VANCOUVER – With less than a year to go till the Olympic men's tournament kicks off, speculation is already running wild about who'll come out on top. Now that we know the allocation of teams in the Preliminary Round schedule and the overall Olympic format, IIHF.com's Lucas Aykroyd attempts a realistic prediction about how it's likely to turn out game by game.
Aykroyd runs through the entire tournament hypothetically and predicts the final results, based on past history, current available talent - and a little intuition.
Tuesday, February 16
Game 1: USA 4, SUI 2: Americans pepper Jonas Hiller with 43 shots en route to victory
Game 2: CAN 6, NOR 2: Per-Åge Skrøder scores two goals, but host nation pulls away in third
Game 3: RUS 8, LAT 1: Morozov, Zinoviev combine for six points as Russia gets off to fast start
Analysis: Even though North American squads, particularly Canada, often get off to slower starts at international tournaments than their European rivals, expect the Americans and Canadians to look comfortable in a familiar NHL rink. The Russians beat Latvia 9-2 at the 2006 Winter games in Turin, and have only gotten stronger offensively and defensively since then.
Wednesday, February 17
Game 4: FIN 4, BLR 0: Kiprusoff earns first Olympic shutout with 19 saves
Game 5: SWE 5, GER 1: Nicklas Backstrom has three assists as Tre Kronor's power play clicks
Game 6: CZE 4, SVK 3: Slovaks outchance Czechs through 60 minutes, but fall in shootout
Analysis: After Canada, the Finns have the deepest pool of top-flight netminders in the tournament, and are also committed to defensive play. Sweden has only lost three official national team games all-time to Germany (including the era of West Germany and East Germany). The neighbouring Czechs and Slovaks should battle hard, but the Czechs still have a little more depth and winning experience.
Thursday, February 18
Game 7: NOR 3, USA 2: First big upset as gutsy Norwegians tally twice on PP, including OT winner
Game 8: CAN 4, SUI 1: Canada gets revenge for 2006 loss as Getzlaf, Nash dominate down low
Game 9: RUS 6, SVK 3: Porous Russian defence makes it close till Ovechkin's natural hat trick
Analysis: Norway beating the USA? Unlikely in practice, but we know every Olympic tournament contains at least an upset or two (think of Belarus ousting Sweden in the 2002 quarter-finals, or Switzerland's Preliminary Round wins over Canada and the Czechs in 2006). After Switzerland's shocking 2-0 defeat of Canada at the Turin Games, expect the hosts to be extra-focused for this one. The Russians and Slovaks could well get into a run-and-gun affair, and when you look at the dominance of Russians among today's NHL scoring leaders, that style has to favour the defending World Championship gold medalists.
Friday, February 19
Game 10: SWE 6, BLR 3: No Tommy Salo-style bloopers, and Lidström has four helpers
Game 11: CZE 7, LAT 2: Czechs seem distracted until Elias scores shorthanded in middle frame
Game 12: FIN 2, GER 1: Ugly, grinding affair decided by Hagman's late rebound goal
Analysis: No big surprises here, especially for the first two games. The hard-working Germans often give Finland some trouble: think of the two encounters at the 2004 World Cup in Cologne and Helsinki, which the Finns won 3-0 and 2-1 respectively.
Saturday, February 20
Game 13: SUI 4, NOR 1: Switzerland finally generates some offence, and checks well
Game 14: SVK 5, LAT 1: Wonky Latvians surrender three goals on first eight shots, never recover
Game 15: BLR 5, GER 3: Kostitsyn brothers hook up for 2-on-1 clincher midway through third
Analysis: On a day of action featuring nations that are unlikely to medal, the game that could most probably go either way is Belarus-Germany. Belarus has a bit more offensive flair as a team, the likes of Marco Sturm and Jochen Hecht notwithstanding.
