At last the preliminary round is over. Not that it wasn't exciting (especially if you're an American), but now things get really interesting as single elimination begins.
I'm going to borrow the nickname that I heard for the bracket that the seventh-seeded Canadians are in: The Group of Death.
I can only imagine the flack that I will receive for suggesting the following, but Canada faces a tough road to medal at all, let alone win the gold on their home soil.
Sure the Canadians are going to breeze past Team Germany, but they run smack into Team Russia thereafter. A Canada versus Russia game would be highly entertaining, especially since a loss in the quarterfinals means no chance at a medal.
I'm picking the Canadians in the quarterfinals over Russia because while Russia's top six forwards (Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk & Co.) are likely the most talented bunch in the tournament, the entire team is not as deep as Canada's.
Canada has an all-NHL team, and not to slight the KHL, but I'll take NHL players almost every time (Remember that "almost" too, it will come back soon).
The rest of the group goes like this: Solvakia versus Norway, with the winner eventually losing to Sweden.
That's right. Sweden is also in this group with both Canada and Russia, and though they're not of an all-NHL makeup, they're certainly more stacked than the Russians.
Even if Canada beats the Russians, they still have to beat Sweden to have a shot at gold in Vancouver, and that's a heavy workload no matter who is on your team.
On the other side of things, the first-seeded Americans will take on the winner of Switzerland versus Belarus. It should be no surprise to see the USA play a second game against a tricky-good Swiss team.
The key to a second victory? Goals, plain and simple.
The Swiss defense, lead by New York Islander Mark Streit and bolstered by Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, has been a pleasant surprise in this tournament. Of all the lower-end squads looking to increase their international clout, the Swiss are definitely the best team.
That said, this game should not be a challenge for the United States. The Swiss aren't exactly pushovers, but they aren't elites either.
The Czech Republic will take on Latvia, and win, moving to a matchup against the tournament's fourth seed, and 2006 silver medalists, Finland. Do you remember back in Torino when Jarko Ruutu followed through on a dirty hit from behind on Jaromir Jagr?
No matter, because the Czechs probably haven't forgotten it. This tilt, like just about all of the games played between the tournament's top teams, promises to be a great matchup.
If the Czechs make it through, the US stands a good chance of beating them.
Why? Well, the Czechs did not qualify for a bye like the US and Finland, so they play more games. Finland is easily the scrappiest European squad; then there are the Americans playing on an NHL-sized rink which makes things conducive for physical play. Finesse is nice when you've got the ice, but we'll see how far it can take them if they get past Finland.
If Finland beats the Czechs, they will play a very North American-style game versus the Americans. While neither of these teams are guaranteed wins for the US, neither is a mountain to climb either.The US still boasts arguably the best netminder in the tournament with Ryan Miller (a tough admission to swallow for this Leafs fan).
The Americans are also showcasing an interesting team makeup as per GM Brian Burke's top-six, bottom-six formula combined with a top-notch goalie, and a physical defense. Team USA is fast, gritty, and can score. Their biggest weakness may be youth, but with Olympic veterans Brian Rafalski, Chris Drury, and Jamie Langenbrunner leading the team past the Canadians, the old hands may well provide said youngsters (kids like Patrick Kane, Dustin Brown, and Phil Kessel) the guidance and leadership that they need.
In the semis, it's going to be Canada versus Sweden, and the USA versus the Czech Republic or Finland (that's honestly too tough to call). The Americans have got the best chance of the bunch to advance to the gold medal game; that much is expected now. Realistically, they have one tough game in their way.
The Canada-Russia-Sweden three-way is going to be interesting, but I see Sweden coming out on top. Russia will be a handful for the Canadians, but again, the skill on the Canadian roster simply cannot be counted out as early as the quarterfinals.
Youngster Drew Doughty is looking good on the blue line, and there's also that Sidney Crosby kid, some guy named Rick Nash (who played great against the US) and some other names like Staal, Iginla, Heatley, Thornton, Brodeur, Niedermeyer, and Pronger that compromise the Canadian squad.
For my medal round picks, I see the United States playing, and eventually losing to, Sweden for the gold. Canada will play the winner of that Czech Republic/Finland matchup (though I like the Czechs) and end up with the bronze.
Thirty-some-odd million Canadians can sleep tight knowing that the US didn't win the gold. However, that silver will shine pretty brightly in their eyes.
Here it is again,
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