Olympic Men's Hockey: Analyzing Each Weekend Game's Impact

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IFebruary 20, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 19:  Tuomo Ruutu #15 of Finland scores a goal against Dimitri Patzold #32 and Dennis Seidenberg #84 of Germany during the ice hockey men's preliminary game between Finland and Germany on day 8 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 19, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Olympic Men's Ice Hockey has now gotten through two-thirds of their group stage, where 12 teams separated into three groups of four each play three games with the top four receiving a bye in the upcoming playoffs where one loss means the end of the road to a medal.

But the last two days of the first of the two rounds are concluding this weekend, and bringing us some of the most exciting games possible despite a first round plagued, so far, with boring, decisive routs.

It's going to be an interesting weekend.

First, it's important to clarify how Olympic Ice Hockey is formatted. Like I said earlier, there are three groups of four teams each, and each squad plays the other three teams in their sector once in the first stage.

As many of you already know, a regulation win is worth three points in the standings, an overtime win worth two points, an overtime loss worth one point, and a regulation loss worth zero points.

The teams are then ranked in order, first through twelfth (if several teams are tied in points, goals difference is used), heading into the first single-elimination round. The top four teams (determined irrelevant of group) receive a bye; the other teams play eachother in regular bracket fashion (the fifth seed plays the 12th, the sixth plays the 11th, and so on).

Then, the advancing eight teams play in the format described above in the quarterfinals and then the same in the semi-finals. The two semi-final winners play in the gold medal game (the loser receiving silver) and the two semi-final losers play for the bronze medal.

With that cleared up, it shows how more important than ever it is for teams to take full advantage of the group stage to secure a spot in the quarterfinals. At the moment, the race for those tickets is tight and competitive to the extreme.

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Due to the fact that early-favorites Canada (5 points) and Russia (4 points) have each slipped a bit (Canada only received two points in an OT win over Switzerland; Russia lost in OT to Slovakia), neither of them are in the top four heading into the weekend. Instead, Finland, the United States, Czech Republic, and Sweden are all 2-0 and filling out the top four seeds.

On the other hand, Belarus, Germany, Latvia, and Norway are all 0-2 and littering the bottom of the standings. Switzerland (one point) and Slovakia (two points) are in the middle of the two sides at the moment.

However, these standings are only updated as of Saturday morning, and are definitely going to change over the next two days. We'll take a look at how the outcome of each of the six remaining matchups could affect the order going into the next stage of Olympic Men's Ice Hockey.

Norway vs. Switzerland

Switzerland, coming off a exciting shootout loss to Canada last Thursday, enters this game looking to pick up a full three points and keep themselves in the mix. A win here would assure them a being the upper seed going into the next round in all cases.

For Norway, who has yet to earn anything and is last out of the 12 countries with a -13 goals differential, just needs to pick up something. Who knows where in the bottom four they'll end up; however, at least a point would be huge for the Norwegians.

Latvia vs. Slovakia

Out of the major seven countries, Slovakia has been the hardest to predict so far. After a 4-2 loss to the Czechs in their first game, Slovakia rebounded with a big shootout upset over the Ovechkin and Malkin-led Russians.

Three points would get the Slovaks into the "playoffs" as the sixth or, more likely, seventh seed. However, two points would allow Switzerland to perhaps bump them down to eighth.

For Latvia, they're in the same boat as Norway. With no points yet, the Latvians just need to find something to build on as the pressure builds as well.

Germany vs. Belarus

As our only matchup between two point-less (no pun intended) teams in the final two days of the group stage, both Belarus and Germany need to pick up the win over the other and likely jump into the ninth seed.

Belarus holds the edge in goal difference by one extra score; on the other hand, though, both these teams just need to win and get into a first-round showdown with a lot easier opponent such as Switzerland or Slovakia.

After a slightly bland trio of Saturday games, Sunday brings in the real excitement with three thrilling, "Big Seven" battles.

Russia vs. Czech Republic

Some may be arguing for a merge, at least for hockey, between the Czechs and Slovaks, but right now Jagr and the Czech Republic need to put arguments and rivalries aside and focus on medaling.

With two wins in two games, they're a top four seed for now, but Russia is a very dangerous team that will probably be slightly favored to dethrone them. Three points would assure them of a tie for first place (the Czechs are third out of the four undefeated teams in terms of goal differential), but they're going to face a very hungry Russian squad looking to knock them down to fifth or worse.

For the star-powered Russians, a shocking loss has them on the edge of not making a first round bye. A win is necessary if they want to even get the fourth seed, and any type of loss will land them with just four or five points, a below .500 record, and a dispute that could originally place them in the sixth to perhaps even eighth spot.

Canada vs. United States

It's the biggest game for the USA since their gold-medal match of 2002. It's a huge chance for Canada to rebound after a shaky performance against the Swiss, or an risk of disappointing the devoted fans once again. But, like expected, this game is becoming severely over-hyped.

For the US, they're fine so far at 2-0 but face by far their biggest test here with Canada. A regulation win likely gives them a top-two seed, and an OT win still gets them a first-round bye.

However, on the other side for Canada, they want to win. And they definitely don't want the USA getting the better of them in their first crack at their continental rivals.

Also, the Canadians additionally could really use two or three points. Either way secures them a top-four seed, but one or no points and they're going to be stuck on a tiebreaker or perhaps completely out of the competition for an automatic quarterfinals berth.

Sweden vs. Finland

In our last game of the group stage, defending gold-medalist Sweden faces off against an upstart Finnish team looking to claim victory over their Scandinavian rivals on the biggest stage in the world.

The 11:55 (Eastern Time Zone) game might have a late start, but it's the only game of the entire group stage where both teams have a chance to win and go undefeated for the first round.

Team Finland actually holds a five-goal edge over the the Swedish (+9 to +4), but a win for either and they have a shot at the top seed. If the game is decided in regulation, the loser might be on the verge of losing their bye, but any overtime game all but assures both sides of a berth to the quarterfinals.

So, there you have it. Six games that will, for now, determine 12 country's hopes for either a miraculous or heavily anticipated medal in Men's Ice Hockey on the biggest stage in the world: the Olympics. No one is cruising through, and no one is dead yet.

But everyone has work to do if they want to hold the gold medal above their head a week from today.

Check back in Monday for a preview of the single-elimination round. As for now, just keep your TV's tuned into the networks of NBC and experience the thrill, the pressure, and the competition of Olympic Men's Ice Hockey for yourself.

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the Carolina Hurricanes. In his 19 months so far with the site, he has written over 160 articles and received over 110,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more.


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