Where they stand
by Andrew Podnieks|15 FEB 2022
Canada and China will be playing for the second time in 48 hours, but this time a place in the quarter-finals is on the line.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The current tournament format for the men’s Olympic competition started in 2010. Three groups of four teams play a round robin, and no team is eliminated at this stage. Instead, all teams are seeded 1-12, and the top four go directly to the quarter-finals while the other eight play a qualification round. 

There are two ways of looking at the significance of this in-between round. To the bad, it means one more elimination game, one more chance of being kicked to the curb, as it were. On the other hand, Olympics teams are assembled so quickly that this extra game is one more Grade A chance to play together, gel, learn, develop. 

But in the three previous Games under this format, the qualification round has done way more harm than good for the competing teams. Almost always the favourite has won the game, but almost always that winner has followed up with a loss in the quarter-finals. The most obvious example to the good was in 2010 when Canada had to play the extra game, beat Germany handily, 8-2, and went on to win gold. Slovakia ended up going to the bronze-medal game but lost, while the Swiss and Czechs lost their QF games and went home.

In 2014, the punishment for having to play that extra game was clear and decisive. All four teams that won their qualification games—Slovenia, Russia, Latvia, Czech Republic—lost in the quarters. And in 2018, three of four lost after winning. The only exception was Germany, which advanced to the gold-medal game only to lose to OAR in overtime.

So where do the eight qualification teams stand this year, and what are their hopes for advancing beyond the quarter-finals? Let’s have a look.

Because of covid concerns, Canada trained in Switzerland and didn’t play a proper exhibition game as a team prior to their first game in Beijing. Coach Claude Julien needs to sort out his goaltending, and he has a potentially easy game against China to do that. The PK is perfect, the only team in the tournament not to have surrendered a power-play goal so far. The rest of the team gets to play together again, which is good, but a Canada win will set up a much tougher QF showdown with Sweden, which got its bye thanks to two wins and an overtime loss. 

A team stacked with Canadians, it has done well and lost two respectable games after a blowout to the U.S. in their debut. They just lost to Canada, 5-0, and a re-match isn’t likely to favour them any more, so the chances of them getting to, or winning, their QF against the Swedes is a distant thought right now. They have surrendered 16 goals, more than any other team, and they have scored only two, being shut out twice. Keeping the score close can be their primary ambition at this point.

After a stunning opening loss to the Danes, 2-1, the Czechs lost again to the Americans and looked on a downward spiral in their game against ROC. In a thrilling game, they trailed 1-0, 2-1, and finally 5-4 in the third, but they tied the game and won it in overtime, giving them plenty of confidence and momentum heading into the qualification game against the Swiss. That winner will have to play Finland, however, and given the strong lineup the Lions are icing in Beijing either team will have a very tough go of it in the quarters.

In their first ever Olympics, the Danes are just happy to be here, but they have a very winnable game against Latvia in the quallies. In fact, they have a couple of things going for them. In the preliminary round they beat Czechia, a much better team on paper, and later took out the Swiss, 5-3. Their only loss was a very respectable 2-0 decision to ROC, and if they beat Latvia, they’ll play ROC again. Tough, for sure, but they are not entirely down and out.

The silver medallists from 2018 are having a much tougher time of it four years later. They lost to Canada, 5-1, then narrowly escaped with a 3-2 win over China and ended with a 3-2 loss to the Americans, which was closer on the scoreboard than it was on the ice. If they beat Slovakia in the qualification, they get the Americans again, so their hopes of a semi-finals berth are tenuous at best.

A date with neighbouring ROC awaits the Latvians if they get by Denmark, but there is no guarantee of that. While the Danes have been punching up a weight class or two, Latvia is winless and has been outscored 11-5. For better or worse, three of those five goals have come on the power play. Great, because the PP is working well; not so great if they are trying to develop a balanced attack and rely on 5-on-5 to win. They are also the least penalized team, and where discipline goes, good things follow.

The Slovaks get the Germans and a possible date with the U.S. After two bad losses, they beat Latvia, 5-2, to head to the elimination round with some measure of confidence. What they have to do is find other ways to score besides 17-year-old phenom Juraj Slafkovsky. The sensational teen has scored four of his team’s eight goals, which is incredible. But surely he can’t be relied upon to get the team into the quarters? Coach Craig Ramsay has used all three of his goalies and will have to decide who to go with the rest of the way.

The enigmatic Swiss will play Finland if they can get by Czechia, but they are still looking for their first win after three close losses (1-0, 2-1 in a shootout, 5-3). Scoring has been their Achilles heel in recent times, and that’s the case again this year with most of their top end players in the NHL. 

One thing is clear. Some of these matchups have a favourite; others not so much. But all of the qualification winners have Sweden, Finland, United States, and ROC waiting for them. A win in the qualification round is one thing, but a win 24 hours later in the quarters is quite another.