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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament: The Quarterfinals

Game 1
Slovenija vs. Sverige

Slovenia polished off the Austrians decisively 4-0 at 3 AM here in Washington. It's a big day for the Slovenes, who are in their first men's tournament, and did not come in with very high expectations.

Unfortunately, their run is probably going to end against the Swedes. Slovenia has performed admirably, but the Swedes are an enormous step in skill up from the Austrians. They boast a balanced defense with players like Eric Karlsson, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Alex Edler, a premier goalie in King Henrik Lundqvist, and a strong offense. When Slovenia faced similarly skilled teams like the United States and Russia, they lost 5-1 and 5-2 respectively.

I don't think Sweden will lose this game, but I am curious as to their relatively lackluster performance these Olympics. While it's true they're the no.1 seed, they don't have any particularly dazzling wins. They won 4-2 against the Czechs, 5-3 against the Latvians, and 1-0 against the Swiss. These are all teams they very well could have dominated with their skill set. Henrik Lundqvist's skill speaks for itself, but he's been a mess with the New York Rangers this season.

Sweden is also bothered by some nagging injuries. Proven veterans from the Red Wings Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg and Vancouver Canucks' superstar Henrik Sedin both are not playing for the blue and gold. This is a considerable blow to the Swedes' offense.

This is a team that's been beaten up and arguably hasn't played to their full potential. If they manage to get past the Slovenes, it will be a challenge to fend off the Finns or the Russians. But the Slovenes won't represent the same threat.

Prediction: Sweden 4, Slovenia 1.

Россия vs. Suomi

Game 2

Aleksandr Radulov, who took two stupid penalties against the Americans that led to two different goals, seems to have smartened up. He scored two goals against the Norwegians earlier today and looks like the player he's supposed to be. 

This will be the most difficult game for Russia since the shootout loss to the United States. Finland was able to capture a higher seed than Russia and will likely be playing their hardest in hopes that they'll be able to face their old Swedish rivals in the semifinals. Finland is a defensively-minded team, with some of the best goaltending in the tournament with Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi. 

 Finland's problem is that they're not very strong on offense. Injuries have benched Alexander Barkov and the Koivu brothers (Mikko and Saku). The Finnish Flash (or Flying Finn) Teemu Selanne has been shaky as well. By contrast, the Russians boast perhaps the best offense in the tournament. While it hasn't exactly exploded of late, this is a team that could still overwhelm any team in the tournament. Russia's defense has still shown some weaknesses, but they've been so far bailed out by excellent play on the part of the goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovski.

This is not likely going to be a high-scoring affair. Finland's defense is aging, but they were able to take the Canadians to overtime in an eventual 2-1 loss. However, with the strength of Russia's offense and the solid play of Varlamov and Bobrovski, I believe Russia will eliminate Finland in a narrow win. 

(This is what the analyst in me says. The fan in me says "Sorry, Finland, but there ain't room in these Olympics for two countries where hockey and alcoholism are the national pastimes. Вперёд, Россия!") 

Prediction: Russia 3, Finland 2. If one of these games goes to overtime, it'll probably be this one. 

Latvija vs. Canada
Game 3

The small Baltic Republic of Latvia must be pretty happy right now. After three losses in group play, the Latvian team woke up, broke through the Swiss goaltending wall, and tagged Jonas Hiller for two early tallies, courtesy of Oskars Bārtulis and Lauris Dārziņš. They would go on to win 3-1.

This is the first time Latvia has won an Olympic hockey game since 2002, and the first time they've ever reached the quarterfinals in the Olympics. Yes, all signs point to a loss at the hands of a hugely favored Canadian team since they have next to no NHL presence, but this is a big deal for a tiny nation (about the size of Wisconsin) that is crazy about hockey. Goaltender Edgars Marsalskis was brilliant for the Latvians against a Swiss team that was able to shut down nearly every offense it faced. It should be interesting to see where this team will be in 2018. 

Unfortunately for the Latvians, Canada, despite a slow start, will likely dominate them in every aspect of the game. 

Prediction: Canada 5, Latvia 1.

Česká Republika vs. United States of America

Game 4

In today's game against the Slovaks, the Czechs jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, something I did not expect against a goalie with the talent level of Jaroslav Halak. Slovakia clawed back to make a game of it, but it was too little and too late and the Czechs went on to win by a final score of 5-3.

For their reward, the Czechs will face the hottest team in the Olympics so far, Team USA.

When these Olympics began with a game against the Slovaks, I told a friend that the United States should be able to beat Slovakia as long as they don't go in arrogantly and they avoid making mistakes. I believed the final score would be around 5-3, the Americans on top.

Boy, was I wrong. The United States has come into these Olympics a well-oiled machine. They obliterated the Slovaks 7-1. T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues was the hero in the Cold War game against the Russians, ending a lengthy shootout and beating the home team 3-2. They then went on to stomp Slovenia 5-1.

The only aspect of the Americans' play so far I'd be worried about is the way they scored against the Russians-on the power play. Aleksandr Radulov took two stupid penalties and both ended in American goals. Russia seems to have at least temporarily cleaned up its act, so the question as to whether the American offense will be as productive in the future still remains.

The United States stacks up well against the Czechs. The Czechs are an older and more seasoned team, but were only able to muster one win in group play (against the Latvians). They don't possess the same depth as the Americans, especially not in goal. Ondrej Pavelec is a very "middle-of-the-road"starting goaltender, and he'll be facing off against the Los Angeles Kings' heavyweight in Jonathan Quick. Zidlicky, Kaberle, and Krajicek are going to find it difficult to stack up equally against Ryan Suter, Kev Shattenkirk, and Brooks Orpik.

GO TEAM USA! Red, White, Blue, and GOLD!

Prediction: United States 5, Czech Republic 3

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