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Sizing up the Big Four, as ‘do or die time’ begins

Feb 17, 2014, 6:11 AM EDT

Sochi Olympics Ice Hockey Men AP

No disrespect to the other eight teams, all of which are still alive in the Olympic tournament. But let’s face it, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, and Latvia aren’t winning this thing, and Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and even Finland would be a surprise if they did. After the preliminary round, one of the Big Four is still expected to take gold here in Sochi, so let’s size each of them up:

United States: The most impressive team so far. Dominated Slovakia and Slovenia, and beat Russia in a shootout. “We get a couple of days off to rest up, use it to our advantage and try to get better every day,” said forward Patrick Kane. “But it’s do or die time now. This is where the fun begins.” Indeed, everything the U.S. has done will be forgotten if it lets up in the quarterfinals, where it will face the winner of the Slovakia-Czech Republic qualification contest. Assuming no letup, its next opponent would likely be Canada, with either Russia, Sweden or Finland in the gold-medal game. Not an easy path, to say the least. Phil Kessel has been the star for the Americans, leading the tourney with seven points (four goals and three assists) while playing on a line with regular Toronto linemate James van Riemsdyk and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. Kane, however, has been less productive, and was a bit down on himself following the Slovenia win. The challenge for the U.S. will be to avoid what happened to the Swedes in 2010, when they went undefeated through the prelims only to lose to Slovakia in the quarters. Speaking of…

Sweden: Usually no big fans of the Finns, the Swedes owe their neighbors for taking Canada to overtime on Sunday, a result that gave the Tre Kronor the top seed out of the prelims. A relatively easy quarterfinal against either Austria or Slovenia now awaits, and if everything goes well, Russia or Finland next and the U.S. or Canada in the gold-medal game. One big problem: despite the fact they haven’t lost yet, the Swedes really haven’t been very good. Since losing Henrik “everything” Zetterberg, they needed Henrik Lundqvist to be brilliant in the early part of the Swiss game — “They were all over us the first 10 minutes,” he said — and they had to come from behind to beat Latvia after trailing 2-1. “Improvements need to be made,” said Lundqvist. “We need to play a lot smarter than we did [versus Latvia].”

Canada: Mike Babcock thinks the media is too hard on his team, and he has a point to an extent. Team Canada has been outstanding defensively and possession-wise, and despite only beating Finland 2-1 in overtime, Babcock had the chances at 16-5 for the red and white. “Our next game is going to be just like [the Finland game],” he said Monday. “The best thing for us is what happened yesterday; our players know this is what we’re in for. That’s what the game is. If we think we’re getting seven, we’re watching the wrong sport. It’s gonna be 2-1.” He may be right, because Canada is likely to play Switzerland next, and the Swiss have only surrendered one goal all tournament. Still, it’s not unfair to question why Canada, which boasts five of the top 10 scorers in the NHL this season, has only managed five goals in three games from its forwards. Is it a matter of bad luck (i.e. just not finishing)? Is it the way they’re being defended? Is it the way the referees are calling (or not calling) it? Or is it simply that the forwards, featuring the one and only Sidney Crosby, just aren’t clicking the way they should be? In 2010, the Canadians had an uneven preliminary round, then won four straight to take gold. They’ll only have to win three in 2014, with a probable semifinal versus the Americans, and a gold-medal game against Russia, Sweden, or Finland.

Russia: The most compelling story, so we saved it for last. Like the host Canadians in 2010, the 2014 hosts didn’t advance directly to the quarterfinals. As such, they’ll have to play Norway Tuesday for a spot against the Finns in the quarters. Beat Norway and Finland and it’s almost certainly Sweden in the semis, with likely the United States or Canada in the gold-medal game. And how amazing would either of those match-ups be? First things first though. Oddly enough, the Russians’ most impressive performance of the prelims was probably the only one they lost, on Saturday to T.J. Oshie and company. A late disallowed goal, which would’ve counted in the NHL, left many of their fans feeling robbed; however, that won’t be the difference between winning gold and a nation erupting in celebration, or not. What might be the difference is special teams. “We not score on the power play and we had many power plays,” said Pavel Datsyuk after Sunday’s 1-0 defeat of Slovakia in a shootout. “We need to work on it more.” On paper, the Russians’ power play — featuring the likes of Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Andrei Markov — couldn’t look much more imposing. But in the first three games, it’s only scored twice in almost 24 minutes with the man advantage.

  1. sochiolympicshockey - Feb 17, 2014 at 7:40 AM

    What is this “Big 4″ based upon? Your own personal preference? We suggest you take a more unbiased approach in the future.

    Reasons you could have used but chose not to.

