On the eve of the start of the 2014 men’s Olympic hockey tournament, the Boss offers up his insight and picks on what will transpire in the next two weeks. If it’s anything similar to what we saw four years ago in Vancouver, then we should be in for a treat. Let’s get to it.
The top 9 teams in the IIHF world ranking(Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States) automatically qualify and the other three teams(Latvia, Slovenia, Austria) qualified via the qualification tournament. The 12 teams are split into three groups and after round robin group play are seeded 1D-12D in the single elimination playoff bracket with the top 4 teams receiving a bye to the quarterfinals. Teams are awarded 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, 1 point for an overtime loss, and 0 points for a regulation loss. Here are the groups with projected order of standings after group play.
1. Russia 2-1-0-0 8pts.
2. USA 2-0-0-1 6pts.
3. Slovakia 1-0-1-1 4pts.
4. Slovenia 0-0-0-3 0pts.
Russia and USA are the class of this group with Slovakia not far behind. Slovenia and are just happy to be here. Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar is their only NHL player. USA, Russia, and Slovakia have 25, 14, and 14 NHL players respectively. Slovakia has been a trendy pick from the pundits and with good reason. With Jaroslav Halak in goal, Zdeno Chara on the blue line and the always dangerous Marian Hossa, they will be a tough out. USA returns hoping to avenge a title game loss to Canada in 2010. With an entire roster of NHL players and strong goaltenders, they will be one of the last teams remaining. There will be much pressure on Russia to perform as the host country and I see them rising to the challenge. Their talent is unquestionable with the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and Alex Ovechkin among others.
1. Canada 3-0-0-0 9 Pts.
2. Finland 1-1-0-1 5 Pts.
3. Austria 0-1-0-2 2 Pts.
4. Norway 0-0-2-1 2Pts.
I see Canada taking this group fairly easily. Finland has a lot of talent, especially between the pipes, but will not have the firepower to keep up with our neighbors up north. Austria, with Mr. trade rumor himself, Tomas Vanek, will be pesky. Norway boasts just one NHLer in Rangers forward Mats Zucarello and will be of little threat. Lots of talk has been about Steven Stamkos, his injury that is holding him out of this Olympics, and who Steve Yzerman would choose as his replacement. He ultimately chose teammate Martin St. Louis, as expected. Finland will also be without fellow Lightning player Valteri Flippula, as he is out with a fractured ankle. It’s hard not give kudos to 43 year old Teemu Selanne, who will captain team Finland and will impressively play in his 6th Olympic games.
1. Sweden 2-1-0-0 8 Pts.
2. Czech Republic 2-0-1-0 7 Pts.
3. Switzerland 1-0-0-2 3 Pts.
4. Latvia 0-0-0-3 0 Pts.
Group C may be the most interesting and competitive of the three groups. While Sweden and Czech Republic will easily battle for the top spot, Switzerland is a dark horse candidate to make some noise. Latvia has only one NHL player and Zemgus Girgensons is no household name. Switzerland has some recognizable names with Jonas Hiller in net, along with Rapahael Diaz and Mark Streit on the blue line. Damien Brunner, a young breakout player currently with the New Jersey Devils, will also help the Swiss be competitive. But it comes down to the Czechs and the Swedes in this group, and I see the Swedes edging them out on sheer talent alone. While they will be without key players in Johan Franzen and Henrik Sedin, Gustav Nyquist will step in as a replacement and help Zetterberg and company to a group win and a spot in the quarters. It’s interesting and important to mention that while the Czechs chose to take 42 year old and former NHL player Petr Nedved, they left off Calgary Flames forward Jiri Hudler. Hudler currently leads the Flames in points at the Olympic break. Odd.
1 Canada vs. 9 Austria – A rematch from group play will be much of the same. Canada breezes through to the semis.
4 Czech Republic vs. 5 USA – Interesting matchup. Czech’s weak goaltending + USA’s firepower = USA moves on.
3 Sweden vs. 6 Finland – How fitting. The hockey rivals and geographical neighbors battle for a spot in the semis. Here’s my upset pick of the tourney. The Fins do it for Teemu!
2 Russia vs. 7 Slovakia – Another great matchup. I see this being very close, but Russia will want it more. The hosts take it. Sorry, Chara.
1 Canada vs. 5 USA – A rematch of the final from four years ago. We all know how that went. There will be no shortage of drama if this indeed comes to fruition. I see an emotionally charged game ultimately with the same result. Oh, Canada!
2 Russia vs. 6 Finland – Russia would catch a huge break avoiding the Swedes. Russia’s playmakers and home ice advantage will be too much for the Finns. The Cinderella story and Selanne’s quest for gold.
3rd Place Game – USA vs. Finland – USA! USA! USA! The bronze isn’t so bad, is it?
1 Canada vs. 2 Russia – A whale of a finals matchup. Mother Russia versus the hockey mecca. Malkin vs. Crosby. How eerily similar is this matchup to the one four years ago? A host nation with a pedigree for producing elite talent against a fellow hockey rival with a roster full of elite NHL talent as well. This one would be too good to be true. It’s divine destiny for the Russians. I’ll take them winning a tightly contested, most likely high scoring matchup that will be a must watch for any hockey fan. A round of mama Malkin’s homemade soup for everyone!
We can only hope that the actual tourney will play out similarly to how I’ve outlined above as it’s hard not to salivate at some of those possible playoff matchups. Regardless, it should be a fun two weeks. The pucks drop on the whole thing with Czech Republic vs. Sweden and Latvia vs. Switzerland at noon on Wednesday on NBC. It will conclude with the finals being played on February 23rd.