Sunday, February 16, 2014

2014 Sochi Olympic Hockey Preliminary Round Report

The Preliminary Round of the 2014 Winter Olympics concluded today with the final four games of group play.

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In Group A, the United States took the top honors thanks to an exciting 3-2 shootout win over Russia, as T. J. Oshie starred with four goals on six attempts, making him an instant star in the United States. The US benefitted from a disallowed goal due to the net being dislodged slightly, negating what would have been a game winner for the Russians.

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American hootout hero T. J. Oshie

Russia dropped points in not only their game against the US, but also by having to go all the way to another shootout against the Slovaks. The Russians finished with 6 points in the standings with a win, and overtime win and an overtime loss.

Thanks to their surprising win over the Slovaks, Olympic debutants Slovenia finished third in Group A with three points, trailed by Slovakia who finished a disappointing last with a single point from their shootout loss to Russia and a pair of defeats.

Group B went down to the final game of the round, as Canada prevailed in overtime against Finland 2-1. The Canadians finished with 8 points from two wins over Norway and Austria and their overtime win against the Finns.

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Drew Doughty gives Canada the top spot in
Group B with his overtime game winner

By splitting the points with Canada in their final game, Finland ended with 7 points, which earned them a bye into the Quarterfinals as the highest seed after the three group winners. Austria defeated winless Norway 3-1 in today's first game to claim the third spot in the group with three points.

Play in Group C concluded yesterday with Sweden beating Latvia 5-3 to become the only team in the competition to win all three of it's games in regulation for the maximum 9 points.

Switzerland solidified their place as a team to be reckoned with by finishing second ahead of the Czech Republic, who they defeated 1-0. In fact, all three Swiss games ended with 1-0 scores, as they got a late game winner against Latvia in their opening game and kept it close in their game with Sweden, but were unable to get an equalizer. Jonas Hiller had both of Switzerland's shutout victories and the Swiss allowed just one goal in their three games, but need to find their offense soon.

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How far can Switzerland's goaltending carry them if they can't score?

While the Czechs were able to defeat Latvia in regulation to claim the full three points, they would be the only points they would manage as they came in third. Latvia went winless, narrowly missing out on making it to overtime against Switzerland in their opener.

With the Preliminary Round now completed, all 12 teams have been ranked based on their results to date, with group winners Sweden, the United States and Canada talking the top three seeds in that order, with Finland claiming the fourth thanks to the extra point they earned by reaching overtime against Canada in the final game of the round.

The remaining eight teams will now enter the Qualification Playoffs on Tuesday, February 18th as the single elimination games begin.

In the upper bracket, #5 Russia will face #12 Norway, with the winner advancing to play #4 Finland.

In the lower bracket, Switzerland was ranked 6th due to an inferior goal differential compared to Russia and will face #11 Latvia in what could very well be yet another 1-0 game for the Swiss. #3 Canada awaits the winner of their matchup.

The Czech Republic drew the #7 spot when the tie breakers were applied to themselves, Slovenia and Austria, who each completed the first round with a single win, and they will now have to face a difficult challenge in their rivals #10 Slovakia, who seem to have found their game by taking Russia to overtime scoreless. The team that survives will face a rested #2 United States.

Back in the upper bracket, #8 Slovenia is paired with #9 Austria in a very winnable game for the lowest ranked team entering the tournament. The Slovenians are ranked 17th in the IIHF World Rankings, and certainly could have had a much worse draw in the Qualification Playoffs, having avoided the likes of Russia and Switzerland. The victor's reward is a date with the undefeated, #1 ranked Swedes, but who are now without captain Henrik Zetterberg for the remainder of the tournament.

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Will Anze Kopitar and Slovenia be this year's best underdog story?

The knockout games begin on Tuesday at 3 AM Eastern on the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN), with the second match at 7:30 AM on the USA Network followed by a pair of games at 12 noon, one on NBCSN and the other on MSNBC. This is a somewhat unfortunate schedule, as in 2010 in Vancouver, the schedule was set with four consecutive games, rather than two being played at the same time. With a little luck, fans will be able to watch the game of their choice without learning the result of the other game before having a chance to watch a recording of it, as we were able to do with this morning's pair of games.

Looking ahead to the Quarterfinals on Wednesday, there are four more games on tap, making for eight over the course of two days. The winners of Wednesday's games will be guaranteed of a chance to play for a medal, but first need to get through Friday's semifinals to find out which one.

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