With the Olympic men’s ice hockey preliminary round completed, here my take on what’s transpired thus far.
Russia’s men’s team was under considerable pressure entering this tournament, not only to win Olympic gold on home ice but also to win their first Olympic gold since 1992. While they easily defeated Slovenia in their tournament opener, they were beaten in a shootout by the Americans and needed overtime to defeat the Slovakians. They finished fifth overall and must defeat Norway in the qualification round on Tuesday to qualify for the quarterfinal, where Finland awaits them.
My observations of the Russians is unchanged. They possess two dangerous scoring lines and solid goaltending, but I question their depth throughout the remainder of their roster. Unless they were playing possum in the prelims, they must step up their overall play if they’re to win gold on home ice.
While critics of Canada’s team point out Sidney Crosby’s low point total (2 points in three games), Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin also has only two points (all coming in Russia’s opening win against Slovenia) and wasn’t much of a factor against the Americans and Slovakians. While he could be feeling the pressure of carrying Russian to gold, he was also closely checked in those games. Ovechkin must find a way to shed the checking blanket thrown over him if Russia is to march to Olympic glory on home ice.
Canada won their three games, though one was in overtime against a very tough Finnish team, costing them a chance at a higher seeding for the quarterfinals. Still, Canada’s better position than they were in the 2010 Olympics. That version struggled through the prelims (1-1-1) and had to beat Germany in the qualification round to advance to the quarterfinals. That’s been forgotten by some Canadian pundits and fans, who are harping on the team’s weaknesses as though it was 2010 Olympic prelims all over again.
While the Canadians are still sorting out their offensive chemistry, they dominated each of their preliminary games. The victories against Norway (3-1) and Finland (2-1) were narrow only on the scoreboard as Canada controlled the play throughout. What they faced in those games, however, was tight-checking systems in which their opponents take away the prime scoring areas in the slot and around their net. That made scoring chances difficult to come by for the Canadians. Their top forwards must find a way to counter this if the Canadians hope to repeat as gold medalists.
Canada’s best players in the prelims were defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber. They controlled the play from the blueline and consistently factored in Canada’s scoring. Doughty in particular was a standout, strong at both ends of the ice, capable of free-wheeling in ways he’s not usually accustomed when playing for the defensive-minded Los Angeles Kings. Doughty was a pleasant surprise for Canada during the 2010 gold medal run. He’s been their best player so far in this tournament.
No surprise the United States finished the prelims atop the Group A standings. They easily dispatched Slovenia and Slovakia, and downed Russia in a thrilling shootout. The Americans possess incredible offensive punch and terrific goaltending. The only weakness I’ve seen is their young defense, as the Russians exploited America’s blueline inexperience for significant stretches.
USA forward T.J. Oshie is a shootout machine, scoring four times in six shootout attempts (including the game winner) during the win over Russia. Olympic rules allow players to take multiple turns after the first three rounds of a shootout, and American coach Dan Bylsma obviously had no problem sticking with Oshie after round three. Oshie’s wizardry should provide American opponents with extra incentive to avoid a shootout at all costs.
Despite a roster ravaged by injury, Sweden won all of their preliminary games and finished atop Group C. That they did this entering the tournament without Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen, losing team captain Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disc) for the rest of the tournament and with Carl Hagelin banged up during their victory over Latvia speaks to their depth. The Swedes remain among the favorites to win gold but they cannot afford to lose more key players to injuries, especially on their forward lines.
Speaking of teams walloped by injuries, the fact Finland advanced to the quarterfinals without forwards Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov (lost to a knee injury in their opening game) speaks volumes for their goaltending and patient defensive play. After blowing out Austria and Norway, the Finns were narrowly defeated by Canada in overtime despite the latter’s dominating most of the game. They now get a couple of days to rest and await the winner of Russia-Norway in Tuesday’s qualification round. It’s unlikely the Finns will achieve more lopsided victories in this tournament, but their narrow loss to a powerful Canadian team indicates their willingness to rely on strong goaltending and a tight-checking defensive system makes them a very tough opponent.
The Sochi Olympics could be the coming-out party for Switzerland as a hockey power in its own right. The Swiss steadily improved over the past decade, including giving Canada a scare in preliminary play during the 2010 Olympics before falling 3-2 in a shootout. Still, few observers expected much from Switzerland in the Sochi Games. Despite scoring only twice in the preliminaries, the Swiss won two of their three games by 1-0 scores, with one of their victories coming against the Czech Republic. The Swedes barely beat them 1-0. The Swiss won’t shoot out the lights, but their strong goaltending and physical defense makes them capable of pulling off an upset.
Slovenia beating Slovakia 3-1 for their first-ever victory in Men’s Olympic hockey is as good as winning a medal for that country. Slovakia is considered a decent hockey power, and the Slovenians on paper didn’t appear to match up well against them. This is the sort of upset which should bolster the game’s popularity in Slovenia, which has to date produced only one NHL star, Anze Kopitar of the LA Kings. Perhaps as a result of this win, we could see more players of the caliber of Kopitar emerging from Slovenia.
Speaking of Slovakia, while I wasn’t expecting them to be a serious threat for a gold medal I certainly wasn’t expecting them to struggle as they have in this tournament. In 2010 the Slovaks upset Sweden in reaching the bronze medal game before falling to Finland. In Sochi, they were thumped 7-1 by Team USA and fell to Slovenia 3-1. They gained some redemption in a 2-1 overtime loss to Russia, but they’re not looking like a medal threat this year.
Another hockey power, the Czech Republic, didn’t do much better. They fell 4-2 to the injury-battered Swedes and were blanked by the underdog Swiss, with their only victory coming against an over-matched Latvian squad.
It’s apparent the Czechs and the Slovaks are in a transition period. Many of their key players are ageing and their younger players are either still developing or aren’t on the same talent level as their older stars.
After being thumped by the Finns and Canadians, Austria managed a face-saving 3-1 victory over Norway. A bit of good news for the Austrians is New York Islanders winger Michael Grabner is the tournament’s leading goalscorer with five tallies in three games.