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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament: Qualification Round Predictions

The first stage of the Sochi men’s hockey tournament is over, and all twelve teams have now moved into position. 

The rest of the tournament is structured like the above picture. As shown by the diagram (from Wikipedia) Sweden, Finland, Canada, and the United States played well enough in the initial games to receive a first-round bye. Each of them will be paired up with the winners of each Qualification game, that is, Sweden will play either Slovenia or Austria, Finland will play the winner of the Russia-Norway game, and so on. 

Game 1: Slovenia (Slovenija) vs. Austria (Österreich)

Slovenia comes into this game with two losses (to Russia 5-2, and the United States 5-1) and one win (vs. Slovakia, 3-1). Austria beat Norway 3-1, but was soundly drubbed by Canada 6-0 and lost to Finland by a final of 8-4. Both teams earned the same number of points (3) for their wins, but were unable to manage any more points since their losses came in regulation.

These are two relatively weak teams in comparison to the rest of the tournament, both with little NHL presence. Slovenia boasts Los Angeles Kings superstar Anže Kopitar, while Austria has two members of the New York Islanders in Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek.

In all honesty, I do not know much in detail about the rosters of these two teams since I do not follow European hockey leagues, but Austria has given up more goals to an arguably less difficult group. Finland, a defensively-minded team heavily reliant on their goaltending, scored eight goals against the Austrians. Austria also got the benefit of being able to play, and triumph over, another weak team in Norway. Slovenia was able to keep pace with Russia and upset the reeling Slovaks, two teams with multiple superstars on their rosters.

I don't expect either of these teams to make it past the Swedes, but Slovenia has a definite edge over the Austrians since they've shown more fight in a formidable group.

Prediction: Slovenia 3, Austria 1

Game 2: Russia (Россия) vs. Norway (Norge)

With apologies to any Norwegians who may read this, this game is probably the most lopsided on paper of the four qualification games.

Russia hasn't been a particularly dominant team so far in these Olympics, requiring a shootout to put away the Slovaks (1-0) and losing in a (3-2) shootout to the Americans. Even the Slovenes kept their heads up and gave the Красная Машина (Red Machine) a fight.

On the other hand, Russia hasn't won Olympic hockey gold since the 1992 Unified team did it in Albertville, France. To be eliminated by the lowly Norwegians on home ice would be an embarrassment of unheralded proportion for the Russian team. While it's true Russia has shown inconsistency in the round-robin, Norway is arguably a less formidable team than even Slovenia.

The Russians' skill level is exponentially higher than that of the Norwegians, but the Norwegians play a defensive game, so don't expect Norway to just let the Russians steamroll over them. Canada, widely considered a favorite in this tournament, only beat Norway 3-1.

All Russia's faults aside, Norway does not have the team to match up against the likes of Ovechkin, Voynov, Malkin, Bobrovski, and Datsyuk.

Prediction: Russia 5, Norway 1

Game 3: Switzerland (Suisse, Schweiz, Svizzera, Svizra) vs. Latvia (Latvija)

Switzerland, similar to Slovenia, has one big name in the NHL, Anaheim Ducks' goalie Jonas Hiller. Hiller has stood on his head these Olympics, and is far and away the biggest reason Switzerland is 2-1 coming into this game. The Swiss were able to beat the Czech Republic and Latvia, and held the mighty Swedes to only one goal in their only loss.

All three games that Switzerland has played have ended with the same score: 1-0. This is a team that rarely scores and gives up goals even less frequently.

Latvia has not fared as well.  Latvia's lone NHLer is Zemgus Girgensons, a forward for the lowly Buffalo Sabres. (Kaspars Daugavins, he of the odd trick shot, had a stint with Ottawa and Boston last year but now plays in Switzerland). They have yet to win a game in these Olympics, losing to Sweden (5-3), the Czechs (4-2) and Switzerland (1-0). While it's true Latvia has at least held their ground against these teams, they're still outmatched in a difficult group.

Switzerland relies heavily on Jonas Hiller. If he slips, it could be the team's undoing. But that's not likely to happen against the Latvians.

Prediction: Switzerland 2, Latvia 1

Game 4: Czech Republic (Česká Republika) vs. Slovakia (Slovensko)

This is most likely the most evenly-matched game in the Qualification round.

Slovakia has had enormous difficulty in Group A, losing to every team they've played. The USA stomped them 7-1, Slovenia was able to win over them 5-3, and Russia outlasted them in a shootout 1-0.

The Czechs were able to muster a win against the Latvians, but lost to both the Swedes and the Swiss. Both of these teams possess some NHL talent, but Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec is quite mediocre compared to Jaroslav Halak. The Czechs are also an aging team, still marching legends like Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved out on the ice. David Krejčí,Vladimir Sobotka, Tomáš Plekanec, Martin Hanzal, and Jakub Voráček will be valuable against Slovakia, but whether they can match up with the likes of Zdeno Chara, Andrej Meszároš and Marian Hossa remains to be seen. Slovakia is due for a breakout game, but it's difficult to tell whether will happen against a team that's stronger than the Slovenes. 

Prediction: Czech Republic 5, Slovakia 4

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