HELSINKI – Dealing with pressure is part of hockey, and there are few more pressure-packed situations than the quarter-finals in an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
If you win, you’re at least guaranteed a shot at a medal of some colour.
If you lose, you’re going home with no hardware and an inglorious fifth-to-eighth-place finish.
This year, all the nations participating in the quarter-finals are facing particular pressures as they try to take the first step toward gold in 2013. Let’s take a closer look.
If anyone bet before the tournament that Switzerland would win all seven of its round-robin games, that person is extremely rich now. The Swiss have surrendered just one point, that coming in a 3-2 shootout win over Canada. So their pressure comes from the unfamiliar position of being a front-runner. They've scored the same number of goals as defending champion Russia (29).
Normally, the Swiss are expected to exit the tournament with little fuss. This is, in fact, their first quarter-final appearance since 2010, and last year they were 11th. But against a Czech team that they’ve already beaten 5-2, they have a real chance to advance. Still, the Czechs are sure to be better now, as the addition of Tomas Plekanec in a 7-0 romp over Norway showed.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Nino Nieddereiter, Martin Plüss, Roman Josi, Reto Suri, Martin Gerber
It’s hard to believe, but the motherland of hockey hasn’t won this tournament since 2007. Canada hasn’t even gotten past the quarter-finals since 2009, when it wound up losing to Russia in the gold medal game. In the last three years, the Canadians have twice lost their first elimination game to the Russians (2010, 2011) and once to Slovakia (2012).
Facing host Sweden, Canada needs to make a statement here prior to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. There are too many young, talented potential Olympians here for another quarter-final loss to be acceptable.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Matt Duchene, Eric Staal, Mike Smith
Can Sweden become the first nation to win the World Championship on home ice since the Soviets did it in Moscow in 1986? It’s a tall order to break the “home ice curse”. To make the final on May 19, head coach Pär Mårts will need to start with a superlative effort against Canada. His twin superstars, the Sedins, will be in the spotlight again after their Vancouver Canucks were swept by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
The last time Tre Kronor captured Worlds gold in 2006, it involved a 5-4 semi-final victory over Canada, most-remembered for Mika Hannula’s nasty cross-check on Sidney Crosby. Fans will be hoping this team has taken the world-conquering lyrics of “En För Alla För En”, the fight song performed by The Poodles, to heart.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson, Gabriel Landeskog, Jhonas Enroth
Even though the Czechs had to beat Norway in their round-robin closer to make the final eight, they now have a chance to go for their fourth medal in a row (2010: gold, 2011: bronze, 2012: bronze). The national team’s core players are aging, but expectations remain high back home.
And since Switzerland’s lone quarter-final win in IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship history came way back in 1992 (a 3-1 decision over Germany), it’ll be regarded as a flop if the Czechs don’t move on – even factoring in how well the Swiss have played in seven straight victories.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Jakub Voracek, Tomas Plekanec, Radim Vrbata, Zbynek Michalek, Ondrej Pavelec
It’s not a squad full of big names, but the Finns have surprised people, as they often do in these underdog situations. The pressure here, of course, comes from playing the quarter-final on home ice. There cannot be a repeat of what happened in 2003, when Finland took a 5-1 lead on Sweden but stunningly lost 6-5.
Petri Kontiola, who wasn’t on the team that won gold in 2011 in Slovakia, has emerged as one of the tournament’s top guns with 12 points. Goalie Antti Raanta has been fabulous. And in other respects, the Finns have done just about everything well so far. Maintaining composure will be the key.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Petri Kontiola, Juhamatti Aaltonen, Niklas Hagman, Lauri Korpikoski, Antti Raanta
With back-to-back losses to France and Finland, Russia’s veneer of invincibility was tarnished. The defending champions are under more pressure than any other team, since they’re hosting the Olympics in February, and many of the same KHL players suiting up in Helsinki – especially on defence – will be expected to deliver gold on the world’s biggest stage in Sochi.
Versus the Americans, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s squad has to get back to the nearly error-free hockey it was playing last year in Helsinki – quickly.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov, Ilya Nikulin, Sergei Mozyakin, Ilya Bryzgalov
The Americans haven’t won a World Championship tournament since 1933, and expectations aren’t usually too heavy. But this year, coach Joe Sacco’s youthful roster has raised the bar for itself – and will be eager to bounce back from its 4-1 loss to Slovakia to close out the round-robin.
Even in a 5-3 loss to favoured Russia, they were in the mix until the very end. Could the Americans be in the running for their first medal since 2004’s bronze in the Czech Republic? To do so, they’ll need to knock off the defending champs – never an easy order in front of a pro-Russian crowd.
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Paul Stastny, Erik Johnson, Craig Smith, Justin Faulk, Matt Carle
The Slovaks keep finding a way to take home hardware despite all the doubters. This year, they’re under pressure to bring home another medal after taking silver in 2012 in Helsinki.
Slovakia squeaked into the quarter-finals for the second straight time with a 4-1 win over the United States (in 2012, it took a 5-4 decision versus France). Will the Slovaks be able to keep their nerve as the Finnish fans go wild at Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena?
Five Players on the Hot Seat: Miroslav Satan, Tomas Zaborsky, Tomas Kopecky, Branko Radivojevic, Rastislav Stana