Sochi 2014: Four preliminary round men’s hockey games that will entertain you

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the men’s hockey tournament at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Over a five day span, twelve nations will compete for favourable placement in the quarter-finals and ultimately, a chance to win an Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey. Below is a brief blurb about four preliminary round men’s hockey games you will greatly enjoy, if you’re able to watch them. But first, here is how the tournament format works:

There are three divisions of 4 teams apiece for a total of 12 competing nations. All 12 countries will advance beyond the group stage of the tournament regardless of preliminary round record. The three division leaders and the next best record (wild card) earn a bye to what will be part-two of a two-leg quarter-finals. Part-one of the quarters will consist of the eight worst records from the preliminary round – they will compete head-to-head for a chance to play in the second leg of the quarter-finals against the 4 top seeded teams.

Here are the groups:

Group A: Russia, Slovakia, United States of America, Slovenia.

Group B: Finland, Canada, Norway, Austria.

Group C: Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland and Latvia (coached by Ted Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres).

Czech Republic vs Sweden: February 12, 12:00 PM EDT

Jaromir Jagr, Sochi 2014

Jaromir Jagr, Czech Republic. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Czech Republic and Sweden kick off the Olympic hockey tournament tomorrow at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia. These historic hockey nations’ rosters feature NHL players present and past, including Petr Nedved who hasn’t played in the NHL since a 19-game stint with the Edmonton Oilers back in the 2006-07 season.

Nedved is a dual citizen who suited up for Team Canada at the 1994 Winter Olympics and took part in the famous gold medal game final that is best remembered for Peter Forsberg’s incredible one hand on the stick shootout goal that clinched the gold for the Swedes.

The Swedes and Czechs are the only nations to have won an Olympic gold medal away from North America since the NHL began sending its finest to the Games back in 1998.

The Czechs claimed gold at the ’98 tournament, backstopped by arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time, Dominik Hasek, and the world’s most dominant offensive forward of the late ’90s, Jaromir Jagr.

The Swedes – loaded with golden era Swedish stars – claimed golden victory at Turin 2006.

Tomorrow’s game between these two great hockey nations is extremely important. The winner will set itself up to advance directly into the second leg of the quarter-finals, allowing for one less game played. That extra day’s rest could be the difference between winning and losing the tournament.

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers will probably start in goal for Team Sweden. The Blueshirts’ star already has an Olympic gold medal on his resume from the ’06 Games, and is the general consensus starter for the Swedes at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

The Czech goaltending situation is not as intimidating or clear cut. NHLer Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets will reportedly not even dress for tomorrow’s contest against the group favourites from Sweden. No Pavelec opens the door for one of two non-NHL goaltenders to attempt victory against the Czech’s toughest preliminary round opponent. This tactic may work in the Czech’s favour; Swedish shooters will be less familiar with Kovar or Salak than they are with Pavelec of the NHL.

The Swedes excel at a puck possession style that is extremely difficult to counter and fun to watch. Their lineup is loaded with some of the NHL’s best players, including: 2011 Art Ross winner Daniel Sedin, 2008 Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg, 2012 Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and ’12 Vezina winner, Lundqvist.

The Czechs aren’t as copious with major NHL trophy winners in the peak of their prime but they have some strong pieces in place, including a couple of the game’s most underrated two-way centremen: Stanley Cup winning David Krejci of the Boston Bruins and Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens.

Slovakia vs USA: February 13, 7:30 AM EDT

When Team USA faces Slovakia this coming Thursday it will be one of the few round robin games featuring two teams loaded with NHL players. America’s entire lineup is made up of stars from around the National Hockey League, and Slovakia’s squad contains several, as well.

Both of these nations played in the semi-finals at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, but not against each other. Team USA defeated Finland in Vancouver’s final four. The Slovaks almost forced overtime against Canada in the 2010 semis, but were denied by a miraculous last second save by Roberto Luongo on the late great Pavol Demitra.

Team USA is under pressure to finally win its first Olympic gold medal in hockey since the 1980 Miracle On Ice on home turf, in Lake Placid. The Americans have been close since, earning a silver in 2002 and again in 2010.

