Americans Amaze, Swedes Stagger As Olympic Hockey Seeding Starts to Sort Out
Maybe Alois Hadamczik -- the Czech Republic's men's national team coach -- thinks the Olympic hockey tournament's preliminary round is a warm-up exercise, but based on the games to date, it's a lone opinion.
Saturday's schedule indicated otherwise for the favorites and underdogs alike, as teams battled not only for the sheer competition of the best vs the best, but for precious points in the standings that could provide slight edges when the bracket pairings are set.
There was no greater example of this than the classic showdown between the USA and Russia:
How slight was this edge? Recall that Oshie was the last player named to the American roster, selected over Bobby Ryan because of his uncanny ability to convert penalty shots.
Team USA's other shootout hero, the Los Angeles Kings goalie Johnathan Quick, not only denied sniper Ilya Kovalchuk when it counted, his stealthy footwork might have also been the key to putting the game into overtime and the subsequent shootout.
Controversy made an ominous appearance late in the game. With 4:40 left in regulation, defenseman Fedor Tyutin wired a heater that seemed to give Russia a dramatic deciding goal. But it was disallowed on a technicality. International hockey rules stipulate that if a net is off its moorings, play is blown dead at that point; it's not possible to score. Replay confirmed that to be the case in this instance. Interestingly, though, there's nary a Russian in sight near the dislodged post. Only Quick's skate:
Needless to say, the Russians and the Bolshoy Ice Dome's overwhelmingly partisan crowd didn't think too highly of the decision. But for now, they'll seethe in relative silence and bide their time for a rematch.
The Czech's Hadamczik virtually gave away his team's chances against Sweden in their opening loss to Tre Kronor, choosing to sit some of his NHL stars in spite of the fact his roster has no depth. Who knows? Perhaps he didn't want to risk injury against the Swedes, saving his best players for more winnable games against Switzerland and Latvia.
Meanwhile, after cruising against the Czech Republic, goalie par excellence Henrik Lundqvist stoned the tenacious Swiss until Daniel Alfredsson tallied midway through the third period on Friday to notch Sweden's second victory. All they needed to do on Saturday was top the lowly Latvians, and they'd be assured of a clean sweep of their group with maximum points.
That attitude showed. Latvia didn't cooperate, choosing instead to play a physical game, targeting Erik Karlsson in particular for tough treatment. The aim was to disrupt his considerable contributions in all aspects of Sweden's game, and it did serve to keep them in it. Still, even though the presence of Henrik Zetterberg was sorely missed, Tre Kronor's methodically efficient power play accounted for three goals in the second period -- when Sweden only managed five shots -- and that was the difference in a tenacious 5-3 result.
Now, if Canada and Finland battle to a regulation tie in their final preliminary match on Sunday, Sweden will be the top seed when bracket play begins on Tue 18 Feb, gaining a bye and being assured of its first knockout opponent being the lowest-ranked team in the tourney. Duly chastened by Latvia, they'll surely be intense from the time they first lace their skates.
The Canadians are the juggernaut everyone expected them to be. The question is whether Tukka Rask can keep them at bay while his teammates find a way to convert an opportunity somewhere along the line. It's a tall order.
Meanwhile, the race is on for the bracket's wild card slot, granted to the best second-place finisher of the three groups. It carries the fourth bye of the first knockout round, which is huge, ie- one less chance to be eliminated. Going into Sunday's play, the loser of the Canada-Finland match will secure it if the game ends in regulation.
That means Russia and Switzerland would be placed in the first knockout round on Tuesday. Woe unto the teams that will be scheduled against them.
If one is the Czech Republic, the potential points Hadamczik so cavalierly dismissed against Sweden may come back to haunt it.