The round-robin phase of the Olympic hockey tournament is over. Four teams (Sweden, USA, Canada, Finland) earned a bye to the quarterfinals. The remaining 8 teams play each other in the qualification games today for the right to join them.
First off, I'm very interested to hear your opinions about the competition format itself. It was retained from Vancouver so it isn't new to the Olympics, but still it's a little unusual, not in a bad way. Mostly the unusual part is that the group stage is done and no one is eliminated yet. I'd probably prefer to have the tournament expanded to 16 teams, with top two in each group making it to the quarters, but I can't say that I hate this format, although my own team (Russia) has managed to not earn the bye despite Finland practically having no centers left any more.
Alas, here we are. The four qualification games are all happening today. Here is the schedule and predictions:
(5) Russia vs. (12) Norway (7:30 am EST)
What can I tell you? We all know anything can happen in a single-game scenario and Russia finds itself in a risky situation. That said, the difference in quality is palpable. Norway has one NHL player on its roster (NYR's Mats Zuccarello), while Russia has a plethora of the world's most gifted offensive players. On paper, this should be a no-brainer, but that's why we play the games. The winner of this match gets to play (4) Finland. Prediction: Russia (fingers, toes, and all other tentacles crossed)
(6) Switzerland vs. (11) Latvia (12 noon EST)
This is an interesting re-do of the game played on the first day of the tournament. Interesting because Switzerland scored the only goal of the game 7.9 seconds before the final buzzer. Latvia's goalie Edgars Masalkis stood on his head and still lost, and that's why I expect the same outcome this time around. While Latvia has played some decent stretches of hockey, Switzerland has definitely leapfrogged Czech Republic and Slovakia to be the 6th-best team in the world. The Swiss have scored two goals and allowed just one in three games, a somewhat sloppy rebound by backup goalie Reto Berra that was tipped in by Daniel Alfredsson. In the two games he played, Jonas Hiller has recorded two shutouts (of Latvia and Czech Republic), and has been the best netminder of the tournament so far. The winner of this game plays (3) Canada. Prediction: Switzerland
(7) Czech Republic vs. (10) Slovakia (12 noon EST)
Boy how the mighty have fallen. Easily the two biggest disappointments of the entire tournament, and one of them will end the run today. Slovakia was an utter disaster, having played somewhat decently in their last game against Russia (but having benefited from many lucky bounces to only lose in SO). Otherwise it's been pretty depressing watching them flub pass after pass. The Czechs haven't actually played that poorly, other than the first 30 minutes of the opening game against Sweden in which they allowed 4 goals, which caused them to have to play catchup the rest of the way through round robin. The winner of this game plays (2) USA. Prediction: Czech Republic
(8) Slovenia vs. (9) Austria (3 am EST)
If Slovakia was the most unpleasant surprise of the tournament, Slovenia has certainly been the most pleasant one (since I don't consider Switzerland a surprise any longer). Slovenia is a tiny little country smaller in size than Massachusetts, with 148 registered senior players, 7 ice rinks and one bona fide NHL star in Anze Kopitar. They are like the little engine that could. Austria has proved to have a reasonably potent offense (with Grabner on fire) and leaky defense. The winner of this game plays (1) Sweden. Prediction: Austria (no matter how hard I'm pulling for Slovenia)
There you have it. Let's hear your thoughts.