Years ending in zeros have been very, very good for Team USA in Olympic hockey. After winning the gold at Squaw Valley in 1960 and again at Lake Placid in 1980, who was to say that Vancouver 2010 wouldn’t come up golden for the Americans? In what was the highlight of the preliminary round––at least here in North America––the United States surprised both Canada the team and Canada the nation on Sunday night with a 5-3 win that assured the Americans a first round bye and the top overall seed, while setting the tournament’s two gold medal favorites––Canada and Russia––on a quarterfinals collision course that only one team will survive; the loser goes home without a medal.
What did we learn about the twelve participating teams over the course of the tournament’s first week? Let’s take a look at them from the first to last seed:
1. USA (1st place in Group A – 9 points, +9 GD)
The United States got off to a promising 3-0 lead through two periods against Switzerland, but lost their focus in the third period to win by only 3-1; the lack of hustle was worrisome enough to make the takeaway from the game murky. The Americans then went about their business beating a weak Norway squad 6-1, before putting their stamp on the tournament with their marquee win against host nation and co-favorite Canada. We said that the United States was the big wild card heading into the tournament, and they’ve gone ahead and proven it; Team USA can beat any team on any given night. Now, they’ve got an easy path to the semis in addition.
2. Sweden (1st place in Group C – 9 points, +7 GD)
My pick to win gold, Sweden certainly didn’t look up to the task with lackluster 2-0 and 4-2 wins against Germany and Belarus. But we’ve seen teams––like Canada in 2002––start an Olympic tournament looking vulnerable and end up winning it all. The Triple Crowns controlled the Finland game, finishing when they needed to…but how much of that result was a horribly flat effort by the Finns? Do we still know anything about Team Sweden? One of the three best teams on paper, the Swedes are an enigma in this tournament; they could lose in the quarters to Slovakia or win the gold again. An additional worry is the elbow that Patrik Hornqvist took to the head from Joni Pitkanen that knocked him out of that game; hopefully the effects don’t linger.
3. Russia (1st place in Group B – 7 points, +7 GD)
One of the surprises of the preliminary round was Slovakia’s 2-1 shootout win over Russia…but that’s why we categorized Slovakia as the other wild card of the tournament! Recovering nicely, Russia took care of the Czech Republic 4-2 to clinch Group B. The game turned on a vicious but clean open ice hit of Jaromir Jagr by Alex Ovechkin, which immediately and visibly rattled the Czechs; the ensuing odd man rush resulted in an Evgeni Malkin goal that put Russia up 3-1; with all the talent on the ice on Super Sunday, it might be easy to forget the role that the physical game played in deciding the first two contests. Looking forward, Russia came out of the Czech game nursing multiple injuries, which could be a factor. Additionally, their mediocre power play needs to improve. Russia can’t be happy to see Canada on the horizon for the quarterfinals.
4. Finland (2nd place in Group C – 6 points, +6 GD)
Dominant against two inferior foes, you could have called Finland the most cohesive team through two games. A disappointing, puzzlingly flat effort against archrival Sweden is hard to explain in what’s supposed to be a rivalry…but sure didn’t come off that way with one team refusing to show up. Lack of NHL depth really hurt the Finns in this game; KHL blueliner Lasse Kukkonen’s defensive inefficiencies were central to all three goals. Significant soul searching needs to occur for a team that’s supposed to have heart; Tuomo Ruutu can’t provide it on his own.
5. Czech Republic (2nd place in Group B – 6 points, +3 GD)
Slovakia did a favor for the rival Czech Republic by taking stupid penalties in a tight game; two second period goals, including one in the dying seconds helped break the game open. Throw in a decent effort against Latvia and a disappointing collapse against Russia, and like the Swedes, we really don’t know what the Czechs are yet. Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Plekanec look great, but other NHL scorers like Patrik Elias and Martin Erat have been relatively invisible. Not surprisingly, this team will go as far as Tomas Vokoun takes them.
6. Canada (2nd place in Group A – 5 points, +7 GD)
“Oh, Canada”: There’s an overused line. Ever since the celebrated 8-0 drubbing of Norway, everything’s gone horribly wrong: a regulation tie with Switzerland, a loss to the United States, an additional game on the slate and a quarterfinal matchup with Russia looming. Tell me that––even with all of the superstar firepower––Canada couldn’t have used the NHL’s best offensive defenseman, Mike Green, when they needed some extra firepower at the end of the Switzerland and USA games; general managers really tend of overthink these things. The scary thing is that other than probably being marginally better off with Roberto Luongo than with Martin Brodeur, Team Canada really hasn’t done anything that wrong; there’s no radical or magical fix to this. You’d think the home ice advantage could really get to their opposition, but it seems that the pressure of playing “on home soil” may be evening out that advantage, and then some. It would be sufficiently bitter for Russia to miss out on medaling, but something beyond heartbreak and shame for Canada.
