their match in the qualification round will move on to face the United States in the quarterfinals.
Sweden was the only team throughout the preliminary round of the tournament to emerge victorious in regulation in all three of its games. It did not earn any decisive victories, as all three of the Swedes' competitors finished within two goals of them.
Still, this is a very deep, strong team with a great offense and fantastic goaltending. This is the balance that will make the Swedes very scary in the playoffs.
As a team, Sweden has dominated. Scoring 10 goals out of 86 shots through three games of tough competition is a feat of its own. Add in the team's stellar goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist—he allowed five goals on 78 shots for a save percentage of .935—and you get a strong gold-medal contender.
Defender Erik Karlsson is arguably the team's MVP at this point. Through three games, he has scored three goals, accumulated two assists, taken 14 shots and has a plus/minus rating of plus-four.
During an interview with Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, Daniel Alfredsson explained Karlsson's importance going forward: "I'm sure teams we play are going to scout him and be in his way as much as possible, but it's extremely hard because he doesn't do it all the time. He picks his spots. He's a huge piece of our offense."
Sweden will look to keep up its dominance during regulation in the quarterfinals, as it will take on either Slovenia or Austria in the quarterfinals.
Despite those two teams looking like the early favorites as the playoffs approach, other teams will be very formidable opponents as well.
Russia has done a nice job defensively, allowing just five goals through three games. However, its offense has been tested. The team was taken to overtime twice, winning once and losing once.
Canada is another strong team that has the ability to catch fire at any point in time. From laying a beating on Austria by a score of 6-0 to containing a very good Finland offense and emerging victorious in overtime 2-1, this team continues to find ways to win.
Everything taken into consideration, we are surely in line for a dramatic finish in Sochi.
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