An upset-free zone?

With rare exceptions, QFs are where the big boys shine

11-05-11
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Andy Roach scores the game-winning shoot-out goal on Tomas Vokoun in the 2004 quarter-final upset of Czech Republic. Photo: Mikko Järvinen / Europhoto

BRATISLAVA – If the Swedes don’t beat Germany, or if the Finns don’t beat Norway, then look out your window and check if the moon is blue.

That’s how rare upsets are in quarter-finals in senior men’s IIHF competition. Since the IIHF first began using the elimination-game format at the 1992 IIHF World Championship, here’s the rule that’s applied to the round of eight: “The teams that should win, do win.” Elite nations bear down against lesser rivals and don’t make mistakes here.

Of course, when two relatively evenly matched rivals like Canada and Russia face off in a quarter-final, it could go either way. Similarly, if, say, the Czech Republic defeats Sweden or Finland tops the United States, or vice versa, nobody will bat an eye.

When you look back at the history of IIHF competition since 1992 – both Worlds and Olympics – hardly any quarter-final upsets stand out.

The most famous one – and deservedly so – is Belarus’s 4-3 ouster of Sweden in the 2002 Olympic quarter-finals in Salt Lake City.

“Sometimes even a gun without a bullet shoots, and that was us today,” said Belarus goalie Andrei Mezin afterwards. At the time, the former Soviet republic had no big-name stars and only one active NHLer in defenceman Ruslan Salei. The Swedes had a who’s-who of elite performers in their prime: Nicklas Lidström, Mats Sundin, Markus Näslund, and Daniel Alfredsson headlined the parade.

So when Belarus’s Vladimir Kopat floated a shot from centre ice off the mask of goalie Tommy Salo and into the net for the winner with 2:24 left, it was truly an unthinkable upset.

But what about the Worlds?

The biggest quarter-final shocker in recent memory was undoubtedly the USA’s 3-2 shootout win over the host Czech Republic in 2004.

Yes, this was a matchup between two “Big Seven” nations. Yet in practice, it should have been a mismatch that thoroughly favored the Czechs.

The host team had won every game it had played, to the delight of the fans in Prague. Their goal difference at the end of the Qualification Round was a commanding 19-5. They had finished off that round by embarrassing eventual champion Canada 6-2. And the Czech roster was genuinely Olympic-calibre. It featured Jaromir Jagr, Martin Havlat, Vaclav Prospal, and Martin Straka up front; Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, and Frantisek Kaberle on the blueline; and Tomas Vokoun in goal.

The Americans, by contrast, were not particularly impressive coming into the quarter-final. Apart from a 3-2 win over a star-laden (but stumbling) Russian team in the Qualification Round, they’d gotten most of their wins over clearly weaker opponents like Ukraine and Denmark. They were seeded fourth in their Qualification Round group. The American roster was far from Olympic-calibre. Only one 2004 forward, Chris Drury, participated in both the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games. Aaron Miller was the lone blueline returnee from the 2002 Olympics. In goal, Mike Dunham was a holdover from Salt Lake City, but he was outplayed by Ty Conklin in 2004.

To make a long story short, absolutely no one expected the Americans to rally from a 2-0 deficit in the quarter-final and then trump the Czechs in the shootout thanks to the dirty dangles of D-man Andy Roach. (Yet the USA took great inspiration from this win, and went on to capture bronze with another thrilling shootout victory over Slovakia.)

Other than that upset? There’s almost nothing, unless you count Germany’s 1-0 win over Switzerland last year in Mannheim. But that would be looking at things very narrowly, focusing on Germany’s struggles at this tournament between 2005 and 2009 and the rise of the Swiss program over the last decade. Otherwise, you can hardly say that a German victory over the Swiss – particularly a close one – qualifies as an “upset”.

Still, a lack of quarter-final upsets in the past doesn’t mean we won’t see some in the near future. Increasing parity at the IIHF World Championship has become more and more evident in recent years, and countries like Germany and Norway are just drooling over the possibility of facing a top-flight rival that approaches its first elimination game with a complacent mindset.

May the moon soon turn blue again. It’ll be good for international hockey.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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