Sunday, February 21
Game 16: RUS 3, CZE 1: Nabokov, Vokoun both shine, but Semin's dazzling rush decides it late
Game 17: CAN 5, USA 4: Four points for Crosby as hosts edge American rivals in thriller
Game 18: FIN 3, SWE 2: Dogged Finnish checking opens way for Saku Koivu's winner with 5:36 left
Analysis: Despite their abundance of offensive firepower, the Russians and Czechs tend to tighten up defensively when they face each other. (A classic example is the 1-0 Czech win in the gold medal game of the 1998 Olympics.) Adrenalin will be running high for the Canada-USA game, the most anticipated Preliminary Round matchup for the hosts, and with lots of young talent on both teams, it could turn into more of a shootout than a 1996 World Cup-style bash-a-thon. The Finns, with their tendency to peak a bit too early, just might take it to the Swedes in the Scandinavian grudgefest.
Standings after Preliminary Round
Group A: Canada (1), USA (2), Switzerland (3), Norway (4)
Group B: Russia (1), Czech Republic (2), Slovakia (3), Latvia (4)
Group C: Finland (1), Sweden (2), Belarus (3), Germany (4)
1D. Russia (3 W, 0 L, 17 GF, 5 GA, 9 pts.)
2D. Canada (3 W, 0 L, 15 GF, 7 GA, 9 pts.)
3D. Finland (3 W, 0 L, 9 GF, 3 GA, 9 pts.)
4D. Sweden (2 W, 1 L, 13 GF, 6 GA, 6 pts.)
5D. Czech Republic (1 W, 1 OTW, 1 L, 12 GF, 8 GA, 5 pts.)
6D. USA (1 W, 1 OTL, 1 L, 10 GF, 10 GA, 4 pts.)
7D. Slovakia (1 W, 1 OTL, 1 L, 11 GF, 11 GA, 4 pts.)
8D. Switzerland (1 W, 2 L, 7 GF, 9 GA, 3 pts.)
9D. Belarus (1 W, 2 L, 8 GF, 13 GA, 3 pts.)
10D. Norway (1 OTW, 2 L, 6 GF, 12 GA, 2 pts.)
11D. Germany (0 W, 3 L, 5 GF, 12 GA, 0 pts.)
12D. Latvia (0 W, 3 L, 4 GF, 20 GA, 0 pts.)
Russia, Canada, Finland and Sweden receive byes into the Quarter-Finals.
In the Qualification Playoff Games, 5D plays 12D (winner is E1), 6D plays 11D (winner is E2), 7D plays 10D (winner is E3), and 8D plays 9D (winner is E4).
Qualification Playoff Games
Tuesday, February 23
Game 19: USA 5, GER 1: USA blows game open with four second-period markers
Game 20: CZE 5, LAT 2: Jagr, Hemsky add three points apiece as Czechs handle Latvia again
Game 21: SVK 4, NOR 3: Slovaks rebound from 3-1 deficit to make quarter-finals
Game 22: BLR 2, SUI 1: Shocked Swiss head home after bad clearing attempt turns into own goal
Analysis: Here, the Americans and Czechs do what they're supposed to do. As for the Slovaks, since the glory years of 2000-03 (where they won silver, gold, and bronze at the Worlds), they've become less and less reliable, playing in the Relegation Round in Halifax last year.
That's why we have them beating Norway with less assurance than one might expect from all their NHL names. And is this scenario pretty tough on the Swiss overall? Sure, but the reality is that at every Olympics, there are major tactical booboos that end up destroying teams' hopes and being commented on for years to come. (Think of coach Marc Crawford's decision to sit Wayne Gretzky down during the 1998 semi-final shootout versus the Czechs, or Vladimir Kopat's long blooper shot that enabled Belarus to eliminate Sweden in 2002, or Todd Bertuzzi's untimely penalty on Sergei Gonchar that led to Russia's winning goal versus Canada in the 2006 Olympic quarter-finals.)
Perchance the Swiss have a hangover from hosting the Worlds this year (either from bombing due to the “home ice curse”, or from too much euphoria after, say, another Top-Six finish under Ralph Krueger). Anyway, somebody, somewhere will make a bad decision at a bad time. That's the nature of high-pressure Olympic hockey.
