Saturday, February 18, 2006

Men's Olympic Hockey Roundup

I'm looking forward to an exciting weekend of Olympic hockey. The highlight of the weekend for me will be when Canada and Finland play each other at 3:00 PM on Sunday. It looks pretty certain teams are going to easily make it past the round-robin. I'd say this is the most intriguing round-robin game left on the schedule. Finland is the only team in the tournament that hasn't given up at least a goal. Both of the Finnish goalies have a shutout. Selanne is leading the tournament in both Goals (4) and Points (5). Canada hasn't been seriously challenged as of yet, although we'll have to wait and see what the Switzerland has in store for the Canadians tomorrow morning.

Here is my list of the remaining round-robin games worth watching:

Canada vs. Switzerland, 9:30 am et (Saturday 2/18) - Canada should win this game easily. The Swiss are usually the "best of the rest" - just a small step below the elite seven teams in the tournament, although they seem to have been slowly closing the gap over the past few years. Switzerland usually plays a fairly tight-checking close game, so the scores usually remain close. The 3-2 win over the Czechs earlier today was huge for the Swiss program. I expect Canada to win this game either 4-1.

Slovakia vs. USA, 2 pm et (Saturday 2/18) - USA responded well today after a hugely disappointing tie with Latvia, with a 4-1 win over Kazekstan. USA has three tough games left in their round robin schedule: Slovakia, Russia and Sweden. They might need to win two of those games to advance out of the round robin portion of the tournament. A loss against Slovakia would put USA in jeopardy of finishing in 8th place or worse :( Slovakia is no push-over - I had them seeded 7th at the beginning of the tournament, but they managed to beat a talented Russian squad 5-3. The forward lines on both of these teams is scary, although Slovakia is not as deep on defense or in net. Watch out for Marian Hossa, Bondra, Gaborik, Satan, Nagy and Stumpel on Slovakia.

Czech Republic vs. Finland, 3 pm et (Saturday 2/18) - This will be a big test for the Finn squad. After a 3-2 loss to Switzerland, and an injury to Dominic Hasek, the Czechs are ripe for the pickings. Jagr hasn't really stepped up and had a huge game yet, although he has carried the New York Rangers all season. I'd be mostly concerned about containing Jagr on the Czech squad, and preventing him from having a huge game. Selanne has been on fire early in tournament (4 Goals, 1 assist in 2 games), and it'll be interesting to see if he can keep up the same level of play.

USA vs. Sweden, 11 am et (Sunday, 2/19) - I was quite surprised to see Sweden go down so easily against Russia, getting shut out 5-0. Both of these teams have something to prove. With Peter Forsberg, the Swedes are not anywhere near as dangerous as they could be. Again, USA needs to pick up some points against Slovakia, Russia or Sweden, and this is probably their best chance to pick up a win.

Tuesday is probably the best day to stay home to watch hockey during the round robin, with three huge games, although I suppose you might want to save your day off for the quarterfinals on Wednesday, or the Semi-Finals on Friday.

Tuesday's lineup:

Canada vs. Czech Republic, 10:30 am et
Sweden vs. Slovakia, 2 pm et
USA vs. Russia, 2:30 pm et

Canada Vs. Czech Republic - Depending on how Finland plays against Canada and the Czechs earlier in the week, this game could well determine the #1 seed in Group A. I've downgraded my assessment of the Czechs after the injury to Hasek and the loss to Switzerland, although they are still a dangerous team with Jagr and a very capable Tomas Vokoun in net. Defenceman Tomas Kaberle scored twice in the opening night, after scoring just six goals all season in the NHL. Outside of Jagr and Kaberle, the talent level of the Czechs appears to be a little thinner year than at previous international events. Other players worth watching include Hejduk, Lang, and Straka.

USA vs. Russia - If the Americans can pull out wins against Sweden and Slovakia, they will assure themselves a spot in the quarterfinals. I'd hate to see USA forced to pull out a win against the Russians. The Russians probably have the purest offensive lineup in the tournament. Watch out for Kovalchuck, Ovechkin, Kovalev, Datsyuk, Malkin and Afinogenov. Ovechkin has quickly made a name for himself as perhaps the NHL's most talented player during his rookie year this season -- check out this collection of highlight real plays for an idea of what Ovechkin is capable of with this set of highlights, and then follow it up with this clip. The goal he scored sliding on his back is perhaps the best goal I've ever seen.

The Quarterfinals are on Wednesday. Semi-finals are next Friday, the bronze medal matchup is on Saturday, and the gold medal game is next Sunday.