The top contenders in each of Olympic hockey’s three divisions meet on Sunday to determine who will get the bye through the next round of the playoffs. The four teams with the best records will grab those spots. That means the winners of the Sunday games are assured of making the quarterfinals. They and the loser on Sunday with the best record will get the first round bye.
The point system for this Olympic tournament has a byzantine turn to it that would appeal to any career Canadian bureaucrats convoluted psyche. The fear has to be that the NHL office will soon be adopting this point system to further muddy the already cloudy waters that are the NHL regular season standings.
At these Olympics a team winning a game in regulation receives three points. A team winning a game in overtime or shoot-out gets two points. A team losing such a game gets one point. Luckily they’ve yet to find a way to give teams losing in regulation a half point, but stay tuned.
The three matchups on Sunday are between the six best teams in the tournament. This will be the first real test of the quality of each of these teams. Though Slovakia’s 2-1 shoot-out victory over Russia and the Canadians narrow shoot-out win over the Swiss probably felt like tests to those teams.
Coincidentally, each of these Sunday games is a matchup of nations that met in the last three Olympic gold medal games. It was the Czech Republic versus Russia in 1998 in Nagano. The USA faced Canada in 2002 in Salt Lake City and of course it was Finland and Sweden in the last gold medal game in Turin in 2006.
The essential thing to remember is that these games really decide nothing except seeding.
The real elimination tournament begins on Tuesday. One of the losers in these games is still going to get a bye to the quarterfinals. The other two losers will have to play an elimination game with one of the two bottom seeds in then tournament: Latvia and Germany.
Now Canada, if they lose to the US by five goals, would end up behind Slovakia and finish seventh in the seeding round. That would force them into a first round game with Norway. If the Russians lose to the Czechs then the Slovaks finish above them. As I mentioned above, “Byzantine” complexity.
Czech Republic VS Russia 3 PM EST
The Czech’s are a team that played to form in the seeding round. They beat the Slovaks and slaughtered the Latvians to have this chance to earn a bye to the quarterfinals. They’re lead by captain Patrik Elias and the still dangerous Jaromir Jagr. Young playmaking centers Tomas Plekanec and David Krejci will inform the offense.
Michalek, Havlat, Elias, Jagr and Erat give them a much bigger group of finishers then they have on their club teams. The defense seems to be a collection of offensive defensemen. Kaberle, Zidlicky, Kuba and Kubina are more known for their offense then their stellar defensive play.
Still this is a team full of skaters with potentially the tournament's best goalie in Tomas Vokoun. Throw in a long history of Russian baiting and this could be the best of the Sunday games.
The Russians slipped when they lost to a talented Slovakian team in the preliminary round. The goaltending in Varlamov, Bryzgalof and Nabokov is good but perhaps not as good as the Finns, Americans and Czechs are providing. The offensive talent on this team is, as always, staggering. Ovechkin, Malkin, Semin, Kovalchuk, Datsyuk, Gonchar and Radulov represent a who’s who of world offensive talent.
The Soviet Union won the gold medal at the Calgary Olympics a year before the Berlin wall came down.
The Unified team playing in the midst of the collapse of the old Soviet Union managed one more gold in 1992 at Albertville. Since the wall came down the Soviets/Russians have earned one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal in five Olympic games. That puts them on a par with the Czechs, with their Nagano gold and two bronze.
No one doubts the Russian talent but some of the Russian system seems to have gone away with the Soviet Union. A victory over the Czechs though speeds them on to the quarters and this Russian team has the talent to beat anyone.
Russia 6 Czech Republic 5
I’m expecting a high octane offensive display from the Russians and the Czechs are a team that won’t be intimidated by that. In the end I believe Ovechkin and company will be, barely, too much for the Czechs.
USA vs Canada 7:40 PM EST
The Canadian trouble with the Swiss can be forgotten and forgiven if they simply beat the US in this the first real test for the team in the tournament. Speed kills and the huge Canadian lineup that towered over their Swiss opponents at times seemed to lumber around the ice when confronted with the speedy Swiss.
Doughty and Pronger had some bad moments in that game and will have to improve against the Americans. Rick Nash has looked like the best Canadian on the ice so far in the tournament and Iginla and the Shark line haven’t been far behind him.