In the Quarter-Finals, Russia (1D) plays Belarus (E4), and winner is F1; Canada (2D) plays Slovakia (E3), and winner is F2; Finland (3D) plays the USA (E2), and winner is F3; and Sweden (4D) plays Czech Republic (5D), and winner is F4.
Wednesday, February 24
Game 23: FIN 3, USA 2: Olli Jokinen blasts home winner for outshot Finns with 1:34 left in OT
Game 24: CAN 5, SVK 0: Total domination for Canadians, as Brodeur earns shutout with 19 saves
Game 25: RUS 7, BLR 1: With four points, Malkin edges ahead of Crosby in tournament scoring
Game 26: SWE 4, CZE 3: Zetterberg scores nifty goal to win it in seventh round of shootout
Analysis: The Finns have had the USA's number recently, be it at the 2007 Worlds, where Jere Lehtinen's shootout winner won the quarter-final matchup, or the 2004 World Cup, where Saku Koivu's late tally in a semi-final game in Minnesota proved decisive. Apart from a 3-2 loss in the quarter-finals at the 2002 Worlds, Canada has generally prospered against Slovakia. Ditto for Russia versus Belarus. Sweden versus the Czech Republic should be close, but the reality is that lately the Swedes have just been a tad more reliable (they beat the Czechs en route to Olympic and World Championship gold in 2006).
In the Semi-Finals, Russia (F1) plays Sweden (F4), and Canada (F2) plays Finland (F3).
Friday, February 26
Game 27: SWE 3, RUS 2: Sweden grabs early 3-0 lead and staves off furious Russian rally
Game 28: CAN 4, FIN 3: Finns keep it close, but Crosby sets up Lecavalier for third-period winner
Analysis: Sweden versus Russia is another tough call. But again, we're erring on the side of consistency and veteran presence. As talented as the Russians are, they also have a mercurial quality. It was only last year that they won their first IIHF World Championship gold medal since 1993. Any Swedish team that's made it as far as the semi-finals usually has its team game well in order, and this one will feature a lot of veterans who know how to win, be it in the Olympics, the Worlds, or the Stanley Cup finals.
Picking Canada over Finland is an easier task. The Finns rarely win an elimination or medal round game against Canada, unless it's for bronze. (Notable recent Canadian victories over Finland came in the 2004 World Cup and 2007 World Championship finals, not to mention the 2004 World Championship quarter-finals.)
Bronze Medal Game
Saturday, February 27
Game 29: RUS 4, FIN 1: Russia starts lethargically, but Datsyuk dazzles with two breakaway goals
Analysis: Realistically, this could go either way. This scenario entails believing that the young Russians overcome their disappointment at failing in the quest for gold, and use their superior skill set to defeat the Finns, who probably want the bronze a little more.
Gold Medal Game
Sunday, February 28
Game 30: CAN 3, SWE 2: In clash of '02 and '06 champs, Canada prevails on Green's late solo dash
Analysis: Since the IIHF introduced the playoff round format in 1992, every gold medal game has contained some classic elements, and we're predicting this one is no different. History says that Canada tends to triumph when meeting Sweden for a title. (The most notable exception came at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where Peter Forsberg's shootout goal and Tommy Salo's save on Paul Kariya earned Tre Kronor top spot.)
History has also been kind to Canada in final games on home ice. Only at the 1981 Canada Cup, 1996 World Cup, and 2008 World Championship final did the hosts fall short. So it should be an tight, exciting conclusion to the 2010 tournament. Expect Canada's new generation of young guns to shine, like top scorers Sidney Crosby and Mike Green.
5. Czech Republic
Tournament All-Star Team
Goal: Evgeni Nabokov (RUS)
Defence: Nicklas Lidström (SWE)
Defence: Mike Green (CAN)
Forward: Nicklas Bäckström (SWE)
Forward: Sidney Crosby (CAN)
Forward: Evgeni Malkin (RUS)
Best Forward: Sidney Crosby (CAN)
Best Defenceman: Nicklas Lidström (SWE)
Best Goalkeeper: Evgeni Nabokov (RUS)
Tournament MVP: Sidney Crosby (CAN)