SOCHI, Russia — Canada, Sweden and the U.S. men all made it through the first week of the Olympic hockey tournament without a loss. Their reward is an extra day off before the medal chase begins.
Early perfection isn’t always an advantage in this tense tournament, however.
No team that went unbeaten in group play has won an Olympic gold medal since the NHL joined the games in 1998. Every champion was forced to regroup after getting beaten early in the tournament, from the Czech Republic in 1998 to the host Canadians four years ago in Vancouver.
Olympic veterans realize the tone of this 12-day event changes after the opening-round games. Although nobody is under as much pressure as the host Russians, every player realizes one mistake in the second week can destroy their nation’s Olympic aspirations.
“Obviously these (elimination) games always have a bit more of a different feel, but you don’t want to have to change the way you play a whole lot,” Canada captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think we’ve been playing the right way here for three games. I think we’ve gotten better.”
The three unbeaten teams and Finland will get their extra day of preparation today while the remaining eight teams play a qualification-round game.
But even practice can be a hazard in Sochi. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden’s 2006 Olympic star, had a nasty collision with defenseman Erik Karlsson during practice Monday and needed a few minutes to recover. Lundqvist said he’ll be fine.
Here are three things to watch when the men’s hockey tournament begins the games that count:
FILTHY PHIL: T.J. Oshie is getting all the ink, but the leading scorer of the entire Olympics is U.S. forward Phil Kessel, who has four goals and three assists in the Americans’ three victories. Kessel has been superb lately for his Toronto Maple Leafs, and he’s still rolling on the shores of the Black Sea. During his hat trick against Slovenia on Sunday, his jaw-dropping goal on a mid-air pass by Joe Pavelski ranks among the top American highlights.
OVI’S TIME: Alex Ovechkin scored a goal 1:17 into his home Olympics, and the NHL MVP hasn’t found the net since then. The Washington Capitals star isn’t finding much space to operate on his line with Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. Ovi also wasn’t chosen to participate in either of the Russians’ two shootouts, although that particular skill contest isn’t his specialty. These games are indescribably important to Ovechkin, who is essentially the public worldwide face of the Russian team. Any frustration he might be feeling has been kept in check publicly, but he’s undoubtedly putting pressure on himself to deliver goals in the elimination games, starting today against Norway.
UNCLEARLY CANADIAN: While Canada didn’t lose a game in the preliminary round, it’s tough to tell how well the most loaded roster in Sochi will do when the games really count. Finland might have provided a blueprint on overcoming Canada’s talent during the teams’ meeting Sunday: Push Canada’s forwards to the perimeter of the big international ice, relentlessly knock pucks off Canada’s sticks, and allow Canada’s goalies to grow weary with boredom before striking for a scoring chance. Canada’s top-end offensive talent hasn’t produced much at the Olympics, although defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber have improbably picked up the goal-scoring slack. The Canadians might just be getting started, or they might be in deep water quickly.
SMOOTH SWEDES: Sweden’s finish on top of the table is even more impressive because of its significant injuries. Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen are all out of the tournament, leaving a perennial international power without a significant part of its core. True, the Swedes had arguably the easiest group in qualification, and they had to sweat out a 1-0 win over lively Switzerland. But as long as the Swedes have Lundqvist in net, they’re a contender to add another gold medal to their top prize from Turin in 2006. Without a misstep in the quarterfinals, Sweden is likely to meet Russia or Finland on Friday for a spot in the gold-medal game.
BEST OF THE REST: Aside from Russia, which qualification-round team has a chance to make a splash in the quarterfinals? Don’t sleep on Switzerland, which allowed just one goal in three games during preliminary play. Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller has posted two Olympic shutouts, and his teammates play a smart, sophisticated defensive scheme in front of him. The Czech Republic also might be heating up after winning its preliminary-round finale, and Slovenia will attempt to continue its implausibly successful Olympic debut against Austria.