Crosby has had moments but except for the shoot-out goal has done nothing to impress so far. Getzlaf seems dangerous but has yet to break through. Brodeur will start against the States. Win and he’ll play the rest of the tournament. Lose and expect to see Luongo as the Canadians will have to play in the first playoff round.
The US is another team beating who they should in the first round. They struggled with the Swiss, with Ryan Whitney at times looking overmatched against the Swiss speed. Finally though they won comfortably against them. It was another struggle to penetrate the Norwegian defense as well, but by the third period the US rolled over them.
Jack Johnson has looked inspired and dangerous offensively. Parise is as always great.
Kessel needs to provide more offense but he and Kane should give the Canadian defense fits. This is the first game for both teams to tell them where they might stand in this tournament. A win is nice and grants a bye. A loss by the US in overtime or shoot-out still may leave them as the fourth seed, with a bye.
If not they’ll be the fifth or sixth seed and simply have to play an extra tune-up game against one of the tournament also-rans Latvia or Germany.
Canada 3 USA 2
A tight Canadian team will have to play much better then they have to beat this speedy American group. In a country where each goal given up seems like an affront the team will be under a lot of pressure to perform. I see them winning this game in a closely contested match. Goaltending might be the key in this Miller vs Bordeur matchup.
Sweden vs Finland Midnight EST
This third game is also a nice matchup of traditional hockey rivals. The Swedes struggled with Germany in the first round, but struggling is certainly better then losing or winning in overtime. The Swedish team is the oldest at the tournament and features Forsberg, Ohlund, Modin, Tallinder, Holmstrom and Lidstrom all with better years behind them. Even Alfredsson is getting long in the tooth, though his play doesn’t show it.
Zetterburg, the Sedins, Kronwall, Franzen, Oduya and Lundquist are still all in their prime. Only Backstrom, Hornquist, Enstrom and Ericksson are representing the next wave of young Swedish talent. This Finnish game should be an acid test for the Swedes. If they can’t beat the Finns the question has to be who can they beat in the top six.
Last Olympic’s silver medalists the Finns are again lead by strong goaltending. Kiprusof seems to have been given the reins but they’ll probably go to Backstrom if Kipper loses this game. They are, as always, a tight checking, hard working group. The Finns of late have seemed to develop less Jarri Kurri/Teemu Selanne scorers and more Esa Tikkanen type players.
The local Finnish leagues have to miserable to play in. A team of hard-nosed agitators will be a struggle for anyone to play against. Throw in a group of mobile defenseman and this team can go places. They seemed out-matched in the gold medal game in Turin but I’m thinking the Swedes have aged a little worse then the Finns have.
Selanne and Saku Koivu are obviously no spring chickens but I’m looking for the Finnish team to pull off an upset here, perhaps decisively.
At the end of this tournament I’m thinking the NHL teams with Olli Jokinen, Mikko Koivu, Antti Mietenen, Tuomo Ruutu and Nicklas Hagman in their rosters may be a little more appreciative of them.
Finland 4 Sweden 2
I see the Finns as perhaps having a step on the older Swedes. It’ll be especially tough if Lundquist is nursing a groin injury. Jonas Gustavsson looked lost in the victory over Belarus.
Once the final seeding is decided the real Olympic hockey tournament begins. Any team that doesn’t get the bye will no doubt cruise through their preliminary game. However, then they’ll have to play one of the tournaments top four teams in the quarterfinals.
The first or second seed will get a matchup between the winners of the eighth and ninth seed or the seventh and tenth seed. Right now that looks like Slovakia or Switzerland. That’s still a tough matchup.
I respect the Swiss and their speed and their goaltending, but it’s the Slovaks who I see as the possible dark horse from outside the top six. Their record at tournaments where everyone has their best players present hasn’t been good since the breakup of Czechoslovakia.
The Slovaks in all that time have produced a world of hockey talent but haven’t been able to come up with one decent goalie. Jaroslav Halak appears to be that goalie. Even though a lot of the scoring talent on this team including Palffy, Stumpel, Satan and Zednik, seems to come from another era, any team with Gaborik, Hossa, Demitra, Vishnovsky and Chara on it, needs to be feared. I could see this group cracking the top four.
The shots were 37-33 for the Russians in their game against Slovakia and only in the second period did the Russians managed to dominate.
Enjoy these games. After the seeding is complete, it’s only going to get better.