Sochi Olympics 2014: Tournament Reaches Qualifying Stage | Sweden, USA, Canada and Finland Await Quarter-Final Opponents

Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.

Russia take on Slovenia during Preliminary Round. (Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

With Sweden, USA, Canada and Finland having clinched their places in the quarter-finals at Sochi 2014 after finishing atop their groups, and the remaining nations facing vital qualifying ties tomorrow, now feels like the perfect time to reflect on how the drama has unfolded.

An intriguing tale is taking shape; hosts faltering slightly under the weight of expectation, superstar rosters seeking to unite amongst the winter frost and perhaps a dark horse emerging into the light. If all that wasn’t enough to quench your hockey-thirst, there is always that eerie looking snow-leopard mascot grooving in the stands!

This article takes a look at the teams who have already cemented their place in the quarter-finals, discovering which players have been reveling, or not as the case may be, under the brightest of spotlights.

Teams automatically through to Quarter-Finals:

(No. 1 Seed) Sweden – 9 Points

Sweden have coped following the injury to Henrik Zetterberg. (Image courtesy of detroitnews.com.)

Sweden have coped following the injury to Henrik Zetterberg. (Image courtesy of detroitnews.com.)

Results:

  • vs. Czech Republic (2 – 4) (W)
  • vs. Switzerland (1 – 0) (W)
  • vs. Latvia (5 – 3) (W)

The Swedes opened the tournament with a bang, a fast and furious display in their opening two periods that dismantled a heavy-legged Czech team. However since then things have been a little underwhelming and as everyone predicted could happen, they’ve relied heavily on the superb goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist. Of course, injuries to Henrik Sedin and perhaps more crucially Henrik Zetterberg, have affected their form. Luckily for them, ‘King Henrik’ is just the type of goalie who can shoulder the full onslaught of an opposition offence, staring it down and eventually conquering it. He is that special player who can make the incredible saves at the greatest possible moments, eroding confidence and shifting momentum.

Karlsson celebrates goal. (Image courtesy of olympics.cbc.ca.)

Karlsson celebrates goal. (Image courtesy of olympics.cbc.ca.)

All of that being said, they finished in possession of the top seeding after the preliminary round, and with 3 wins out of 3, are undoubtedly a medal contender. The simple fact is, even with their injuries, they have a highly competent roster and in particular on defence, have players to rival any of the top teams; something reinforced by the return of Alex Edler after he finished serving his two-game suspension.

On the big ice, it could be special teams that settle things between the best nations and Sweden have been a curious case so far. They’ve taken a huge amount of penalties, the second-most of any team, but their power-play suddenly clicked into life in their game against Latvia, tallying four goals to make it the most effective unit in Sochi. It is not a exaggeration to say that if that clinical streak continues and Lundqvist can maintain his form, they have every chance at gold. Facing the winner of Slovenia/Austria in their quarter-final, they are a near certainty for the Semis, but I fear they may just fall short against the offensively-stacked rosters of Canada and Russia, or even the resilience of the USA; the mobility and recklessness of their excellent young defenders may in the end, become their key flaw.

Top Performers:

  • Erik Karlsson (3G, 2A, +4)
  • Oliver Ekman-Larsson (3A, +3)
  • Alexander Steen (2A, +2)
  • Henrik Lundqvist (1.67 GAA)

Erik Karlsson has been phenomenal so far in this tournament, his skating skill and flair on offence has been a joy to watch. The larger rink certainly suits his cavalier style and if the Senators’ young star can keep his goal-scoring touch, it will serve his country well moving forward. Coyotes’ defencemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson is very much built from the same mold and I’ve been impressed with his maturity on defence, making decisions well beyond his years and affecting play in transition. Alex Steen has been a constant bundle of energy, getting in the dirty areas and building on his stunning NHL form; he’ll be looking at chipping-in on the score-sheet in future games.

(No.2 Seed) USA – 8 Points

USA beats Russia in shootout. (Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk.)

USA beats Russia in shootout. (Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk.)

