The top six teams in the men’s Olympic hockey tournament play each other today in the final game of the seeding round. The winners today and the loser with the best record will grab the four tournament byes into the quarterfinals. Win the quarter final game and you’re guaranteed to play for a medal.
The match-ups feature the countries that met in the last three olympic gold medal games. Group A features the USA versus Canada game a reprise of Salt Lake City. The Czech versus Russian gold medal game from Nagano is also the final match-up in group B. Group C is a game between Turin’s gold and silver medalists Sweden and Finland.
The point system for this olympics has a bureaucratic complexity that makes one fear the NHL will be adopting it for their regular season immediately.
The Russians have lost a shoot-out game to the Slovaks already. A loss to the Czechs will drop them behind Slovakia to be seventh seed in the tournament. Canada with their overtime win over Switzerland garnering them only two points will not get a bye without a victory over the Americans.
Hopefully it won’t come down to goal differentials to determine final seeding. Then the complexities will grade into byzantine ones.
Canada vs USA 7:40 pm EST , Sunday Feb 21st
The Canadian trouble with the Swiss leaves more vulnerable to missing out on the bye then the US. Does this make them more desperate? Time will tell.
The Canadian line-up features a ton of talent and with Getzlaf, Nash, Staal and Iginla they have some of the best power forwards in the league. The defense, especially Pronger and Doughty, had some problems when faced with the Swiss speed. It remains to be seen if veterans Niedermayer and Brodeur can perform at the high level expected of them. If the Canadians lose to the US today look for Luongo to replace rodeur in nets the rest of the way.
The USA played to form in the first round beating Norway and Switzerland with little trouble. Ryan Whitney is another defenseman who had trouble with the Swiss skating.
The US team has a nice blend of size and speed. Parise, Kane and Kessel should give the Canadian team fits. Backes and Callahan will exact a physical toll from the Canadian defensemen.
Canada 3 USA 2
This should be another tight game. The Canadians will have to pick up their tournament play to beat the speedy Americans. Goaltending may tell the tale in this Brodeur versus Miller match-up. Look for these two to meet again no matter what happens in the seeding round.
Czech Republic vs Russia 3pm EST, Sunday Feb 21st
The Czech’s are a team that also won the games they should so far in the preliminary round. They beat the Slovaks and crushed Latvia.
They’re lead by captain Patrik Elias and the still dangerous Jaromir Jagr. Young playmaking centers David Krejci and Tomas Plekanec will inform the Czech offense. Michalek, Havlat, Elias, Jagr and Erat give them a much bigger group of finishers to play with then they have on their own club teams.
The defense seems to be a collection of players most known for their offensive skill. Still Kaberle, Kubina, Kuba and Zidlicky are a group of mobile puck movers.
The Czechs also have a goalie,Tomas Vokoun, who might tourn out to be the best goalie in the tournament. Throw in a long history of Russian baiting and this could be the best game of the tournament to date.
The Russians slipped when they lost to the talented Slovakian’s in the preliminary round. Now like Canada they need a victory to insure a bye.
The offensive talent on this team is, as always, staggering. Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Semin, Malkin, Gonchar, Datsyuk and Radulov represent a who’s who of world class offensive talent. Since the break up of the Soviet Union consistent defensive play has been harder to come by.
The Russians of a line up of good goaltending with Nabokov, Bryzgalof and Varlomov but they seem outmatched by the Czech’s, Swedes and Americans in nets.
Russia 6 Czech Republic 5
This game should feature the high octane offense of the Russians and a talented Czech squad that won’t be intimindated by that for a moment. Looks like Oveckin and company will prove to be, barely, too much for the Czechs.
Finland VS Sweden Midnight EST Sunday Feb 21st
This another match-up of traditional international hockey rivals.
The Swedes are another favourite that’s struggled in the early going. Struggling though is better then losing or going to overtime.
Still they are the oldest team in the tournament. Forsberg, Ohlund, Modin, Tallinder, Holmstrom and Lidstrom all seem to have their best years behind them. Daniel Alfredsson is 37 though he doesn’t seem to be slowing down yet.
That leaves Zetterburg, the Sedins, Franzen ,Lundquist and Oduya in their prime leading this team. Only Backstrom, Hornquist, Enstrom and Ericksson are here representing the next young wave of Swedish hockey.
The Finnish game should be the acid test for this Swedish team. If they can’t beat the Finns, who can they beat in this tournament?
Last Olympic’s silver medalists, the Finns, are again lead by strong goaltending. Kiprusof has the reins but Backstrom is ready to jump in if he falters.
They are, as always, a hard-skating, tough checking group. The Finns of late seem to be less of the hyper talented Jari Kurri/Teemu Selanne mode and more of the annoying, agitator Esa Tikkanen type player. The Finnish leagues must be horrible to play in.
A team of hard nosed agitators will be hard for anyone to play against. They looked overmatched in Turin and Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne are approaching the end of their careers. Still I think this team has aged a little better then the Swedes have.
Finland 4 Sweden 2
The Finns look to have a step on the Swedes. It’ll be especially tough if Henrik Lundquist is still nursing a groin injury. Back-up Jonas Gustavsson looked lost in the victory over Belarus.
Once the final seeding is determined the real Olympic hockey tournament gets under way with elimination games played on Tuesday.
Any of these top six teams that doesn’t win a bye will likely cruise through their first playoff game against Latvia or Germany. Still not gaining a bye means your first quarterfinal game comes against a top four team.
The other two likely opponents for the bye teams will be Switzerland and Slovakia. The Swiss are probably beatable by anyone despite their speed and goaltending but the Slovakians look to have a real shot at finishing in the top four.
Slovakia has been searching for a great international goalie since the split with the Czech’s before the Nagano Olympics in 1998. They may have found him with Jarolsav Halak.
Some of the Slovak line-up , Ziggy Palffy, Richard Zednik, Miroslav Satan And stumpel seems to come from another era. Still any team with Chara, Gaborik, Demitra, Hossa and Vishnovsky on it has to be feared.
These final games of the preliminary round settle nothing. However the bye to the quarterfinals and the pyschological benefit of beating a top six rival can’t be underestimated .These will be the best games of these olympics so far. Once the seeding is set it will only get better.