Previewing the Olympic hockey playoff field

Previewing the Olympic hockey playoff field
February 18, 2014, 1:30 am
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There was plenty of excitement with the USA/Russia instant classic tilt decided in a shootout. There was more excitement over hat-trick performances from Michael Grabner, Phil Kessel and Jeff Carter. Finland and Switzherland provided gritty, gutty team-wide efforts in the preliminary round, too. In our preview of the Olympic tournament we had Russia defeating Canada in the Gold Medal Game, and Sweden taking down Team USA for the Bronze Medal when it’s all decided at the end of this week.

We’ll stick with those predictions, though the USA hockey group has consistently been the most impressive through the first three games in pool play. Here’s a breakdown of the Olympic playoffs with the chances for each team to medal as there’s still some excellent hockey in store for the puck purist:

 
No. 1 Sweden – The Henrik Zetterberg injury is a killer for Sweden. They managed to build up a nice spot while outclassing the competition in the preliminary round, but they never looked like a dominant team in doing that. Losing their captain and one of their best players hurts for a squad that was already missing Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen to start. Still, they have a cast of players capable of excelling on the big ice and Erik Karlsson is playing like a man possessed. Anything is possible with Henrik Lundqvist.

Key Player for a Swedish victory: Erik Karlsson.

Medal chances: They’ll win at least the Bronze.

 

No. 2 USA – The most impressive team in the tournament thus far that’s shown depth, disciplined defense, good goaltending and the most compelling win in the preliminary rounds. All that being said the game vs. Russia was their only real test and the US probably didn’t really deserve to win prior to the shootout. Phil Kessel has been the best player in the tournament, and he’s teamed with Joe Pavelski and James van Riemsdyk to be the most explosive line. If they can continue to create big offense, it’ll be tough to derail Team USA.

Key player for an American victory: Jonathan Quick.

Medal chances: Anything less than Gold after their first three games would be a disappointment, but something tells me they may not get past Canada in the semi-finals.

 

No. 3 Canada – Drew Doughty and Shea Weber have been fantastic while helping the Canadian defensemen put on a show in the preliminary round, but their star forwards haven’t shown up aside from Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Marleau. Sidney Crosby has only a pair of assists in three games, and has played with different linemates while trying to find the right fit for him. Canada clearly isn’t playing at their highest level after cruising through the preliminary round, but that opens the door for them to heat up in the medal rounds. The potential semi-final game vs. the US is going to knock out a great team from Gold contention.

Key player for a Canadian victory: Sidney Crosby.

Medal chances: Solid, but the road is difficult going through Team USA and, then, either Russia or Sweden.

 

No. 4 Finland – The highest second-place finisher in pool play gets a bye in the first round, and will play the winner of Russia/Norway. Along with Switzerland, the Finns have the best chance to beat one of the super powers given their committed defensive effort and solid goaltender. Tuukka Rask will need to be a little better than he was against Canada if they hope to upset Russia, however. Losing Aleksander Barkov as well as both Koivu Brothers really took a chunk out of this team.

Key player for a Finnish victory: Mikael Granlund.

Medal chances: A bronze medal isn’t out of the realm if they can get past Russia.

 

No. 5 Russia – The Russians didn’t win their Pool, and lost to the Americans with Vladimir Putin in the stands. But they have a clear path to the Gold Medal game if they can wipe out the Nordic Powers in Norway, Finland and Sweden in succession. It’s entirely possible if they can consistently play as they did against the Americans, and young defenseman like Slava Voynov and Alexei Emelin continue to play with poise and gritty determination.

Key player for a Russian victory: Alex Ovechkin.

Medal chances: Good. They have an easier road to the gold medal game than USA or Canada.

 

No. 6 Switzerland – One of the darlings of the tournament and a real dark horse to do some damage against one of the favorites if they make it to the quarter-finals against Canada. Switzerland has been in every single one of their games, and goaltender Jonas Hiller is capable of heating up and stealing games for the Swiss. Switzerland has allowed just one goal in the tourney, and their only loss was a 1-0 game to the Swedes. Nino Niederreiter and Damien Brunner haven’t been the offensive studs Switzerland hoped they’d be, but they could be dangerous in a one goal game.

Key player for a Swiss victory: Nino Niederreiter.

Medal Chances: A bronze medal is a possibility for a country that’s clearly on the rise in the hockey world.

 

No. 7 Czech Republic – The Czechs have been an enigma throughout the Olympics given some of the players left off the roster, and some of the choices made by the coaching staff in the preliminary rounds. Despite all that Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky have performed well along with Tomas Plekanec, but others like David Krejci and Milan Michalek have been quiet throughout the tournament. They have the talent to win if they can put the distractions aside, and should get past Slovakia on Tuesday.

Key Player for a Czech victory: Ondrej Pavelec.

Medal Chances: Don’t see them getting past the US of A.

 

No. 8 Slovenia – The Slovenians have already scored their Olympic victory by qualifying for the Olympic field, and scoring a big victory over the Slovakians. While it’s conceivable they could beat Austria on Tuesday, it’s not very likely.

Key Player for a Slovenia victory: Anze Kopitar.

Medal chances: Less than Zero.

 

No. 9 Austria – Team Austria also scored their first Olympic victory in 12 years in the preliminary rounds, and holds one of the hottest players in the tourney in Michael Grabner with five goals in three games. Austria should have enough between Grabner and Thomas Vanek to beat Slovenia, but will be a lamb to the slaughter against Sweden in the next round.

Key Player for an Austrian victory: Michael Grabner.

Medal chances: Not happening this year.  

 

No. 10 Slovakia – Probably the biggest disappointment in the tournament has been the play of Slovakia as a group of aging stars haven’t been supported by a younger generation of players. That leaves Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa carrying a Slovakian team that’s missing Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky among others to injuries as well. Amazingly they’re also now going with Jan Laco over NHL goaltenders in Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj as well. I don’t see them faring very well against the Czech Republic.

Key Player for a Slovakian victory: Marian Hossa.

Medal chances: None. Their hockey program is trending downward.

 

No. 11 Latvia – The Latvians didn’t win a game in the preliminary round, but did play competitively against top opponents. Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis made 73 saves against Switzerland and the Czech Republic during pool play, and it’s sure to be a low-scoring game in the rematch with the Swiss.

Key Player for a Latvian victory: Kaspars Daugavins.

Medal chances: The Daug won’t get its day this time around.

 

No. 12 Norway – Norway got spanked by Finland and Austria during pool play, and they won’t give Russia much resistance in the opening round of the playoffs. They were outscored 12-3 in the three games, and only Patrick Thoresen has been a consistent offensive threat for Norway. They’ll need more to pull off the unthinkable against a Russian team that hasn’t really exploded since the first few minutes of the Olympic tournament.

Key Player for a Norwegian victory: Mats Zuccarello.

Medal chances: The longest of long shots.