Results:

  • vs. Slovakia (1 – 7) (W)
  • vs. Russia (3 – 2) (SO) (W)
  • vs. Slovenia (1 – 5) (W)

When considering the USA’s tournament so far, ‘character’ is the word that leaps into my mind. Though the Leafs’ tandem of James Van Reimsdyk and Phil Kessel, along with the power of Ryan Kesler, proved devastating against a poor Slovakian team. The next two games showed us so much more. Sticking in the contest with Russia, battling the vibrant crowd as well as the team on the ice, and winning courtesy of T.J. Oshie’s SO winner, before following that emotional high with a strange game against minnows Slovenia, again finding reserves of energy and resource to finish the job, speaks volumes for the mental strength of this roster.

Phil Kessel scored a hat-trick against Slovenia. (Image courtesy of canada.com.)

Phil Kessel scored a hat-trick against Slovenia. (Image courtesy of canada.com.)

Others may have more stars and glittering names to grace top-lines, but if you’re looking for a real ‘team’, look no further than the US. Players like Rangers’ captain Ryan Callahan, who shows no hesitation as he flings himself in front of a puck, and the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski, whose versatile skill-set seems to blend seamlessly with his line-mates, are cornerstones to success. Jonathan Quick was excellent against Russia, and I see no reason this team can’t continue moving from strength to strength.

Though their quarter-final contest will involve taking on the winner of Czech Republic/Slovakia, both of whom possess a coiled-python identity and some fox-smart veterans, they should have enough grit, confidence and chemistry to stride through to the Semis.

Top Performers:

  • Phil Kessel (4G, 3A, +5)
  • James Van Reimsdyk (4A, +5)
  • Ryan Kesler (1G, 1A, +4)

Every team needs that brilliant player who in a single moment, can make the difference and the US have Phil Kessel. The Leafs’ star’s brilliant hat-trick against Slovenia in their final group game was a thing of beauty and quite frankly, he could determine which colour medal they wear around their necks when all is said and done. Van Riemsdyk and Kesler have also been key players in their terrific start, their uncomplicated styles perfect on the European rink and physicality effective when matching up to defence-first tactics or formations.

(No. 3 Seed) Canada – 8 Points

Canada beats Norway 3-1. (Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

Canada beats Norway 3-1. (Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

Results:

  • vs. Norway (3 – 1) (W)
  • vs. Austria (6 – 0) (W)
  • vs. Finland (1 – 2) (OT) (W)

With the criticism Canada have been receiving, you would be forgiven for thinking they’d lost all of their games. But they haven’t. In fact, the dreadful team have won all three of their contests so far, scoring 11 times and conceding only twice. Admittedly, they laboured for a while against a poor Norway team and were taken to OT by Finland, but put simply, breaking down a team solely committed to keeping you on the outside can be tough. That is exactly what the Norwegians did and Finland followed suit, to even greater success, the latter are also a pretty decent roster of skaters.

Drew Doughty celebrates his goal against Finland. (Image courtesy of canada.com.)

Drew Doughty celebrates his goal against Finland. (Image courtesy of canada.com.)

Despite my sarcasm, Canada do need more from their ‘Avengers-esque’ roster of superstar attackers, with six of their goals coming from defencemen. Doubts surrounding Chris Kunitz’s inclusion have unfortunately proved accurate, his usual style looking clumsy and ineffective on the larger rink. Though I don’t think Crosby has been bad by any means, looking fairly dangerous against the Finns and registering an assist, the whole of Canada and his teammates expect him to be Superman, so that’s who he needs to be; at the very least in terms of taking responsibility.

More than anything, Canada will need patience moving forward. I expect Switzerland to beat Latvia and when they do, their tactics against Canada will be much of the same, frustrating their opponents to the outside, forcing long-shots and riding the talented Jonas Hiller. Babcock has some head-scratching planned for the next few days, as he plots a way to get the most out of his uber-talented attack and selecting the right line-combinations will mean everything. An early goal against the Swiss will end the game, but the longer the contest remains scoreless, the more dangerous their rivals become. I also have a hunch that Martin St Louis has a part to play somewhere in the outcome of the tournament, maybe even alongside Crosby.

