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The Biggest X-Factors in the 2014 Winter Olympic Hockey Semifinals

Tom Urtz Jr.Contributor IFebruary 20, 2014

The Biggest X-Factors in the 2014 Winter Olympic Hockey Semifinals

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    The 2014 Winter Olympic men's hockey semifinals are going to be entertaining, because it will feature two gold-medal rematches. In 2006 Sweden faced Finland, and four years ago Canada went toe to toe with the United States. 

    This is the part of the tournament where play tightens up and the slightest of miscues can result in elimination. Heading into the semifinals, goaltending, special teams and depth will play huge dividends. With that in mind, here are the biggest X-factors in the 2014 Winter Olympic men's hockey semifinals.

Special Teams

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    This is the part of the tournament where a power play or penalty kill can make or break a team. In both matchups, special teams will play a huge role. Both Finland and Sweden have solid rosters with loads of two-way talent. 

    Early in the tournament, Sweden was an ace on the power play, and it helped the Swedes cruise through group play. If Finland gets careless, Sweden will make the Suomi pay.

    Likewise, special teams could dictate the matchup of Team USA vs. Canada. Team USA has the best PK unit in the tournament, and it includes forwards Ryan Kesler, Ryan Callahan, David Backes and Dustin Brown and defenders Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh and John Carlson.

    Each of these players help their NHL teams back home, and having them assembled on one team is just overkill in the PK department.

    If Team USA takes some bad penalties, it has a PK unit that can help it gain momentum. However, Canada has a number of offensive weapons that could make a difference, so that only reinforces how much of an X-factor special teams could be in the semis.

    In short, special-teams situations will be a premium as the games continue, and they could have a direct impact on which teams win a medal. 

Depth

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    Depth is a strength of the teams left in the tournament. Sweden and Finland both have had their share of injuries, but that will be negated when the two teams square off.

    Each team has been able to score throughout the tournament, but it has been against lesser opponents. In a head-to-head matchup, each squad could have an issue scoring multiple goals.

    The fact that the two teams are facing each other evens things up, and look for the games to be tightly contested. Don't be surprised to see coaches to roll all four lines, because all four teams have a sizable contingent of NHL players.

    In particular this shouldn't be a problem for the United States or Canada—two teams with a bevy of depth. An example of this is having someone like T.J. Oshie in the bottom six of Team USA and Patrice Bergeron on the fourth line of Team Canada.

    This type of depth can pay dividends, especially if coaches decided to match lines based on zone. There are virtually dozens of ways the semis could play out, and that all has to do with the depth of each team. 

Hot Goaltending

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    There is no shortage of hot goaltending in the semifinals. Here is a look at each remaining team's starting goaltender's numbers via IIHF.com.

    Team Sweden: Henrik Lundqvist (1.25 GAA, .948 save percentage)

    Team Finland: Tuukka Rask (2.30 GAA, .917 save percentage)

    Team USA: Jonathan Quick (1.62 GAA, .935 save percentage)

    Team Canada: Carey Price (0.99 GAA, .941 save percentage)

    As you can see, these netminders are not giving up a lot of goals, but something is going to give in the semis. Lundqvist and Team Sweden's defense has been huge thus far, and that could give the Swedes the edge over a Finnish squad devoid of elite offensive talent.

    The matchup of Team Canada vs. Team USA is a tossup, because many of the players on each squad are familiar with each other. Both Price and Quick have played well, but they each have had their fair share of bad starts in the NHL.

    No matter how you slice it, a hot goaltender will shut down a team, and at this point the question becomes: Who will it be?

Big-Game Experience

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    As previously stated, the two matchups feature rematches of the past two gold-medal games, but the rosters of Finland and Sweden have changed significantly since 2006. Sweden still has a number of veterans from the '06 squad, but Finland's roster has a number of youngsters in addition to veterans like Teemu Selanne and Kimmo Timonen.

    These veterans can help youngsters like Mikael Granlund who have never played in a game of this magnitude.

    The U.S. and Canadian rosters feature a sizable amount of players who squared off four years ago, so there won't be many nerves when the two teams face off on Friday. Jonathan Toews is an accomplished Stanley Cup champion who can help the Canadians, and Jonathan Quick can provide a calming influence in goal on the American side.

    If the game is close, expect coaches to rely on their veterans, and the team with more veterans could ultimately have a slight edge in the semifinals. 

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