The men’s ice hockey teams have a day off Monday as they gear up for elimination contests in Sochi, which begin on Tuesday. Check out the full playoff bracket here and in the meantime, here are five thoughts on the preliminary round in Sochi.
1. The United States is a legitimate gold medal contender. When they gathered in Arlington for orientation camp back in July, USA Hockey brass stated unequivocally that they intended to contend for gold. The reaction from the worldwide hockey community was mixed. Sure, the Americans have made significant strides in growing the sport, developing a greater talent pool and they captured a silver medal in Vancouver. But few seemed ready to buy into those expectations. Not with Canada being, well, Canada. Not with Russia determined to succeed on home ice. Not with Sweden’s depth.
Through the preliminary round, though, there is little question the United States is for real. No team has looked as cohesive through three contests, had as dynamic an offense and been able to balance it with sturdy defense and goaltending.
While the Americans were only truly tested once in the prelims – by Russia in that heart-stopping 3-2 overtime victory – there was an almost mechanical nature to the way that they rolled through games. Phil Kessel’s goal-scoring instincts and T.J. Oshie’s shootout skills stood out, but 17 players recorded at least one point and nine scored goals. This isn’t a group that can be shut down by eliminating one line.
Jonathan Quick, who it appears will be in the U.S. net barring a meltdown, has been up to the task, stopping 51 of the 54 shots he faced in two preliminary games, not to mention his sterling effort in the shootout against Russia.
Keeping up this momentum will undoubtedly get tougher, though. The United States doesn’t play again until Wednesday, having received a qualification-round bye, then face either the Czech Republic or Slovakia in the quarterfinals. And then a potential matchup with Canada, which will face either Switzerland or Latvia, awaits in the semifinals.
2. The pesky Swiss. Speaking of Switzerland, it is easily the most underrated and sneaky-dangerous team in Tuesday’s qualification round. They can’t score – they recorded only two goals in the prelims – but have the defense and goaltending to negate that while driving any of the contenders in this tournament mad.
Anaheim Ducks netminder Jonas Hiller recorded shutouts in both of the preliminary games he played – stopping all 47 shots he faced. In the one game he didn’t play, Calgary’s Reto Berra stopped 30 of 31 in a 1-0 loss to Sweden. Should the Swiss beat Latvia in the qualifying round Tuesday – they beat Latvia, 1-0, in their opening game of the tournament – they will face Canada in the quarterfinals.
3. Where’s the Russian offense? This glittering group carrying the hopes of the host nation wrapped up the preliminary round looking for their offense. Russia needed a shootout to capture a 1-0 win over Slovakia, which started third-string goaltender Jan Laco Sunday, and didn’t have the offensive creativity that so many members of the lineup are known for. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin had their share of shots and scoring chances – they recorded six and five shots, respectively, against Slovakia – but couldn’t break through.
Neither Ovechkin, Malkin nor Ilya Kovalchuk have recorded a goal since the first game of the tournament. Alexander Semin and Alexander Radulov haven’t scored a goal outside of the shootout. Russia is 2-for-13 on the power play, but the unit looks unorganized and disjointed more often than the threatening presence it often was against the United States.
The Russians, who have to face Norway in the qualification round Tuesday, will need to find their scoring touch no matter who they face if they’re going to find a way on to the medal podium.
4. Sweden still dangerous. Yes, the Swedes are beat up. Yes, Tre Kronor are without their captain Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disc) and are without the center depth they hoped to have in Sochi. But they remain one of the most well-balanced teams in the tournament and earned the top seed, which means Sweden will face either Slovenia or Austria in the quarterfinals. Sweden plays as a cohesive, consistent group that can excel in low- and high- scoring games alike; that hasn’t changed no matter who they have in the lineup.
5. Finland. Often overshadowed by their fellow Scandinavians in Sweden, the Finns frustrated Canada’s all-star squad on Sunday before ultimately falling 2-1 in overtime. Finland, without Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and now Aleksander Barkov because of injuries, still has the balance and big-ice savvy to be dangerous. They also have arguably the deepest goaltending in Sochi with Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen and San Jose’s Antti Niemi. If the Finns are at the top of their game, it’s not a stretch to see them being a tough matchup for Russia in the quarterfinals.