Top Performers:

  • Drew Doughty (4G, 3A, +5)
  • Jeff Carter (3G, +5)
  • Patrick Marleau (1 G, 1A, +4)
  • Carey Price (0.98 GAA)

Drew Doughty has simply shown the world what most already knew, he is capable of fantastic all-round play. Whether that means perfect positioning on defence or twinkling his way into the offensive zone to score. His tally against Norway would have drawn envious looks from the likes of Crosby, Duchene, Tavares, Perry, Sharp on the bench, well you get the gist! His form has been a real bright spark for the Canadians, and with defences looking to take away space through the middle, joining the rush at speed may be the only route to breaking them down.

Jeff Carter scored a natural hat-trick against Austria, but what I have loved about his play so far this tournament has been his obvious desire to be involved. There has been a lot of talk about the players going missing in a Canada jersey, but Carter isn’t one of those, he isn’t spectacular by any means, but he works hard every shift and that’s something to admire. Carey Price hasn’t had too much to do, but in the main, he’s dealt with limited shots-against effectively. There were certainly some nerves in the first game from the Canadiens’ netminder, but his inclusion against Finland suggests he will undoubtedly be the number one moving forward.

(No.4 Seed) Finland – 7 Points

(Image courtesy of yle.fi.)

(Image courtesy of yle.fi.)

Results:

  • vs. Austria (8 – 4) (W)
  • vs. Norway (1 – 6) (W)
  • vs. Canada (1 – 2) (OT) (L)

Finland started their tournament like an offensive freight-train, piling in 14 goals in two games against ‘weaker’ teams. In many ways, that was the storm before the eventual calm and against Canada, we got a glimpse of the cagey style they will probably have to employ heading into the quarter-finals.

Injuries to Swedish stars have somehow managed to overshadow the fact that the Finns have been ravaged by ill-fortune themselves, a factor put into perspective when considering their core of centre’s could have potentially been Mikko Koivu, Saku Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov. Only Barkov eventually made the trip to Sochi; the youngster looking great early on, but he has been struck down by an injury that rules him out for the remainder of the event.

(Image courtesy of cbc.ca.)

(Image courtesy of cbc.ca.)

Though the Finns are a creative bunch, who can be rapid in transition, with Jarkko Immonen now their number one centre, the only option left is to play a defensive game with plenty of pressure to force turnovers. I don’t feel this unduly suits them and though it partially worked against Canada, they are asking for a real stroke of hockey-fate for it to work again in the quarters. Barring a miracle on Norway’s part, the Finns will have to face Russia in the next round, whose offensive talent is frightening but power-play woeful. Semyon Varlamov is in fine form and I just don’t think Finland have enough fire-power to win. That being said, I would love them to surprise me, just so I could see the ageless-wonder Teemu Selanne get another shot at a medal.

Top Performers:

  • Olli Maatta (2G, 2A, +2)
  • Tuomo Ruutu (1G, 3A, +4)
  • Sami Vatanen (4A, +1)
  • Mikael Granlund (2G, 1A, +2)

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Olli Maatta and the Anaheim Ducks’ Sami Vatanen have been two of my favourite players to watch in the NHL this season, and over in Sochi, they’re delivering in spades for their country. Both are playing top-four minutes alongside veterans Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo; I say playing, but cantering or galloping is probably a better word. The youngsters are eating the big ice for breakfast, chipping in on attack and bursting full of energy all-game. Their decision-making has been elite at times, anticipating moves before they develop and against the threat of Canada, both played with a restraint that bodes well for the future.

Tuukka Rask has been good so far, and if you needed a list of goalies over in Sochi who could steal their team a game whilst under siege, his name would be pretty close to the top.

Qualification Games (Feb 18th):

  • Russia vs. Norway (12:30PM GMT)
  • Switzerland vs. Latvia (5PM GMT)
  • Czech Republic vs. Slovakia (5PM GMT)
  • Slovenia vs. Austria (4AM GMT)

Quarter-Final Games (Feb 19th):

  • Sweden vs. Winner (Slovenia – Austria)
  • USA vs. Winner (Czech Republic – Slovakia)
  • Canada vs. Winner (Switzerland – Latvia)
  • Finland vs. Winner (Russia – Norway)

Stay tuned for the next installment, as I reflect on the teams who have made it through the elimination ties.

Follow Sam on Twitter, and whilst you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk.

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