At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver the American men’s hockey team went undefeated through the entire tournament, earning their only loss in overtime of the 2010 gold medal game. It will be America’s mission to quietly return to the gold medal finale at Sochi 2014 while the bulk of the pressure lies with the defending champion Canadians and the host nation Russians.

Team USA will look to begin its journey toward a gold medal with a decisive win against a difficult Slovakian side led by arguably the best defenceman in the world, Zdeno Chara. Big Z is only one man, but he has been known to shutdown opponents in the Stanley Cup playoffs; he poses a threat to even the top competing nations in Sochi.

The Slovaks will play with heavy hearts as they wear the shirts of their country and remember their fallen friend Pavol Demitra who died in a KHL team (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) plane crash on September 7, 2011.

Canada vs Finland: February 16, 12:00 PM EDT

Teemu Selanne, Sochi 2014

Teemu Selanne, Team Finland. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Canada vs Finland this coming Sunday stands as the first real test for hockey’s most successful nations of the NHL-Olympic era.

Finland is the only country to have medalled three times throughout the four consecutive Olympic tournaments with professionals.

The Finns won a bronze over Canada at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

In 2006 the pesky Finns went undefeated all the way into the gold medal game where they lost by one goal to their arch nemesis, Sweden. A silver for Finland.

And at the 2010 Games in Vancouver it was Finland who ousted Slovakia for a bronze medal, the third medallion for Teemu Selanne, who will play in his 6th Winter Games this week, tying an Olympic hockey record.

Canada has only secured two medals with an NHL roster; both gold. The Canadians enjoy success when the tournament is held in North America. They took home the top prize at Salt Lake City 2002 and again on home ice at Vancouver 2010. At Nagano 1998 and Turin 2006 Team Canada failed to secure a spot on the podium.

Since NHL players have been granted passage to participate at the Winter Olympics, Canada and Finland have had some great battles.

At the 1998 tournament Finland defeated a heartbroken Team Canada by a score of 3-2.

In 2002, after an unimpressive preliminary round, Team Canada faced the Finns in the quarter-finals. It was a great hockey game; hotly contested and full of physical play courtesy of both sides. Canada won 2-1 and never looked back, outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 12-3 the rest of the way.

In 2006 Team Finland stunned the Canadians with a 2-0 blanking in the preliminary round. The loss, and a few others, costed the favourite Canadians a chance at finishing first in Group A. The repercussion of the loss was a quarter-final match against Team Russia; Canada lost 2-0 again and left Turin empty-handed; a nation, disappointed.

I expect this coming matchup between these proud hockey powers will be as intriguing and intense as we’ve become accustomed to seeing from two of hockey’s more gritty nations. By the time they face-off next Sunday, it is very possible the game will determine which nation earns the number one spot in Group C and a coveted bye in the first leg of the quarter-finals.

USA vs Russia: February 15, 7:30 AM EDT

Ilya Kovalchuk, Sochi 2014

Ilya Kovalchuk, Team Russia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is the big one. When Team USA and the host nation Russians do battle this coming Saturday it will be the only preliminary round game that showcases two of the tournament’s big four favourites (Canada, Russia, Sweden, USA) against one another.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City the Russians and Americans played a tight-checking semi-finals game that ended 3-2 in the U.S.’s favour. However, it was earlier in the preliminary round when these two storied hockey nations truly put on a show, playing to an exciting 2-2 draw. It was one of the most entertaining Olympic hockey games I’ve ever watched; those of you who remember it know exactly what I’m talking about.

Team USA and the Russians are considered among the leading favourites to win gold in Sochi, along with Team Canada and Sweden. However, unlike the Canadians and the Swedes, these old Cold War foes must face each other in the opening round, which could better prepare both teams for the elimination games that follow.

The winner of this coming Saturday’s game between Team Russia and the Americans will likely finish atop Group A and earn a bye to the second leg of the quarter-finals which takes place on Wednesday, February 19. The losing nation may still have a chance to earn a bye if it finds a way to go 2-0 against its other opponents, and run up the score enough to claim any goal differential tiebreakers that may determine the quarter-final bye wild card slot.