There’s a trend among men’s hockey teams that win all of their games in the group round at the Olympics: They win silver. Actually, that’s not strictly true; sometimes those teams are eliminated in the quarterfinals. Should this concern the Americans, who went 3-0 in a very tough group, beating Russia and blowing out Slovakia?
Every eventual gold-medal winner in the Olympics since the NHL started going in 1998 has faced the adversity of a defeat (or even two) in the group rounds.
In 1998, eventual gold medalist Czech Republic dropped a preliminary-round game to Russia before beating it in the tournament’s final game. In 2002, Canada lost to Sweden, barely beat Germany and tied the Czechs before defeating the United States for gold. In 2006, Sweden was blown out by the Russians (5-0) and dropped a game in the group round to Slovakia; it beat the Swiss, Czechs and Finns to win the tourney.
Most recently, the Canadians in 2010 lost to the U.S. and needed overtime to beat Switzerland; they worked their way from the qualification round to gold, beating the Americans in a rematch in the final game.
What of the teams that did perfectly in the group segment of the tournament? Four out of seven failed to even medal:
Have the United States, and for that matter Canada and Sweden, peaked too early? Not necessarily.
It may be that there is value in losing a game early, being reminded just how tight the games between top teams are and how easy it is for things to go the wrong way. More likely, though, we’re simply seeing the results of a single-game elimination tournament featuring several extremely competitive teams and several incredibly underpowered clubs.
The tournament setup means that a lot of games in the group setting are all but foreordained. Each of international hockey’s big eight teams plays two games against a minnow and one game against an actual power; this year, the Slovenians managed to beat an imploding Slovak squad but otherwise all those games had the predictable result.
That means a 3-0-0 record in the group setting is more generally a 1-0-0 record against medal contenders. Given that the gaps between hockey’s true powers aren't very big, it shouldn't be a surprise that a winning record isn’t predictive.
If one assumes that on average there have been six teams at every tournament in recent years capable of winning gold (dropping Switzerland and Slovakia from the top eight), we would only expect one of the perfect group teams to have won it all; zero isn’t that unusual a result.
The problem for Team USA is simply that its sparkling record doesn’t mean that much, really. The United States blew out Slovakia, which was impressive, until the Slovenians managed to beat the Slovaks two days later. They beat Slovenia, which wasn’t impressive. That leaves the game against Russia, which the Americans wouldn’t have been able to win without a goal disallowed on a technicality and then a lengthy shootout.
It isn’t that beating international hockey’s also-rans is a bad thing; it’s that it doesn’t matter. What really matters are the games against medal threats, and those have been tight across the board.
Team USA has played one game against a real contender, Russia, and barely squeaked out a win. Canada, playing an injury-riddled Finnish entry, had a similar experience. Sweden nearly blew a four-goal lead against the Czechs, surrendering two goals and then being outshot 15-5 in the third period in a 4-2 victory.
Any of those six teams has a real shot at winning gold. The Americans don’t need to worry about peaking too early; they just need to worry about how razor thin the margin for error is when this tournament turns into single-elimination, and the same holds true for all the other contenders.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of IIHF.com and current through February 17.