    1) The teams that earned a BYE to this Olympics (Sweden, USA, Canada, Finland)
    2) 2013 IIHF World Rankings (Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic)
    3) The Top 4 teams at previous Olympics (Canada, USA, Finland, Slovakia)

    Now, take a step back and think again, Finland not in your top four, being a “surprise if they could even do it”. Just because a team loses its best players does not mean their chances are reduced to nothing. Mind I remind you that Finland will most likely play Russia in the QF (given that Russia beats Norway), which is their most favorite opponent to play against because they know and have mostly won the games in between. Don’t be surprised if Finland make a repeat of beating the Russians in the QF AGAIN, on Russian soil AGAIN, advancing to semi’s becoming a “Top 4″ team regardless. We know you have your agenda of fabricating a cinderella story for Russia, but try not to over look statistics or factual evidence when writing a piece for the masses.

    • Jason Brough - Feb 17, 2014 at 7:45 AM

      If you’re using IIHF rankings, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, um, you really shouldn’t use IIHF rankings.

      • sochiolympicshockey - Feb 19, 2014 at 11:10 AM

        We wrote the piece in hopes of a response and debate. A simple matter of statistics that was all, I agree that IIHF and OG quality is different due to nature of NHL players. I merely listed three ways in which you could have chosen to rate the top four as there was no credible or valid explanation to your methodology reasoning.

        Finland are yet again a Top 4 team, going to the semi-final in Sochi Olympics and have been since 1994 with the exception of 2002. I just do not understand why North American writers seem to think every year, or every four years, that they are simply not good enough. How many consecutive years of success is required for you to comprehend International Ice Hockey and to consider Finland a top four team?

    • hawksin5 - Feb 17, 2014 at 10:46 AM

      don’t be an idiot.

    • vm113 - Feb 17, 2014 at 11:58 AM

      The big 4 is based on common sense dumb dumb.

    • therealjr - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:04 PM

      Aside from common sense, you could use this:

      Canada +160
      USA +190
      Russia +325
      Sweden +500
      Finland +1200
      Czech Republic +4000

      Despite your whining I actually agree in there is a little value in Finland as a sleeper pick. Oops, I must have just offended you again by referring to them as a sleeper pick…

      z Field (Any Other Team)

    • thephillyfanclub - Feb 17, 2014 at 3:54 PM

      sochiolympicshockey How is making the russians a Cinderella story when he considered them in the top 4 and not Finland? Your comment doesn’t really make much sense, its completely contradictive.

      • thephillyfanclub - Feb 17, 2014 at 3:55 PM

        how is he* i meant

      • thephillyfanclub - Feb 17, 2014 at 3:57 PM

        If anything he is making Finland a cinderella story

  2. patthehockeyfan - Feb 17, 2014 at 8:02 AM

    Correction, Jason. You write: “Usually no big fans of the Finns, the Swedes owe their neighbors for taking Canada to the shootout on Sunday.”

    That game didn’t go to a shootout. Canada won in OT.

    • Jason Brough - Feb 17, 2014 at 8:07 AM

      Thanks, I was too focused on promoting the Russian Cinderella story.

      • therealjr - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:06 PM

        Jeysen Broughlov.

      • jimw81 - Feb 17, 2014 at 10:16 PM

        what Cinderella story? they are gonna lose tomorrow

  3. jl9830 - Feb 17, 2014 at 9:00 AM

    Canada could try, you know, not having John Tavares sitting on the 4th line? Maybe they’d score more goals if they weren’t burying one of the NHL’s top 3 scorers this season.

    • dprouse - Feb 17, 2014 at 9:34 AM

      Agree 100% on Tavares – he is clearly one of Canada’s best forwards, and needs to be seeing plenty of ice time in the medal round. On the other end of the scale, they simply have to admit that the Kunitz selection was a mistake and sit him out.

      I’m not overly concerned about Canada’s lack of scoring up front – it’s only a matter of time until these guys break out. In the meantime, they have the strongest blue line in the tournament by a long shot.

      • hawksin5 - Feb 17, 2014 at 10:47 AM

        by a long shot? i don’t know if thats true, buddy.

    • jpelle82 - Feb 17, 2014 at 9:44 AM

      i see him out there plenty and if he cant score against the 3rd pair for austria well then why should he deserve MORE ice time against a team like finland? he’s being “buried” because he’s slow and ineffective thus far. i’m an admitted hater of his and i said going into the tournament he wouldnt do much and the coaches see it too

    • leeeroooyjeeenkiiins - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:59 PM

      Babcock’s lines are a joke and arguably the biggest reason Finland was able to keep that game so close(along with Rask, obviously). As a fan of the US, I certainly hope he continues to shuffle the lines as he has so far as it’s probably our best chance of taking down Canada.

