Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament: Group Play Recap and Elimination Round Setup

Tourney MVP - Martin Rose

After just four days, the Group Play round of the Sochi Olympics has come and gone. All the men's teams will be off tomorrow while the women play their two semifinal games, which are expected to lead into a USA/Canada Gold Medal matchup later in the week. Then on Tuesday, the elimination games for the men begin. Here's how the bracket looks (from Wikipedia):

Olympic_tourney_bracket_medium

So it looks like if that Gold Medal rematch from 2010 is going to happen, it'll be in the semifinals. Meanwhile, the home team finds themselves in the Qualification Round having to play an extra game before presumably having to go through Finland, Sweden, and then one of the North American powerhouses if they're to win gold.

So how did we get here?

The Group Play stage played out fairly similarly to how it was expected to, with Group A playing as the most-level of the fields; Group B coming down to a battle between Canada and Finland; and Group C going easily to Sweden with a closer battle for second place. That doesn't mean there weren't surprises in this round.

Biggest Surprises of the Round

  • I think Slovakia earning only one point in their three games was the biggest shock. They were considered a mid-tier outside threat to medal, but a loss to Slovenia left them 0-2 to start. A strategic change to a trap-heavy system helped them steal a point from the Russians in a shootout loss, but this was a team that managed to score just two goals in their three games and they didn't look like much of a threat at all.
  • On the pleasant flip-side, Slovenia proved to be more-capable than many expected. With just one NHL star on their roster, the Slovenian team was supposed to be a decent warmup for the other three teams. They responded by playing the Russians tight for two periods and beating the Slovakians before dropping a decisive loss to the United States (with Anze Kopitar suffering from an ailment that slowed him down, then ultimately knocked him out of the third period).
  • The Finnish team, which was supposed to be built from the goaltender forward, had the lowest team save percentage of any of the four teams which got automatic byes into the Quarterfinals. They held Canada to just two goals and allowed one to Norway, but a four-goal performance for Austria against Tuukka Rask was an odd outlier for them.
  • The U.S. finished in front of Canada on the strength of their goalscoring. This isn't a clutch-your-pearls kind of a shock, but it definitely qualifies as unexpected. The United States' group was a bit tougher and their lineup isn't supposed to be as high-powered. Also, only 5 of Canada's 11 goals were scored by forwards.
  • Russia has just one goal from both Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin so far. These guys are supposed to carry the majority of the weight for the Russian team, but with other squads keying on them, they've disappointed. If Russia is going to have success, they need those guys performing.

Least-Surprising First Round Stories

  • The Swiss team played three games and their total score differential was 2-1. They've got an international reputation for being a very stingy team. It may be boring (and it is), but it works for them.
  • Sweden is really good. I mean, it's almost surprising because right now their best forward is probably a non-superpowered Daniel Sedin and we know they're a much better squad with guys like Henrik Sedin, Johan Franzen, and Henrik Zetterberg in the lineup, but even without those guys, 9 points was the expectation for the Swedish team and that's what they got.
  • Alexander Radulov is still a very talented player who has shit for brains.
  • Austria and Norway aren't very good.

Looking ahead

If we're looking for upsets in the Qualification Round, then the Czech Republic/Slovakia game is probably the best chance, as I think the Slovakian team is better than the Czech squad, but they've played like garbage so far. Slovenia/Austria is the closest meetup on the brackets and the Austrians could surprise, but I don't know if I'd expect Slovenia to play down to that level.

Once we get to the quarters, assuming no crazy upsets on Tuesday, Russia/Finland should be the most hard-fought game. The US will have to go up against a very talented team in either the Czech Republic or Slovakia and the Swiss team, expected to earn their way to a matchup against Canada, can be very frustrating to play against.

Predictions

  • Final Four: Russia, Sweden, Canada, United States.
  • Most of us will still be friends at the end of next week, but we'll secretly all be happy that we get to go back to cheering for the same team.
  • Phil and Amanda Kessel are both named tournament MVPs.
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