7. Slovakia (3rd place in Group B – 5 points, +5 GD)
Good and bad, but mostly good. In effect, it was a self-inflicted loss against the rival Czech Republic, but an impressive 2-1 victory against Russia and the 6-0 drubbing of Latvia you’d expect from a contender. Jaroslav Halak continues to fly under the radar in goal, but the defensive support is impressive for a team that you normally equate with offense. In addition to the well-known names of Chara and Visnovsky, Martin Strbak is having a quality tournament that will get him on an NHL roster in the near future. An intriguing quarterfinal matchup against Sweden looms with another big upset as a distinct possibility. How long can they keep a Cinderella story going?
8. Switzerland (3rd place in Group A – 3 points, -2 GD)
Good enough to scare the big boys and weak enough to be threatened by anyone. What you can say about the team was embodied by its goaltender: Jonas Hiller was game-changing against Canada and mortal against Norway. There’s no way they’ll get past Team USA in the quarterfinals.
9. Belarus (3rd place in Group C – 3 points, -4 GD)
Sergei Kostitsyn––Kostitsyn minor––has been persona non grata for the Montreal Canadiens this season. Voila, the Olympics are here, and he finds himself at the top of the scoring leaderboard with 5 points. The White Russians, hurt by the absence of Andrei Kostitsyn and Mikael Grabovski, might have two more games left in them.
10. Norway (4th place in Group A – 1 point, -14 GD)
Thirty NHL general managers texted their scouting directors the same question: Who is Tore Vikingstad? A nice effort to get the regulation tie with Switzerland, but they would likely lose to Germany or Latvia head-to-head.
11. Germany (4th place in Group C – 0 points, -9 GD)
After the top echelon of teams, many pundits considered Switzerland and Germany to be the next tier. Therefore, three losses in the preliminary round can be considered a failure for Germany, a team that can field a full, moderate quality NHL lineup on the ice at once: there are only seven other teams that can say that. Defensively sound, they play not to lose by too many goals. A quality showing against a wounded Canada could be considered a moral victory.
12. Latvia (4th place in Group B – 0 points, -15 GD)
Unfortunately, Latvia found themselves in the “Group of Death” with three of the top seven teams, the only squad with essentially no chance of winning a preliminary round game. Not surprisingly, that led to a 12th seed. It’ll be the end of the road in a rematch against the Czech Republic.
Secondary Round – Tuesday, February 23rd
Czech Republic vs. Latvia – 12:00
A replay of the first round match – Don’t expect it to be as close as 5-2 again. With back-to-back games on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Czechs should really consider using Ondrej Pavelec in this game, which they can’t lose.
Canada vs. Germany – 16:30
Look for Canada to take their frustrations out on Germany. Like the Czechs, Canada should start different goaltenders in their back-to-back elimination games. It’ll never happen, but I’d go with third string netminder Marc-Andre Fleury against Germany and come back with Luongo against Russia, with Brodeur in reserve.
Slovakia vs. Norway – 19:00
Norway earned a point in the preliminary round with an unexpected regulation tie against Switzerland. That said, they might be the worst team in the tournament. Slovakia should start Peter Budaj to rest Jaroslav Halak for the matchup with Sweden.
Switzerland vs. Belarus – 21:00
This shapes up to be a good, competitive game that should be the pinnacle of these Olympics for one team or the other. You’d think Jonas Hiller would give Switzerland the edge, but Belarus will beat the Swiss that showed up against Norway.
Quarterfinals – Wednesday, February 24th
USA vs. Switzerland or Belarus – 12:00
Switzerland took Canada to overtime while Belarus put a scare into Sweden, but an upset of Team USA seems highly unlikely; the first overall seed has earned a very winnable quarterfinal matchup.
Sweden vs. Slovakia or Norway – 16:30
It’s a big drop step up in competition for the second overall seed, having to face Slovakia in the quarterfinals. Sweden’s still the defending champion and one of the favorites, but this matchup has the makings of an upset. Delicious irony, if Marian Gaborik gets the game winner on New York Rangers’ teammate Henrik Lundqvist. There’s a headline.
Russia vs. Canada or Germany – 19:00
One of the two gold medal favorites will be eliminated from the tournament without a medal. Thus far, Russia’s had a better tournament and they have a fearsome top two lines; on the other hand, we know Canada’s better than we’ve seen and that they have star power throughout their lineup. Not bad for the quarterfinals, huh? Boy, that Switzerland game really made a difference in the face of the tournament.
Finland vs. Czech Republic or Latvia – 21:00
One of the top six teams in the world will be packing their bags after this game as well. Look for Finland to bounce back after an inexplicably poor effort against Sweden. The Czechs will be handicapped by playing back-to-back, but Tomas Vokoun can steal the game for them. Tough call.
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Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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