Sochi 2014: Quarterfinal Wednesday
So, the draws are in, and Wednesday looks to be a prime day for hockey watching. We’ll be treated to a number of good matchups and some of the best hockey we’ve seen yet (probably with the exception of that awesome USA/Russia game on Saturday).
That being said, let’s go over some of the matchups that we can look forward to:
Sweden v. Slovenia (3:00AM ET)
This one will likely be the yawner of the bunch, and not just because it’s being held at 3:00AM ET. First-seeded Sweden should be able to easily put down the upstart Slovenians. The win for Slovenia was their win against Austria this morning, which they weren’t expected to achieve. Slovenia is a very small country – there are only ten hockey arenas in the entire country, with only several hundred hockey players. The fact they were able to make the “elite eight” of the Olympics is truly a testament to what a determined nation can do. Now, unfortunately, they’ll go up against the first-seeded Tre Kronor powerhouse, in what should be a slaughter of epic proportions. Early Vegas odds have the Slovenians a 10-to-1 underdog in this matchup, and it should be evident from the outcome that this line is fairly credible.
Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 6-1 Sweden
Finland v. Russia (7:00AM ET)
This will, in all likelihood, be the game of the day. Russia will be in their first real elimination challenge against a team that took Canada to overtime on Sunday. The teams are nearly as opposite as you can get in terms of both composition and game plan. The Russians will push the pace offensively, and have an exceptionally talented top-six that will lead the rush. Finland, conversely, has a very structured and solid defense that gave Canada fits. The Finns are content to drop the center back, and work a 2-3 system, rather than the more traditional roving 3-2 that we see frequently in the NHL. With the Finnish lack of center depth after their injury problems, this defensive approach is the only way they can compete.
If this game mimics the Finland/Canada game (or perhaps even the Russia/USA game) the template does not seem to bode well for the Russians. Their forward strength is impressive on paper; Russia has three of the top ten (or arguably top five) players in the NHL on their top line. The problem, though, is that this unit is comprised of a number of individuals that have shown their lack of ability to come together as a team. Finland, by comparison, has very few key individuals, relying instead on the cohesive team approach that has served them well in the last two Olympics. In the competition between world-class individuals versus an excellent team game, history dictates the latter will win almost every time.
I’m calling the early upset in this one; Finland counter-punches their way to a shocking defeat of the home-team Russians.
Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 4-2 Finland
Side note: A Vegas bet with this outcome (Finland wins with 4 goals and 2 goals by Russia) pays 42:1.
USA v. Czech Republic (12:00PM ET)
A wonderful second-course to the Finland/Russia game will be the USA/Czech game, just in time for lunch breaks on the East Coast. While the Czechs beat a competitive Slovak team today to advance to the Quarterfinals, I’m not sure Jagr and company will know what hits them when they face-off on Wednesday.
It’s hard to say as a Canadian, but the Americans look very much like the team to beat in this tournament; they’re fast, they’re exceptionally skilled, and they have zero weakness. On paper, they play only second fiddle to the Canadians, however, on the ice (where it matters) the Americans have gelled almost immediately. They put up goals early and often, and defend them with equal zeal and skill. Where the favored Canadian group has stalled, and forward chemistry has sputtered, the Americans have found their spark, as evidenced by their tournament leading 15 goals-for.
The Czech team is a group that would have been very dangerous four years ago. Of their 22 skaters, six are on the wrong side of 35 (and two are on the wrong side of 40). With the size of the international ice surface, we’re introducing a wonderful irony to the situation: a European squad is at a disadvantage to the speed of a North American team. For the better part of three decades, the opposite has held true in International games.
If the Czechs have any hope against the better American squad, Ondrej Pavelec (probable) will have to have the game of his career. The thing about the knockout round in these tournaments is that everybody has a puncher’s chance. For every Mike Tyson, there’s a Buster Douglas. The only problem with that metaphor is that the Czechs in this case are likely more like Michael Spinks.
Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 5-1 USA
Canada v. Latvia (12:00PM ET)
If you listen carefully at 12:05PM across the snow-covered True North Strong and Free, you’ll hear a pin drop. That’s because, now that we’re entered the elimination rounds, every television in the country will be tuned to watch Canada pulverize upstart Latvia. National productivity will cease for about two and a half hours to watch “Our Boys” show the world that, while we may no longer be head and shoulders better than every country in the world in our national obsession, no other country cares as much. To most Canadians, all other medals in the Olympics don’t mean squat if Canada doesn’t win gold in hockey. And, to be perfectly equitable, we want gold in both genders too.
Sadly, for all our Canadian compatriots, Wednesday is going to be boring. Really, really boring. Latvia’s big win for this tournament was defeating the Swiss team that should have taken them down handily. Canada will pick apart the inferior Latvian team with ease, and by the second period, will essentially be running a full-contact practice, trying to get their forward lines in sync for their expected Friday semi-final match against the USA (which will be the best game of hockey we get to watch since the Vancouver gold medal thriller).
Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 4-0 Canada (by the second period)