  4. imgoingtowichita - Feb 17, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    Agree. JT is ‘punished’ cause Crosby can’t find wingers to help light it up. Perhaps Tavares on 87’s left wing? He played LW during the lockout ON the big ice.

  5. pastabelly - Feb 17, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    The Russians are overrated and I have no problem with anyone who believes the Fins are better. I’d also be shocked if Russia won the gold. However, any home team is dangerous at this point and that advantage obviously helped Canada win gold in Vancouver (as it helped the US in Lake Placid several years ago).

    • vm113 - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:02 PM

      I doubt anybody thinks the Fins are better. I think the Fins can win because the Russians still haven’t learned to play as a team, but looking at the rosters only a fool would say the Fins are better.

    • jpelle82 - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:13 PM

      i think the finns are better. better team game, solid defense, excellent goaltending. they took the “best” team in the tournament to overtime yesterday. if they were healthy (koivu, barkov, filpulla) i wouldve picked them to win the whole thing. they will suck teams into their type of game and give themselves a chance to win every game they play.

      • vm113 - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:38 PM

        Than you are a fool my friend.

  6. vm113 - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    The Russian PP. Heard a lot about it this year, heard a lot about it in 2010, and that’s all it is, TALK. They are always the worst coached team in the tournament. When are the Russians going to wake up and find some coaches who will install structure in their game?? Im sure it’s hard to try and coach up elite players, but is it that hard!? Their are 4 ‘upper echelon’ elite players in this tournament, the Russians have 3 of them. Could that be it? Could having that many players out of the top 5 in the world actually be a bad mixture? They need a coach like Mike Babcock to come in there and lay down the line because i see absolutely nothing rom their coaching staff and it’s a damn shame.

    • thephillyfanclub - Feb 17, 2014 at 4:07 PM

      I don’t really blame the russian coaches, It has to be hard coaching those types of players. Russians are historically players who are selfish and play for themselves which is why they always have a harder time gelling as a team quick enough to compete in the olympics. Their raw talent alone is why they remain so competitive, if they had more players like Datsyuk they probably would be a lot better but the fact is this has been going on for a long time with russian players. Perfect example is First overall selection Nail Yakupov, he’s been a healthy scratch at times this season for the exact same reason. As a flyers fan, Im happy they avoid russian players, at the same time, i wish they would have avoided Paul Holmgren.

      • dirt2013 - Feb 17, 2014 at 8:57 PM

        Selfish. And as proof you use Datsyuk who is one of the best 2 way players in the game.

        They also don’t have 4 of the best 5 players in the world but they do have a goalie so I can see why that would throw your thinking off a bit seeing Philly hasn’t seen a good goalie in 30 some years.

      • thephillyfanclub - Feb 18, 2014 at 3:50 AM

        You misread my comment, I said that if the Russians HAD more player like datysuk they would be better, I was applauding Datsyuk as one of the few accept ions on the Russian team that doesn’t play selfish, you obviously didn’t really read my comment in full. Most Russian players are selfish, Datsyuk however is an acception. And I never even brought up goaltending so I don’t know where that came from.

  7. capsrockva - Feb 17, 2014 at 9:18 PM

    love the US’s chances in this one

  8. jimw81 - Feb 17, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    The olympics is showing KHL has long roads to even compete with the AHL not the NHL.

  9. capsfan14 - Feb 18, 2014 at 6:52 AM

    Once again, people do not believe that the Finns will achieve much this olympic tourney and see them as inferior to “The big four”. But lets take a look at the facts, eh? Finland is tied for first with the U.S in goals scored, have a +/- rating of +8 (third best in the tournament), the best goaltending trio in the tournament (still without Rinne), and took Canada to OT (rask allowed two weak goals, other than that he played outstanding). Doing all of this without their two best NHLers (M.Koivu and Filppula). Not to mention that this team lost Barkov (first line center) and S.Koivu (currently having a better season than Selanne) to injury. Time for people to stop looking at Finland as the underdogs just because they don’t have exciting superstars. Anyone that fully disagrees with me obviously dosen’t understand what constitutes a top hockey team.

  10. jimeejohnson - Feb 18, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    Russians are the favorites because they have home ice advantage and more experience on the bigger sized rink. Their individual skill players are unmatched even by the Canadians. I think as the tournament progresses you will see the Russians play better as a team. They seemed to run out of steam a little against the Americans, and that might be their undoing. The gold medal is any of these “big four” teams to win.

    • hawksin5 - Feb 18, 2014 at 3:52 PM

      i disagree. i don’t think the big ice has much to do with things as most of their players are NHLers anyway, and i think the home ice advantage is more of a risk than a blessing. i think russia loses to the fins tomorrow. and if finland had both koivus, barkov, and filpulla, they would be in serious contending for the gold.

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