The top four seeded teams after the preliminary round have all taken care of business to advance, with the semifinals set to be contested on Friday. All four will play for a medal this weekend, but Friday’s contests will determine if it will be for gold, or for bronze.
In the first semifinal matchup, Sweden will take on their Scandinavian rival Finland, in a rematch of the 2006 gold medal game.
In similar fashion, the United States will take on their North American rival Canada in Friday’s second semifinal matchup; a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game.
But who has the edge?
In truth, these are four vastly different teams, but any could win gold. Here’s a look at each of the four remaining countries and what it would take for them to win it all.
Of the four teams, Sweden was the only one to win all of their preliminary round matchups in regulation. Despite being without their top two centers (Henrik Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg), their offense has been consistent and their defense stifling.
How have they done it? Two words: puck possession.
The Swedish game is not necessarily about attacking, but is more about controlling. They will make the safe play with the puck instead of trying to force a scoring chance. This frustrates their opponents and makes life a lot easier for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (who leads the tournament with two shutouts).
Offensively, they are led by defenseman Erik Karlsson (who is currently second in the tournament in scoring). His freewheeling style opens up room for his teammates.
Their defensive core is the strength of this team. They separate opposing players from the puck and aren’t quick to give it back after they do.
The one worrisome fact about Sweden, is that unlike the rest of their counterparts in the semis, they have yet to face any of the upper-echelon teams (seeded fifth or better) in the tournament.
If Sweden is able to possess the puck and slow down the tempo, they could suffocate teams on their way to the gold medal.
#2 United States
In all of their games save their shootout win over Russia, the U.S. has dominated their competition.
They do this by turning the game into a style similar to what they play in the NHL (where everybody on their roster typically plays).
Not to be intimidated by the large ice, they play dump-and-chase hockey; using their elite speed to win races to the puck and their physicality to wear teams down.
Offensively, they are opportunistic, and excel at scoring off of the rush. They have the best shooting percentage (16.67) in the tournament thanks, in part, to leading scorer Phil Kessel.
Unfortunately for them, they also shoot the least of the remaining teams. Against elite teams, they may need to find a way to generate more offensively.
They will also need to adjust to playing at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Thus far, they have played all their games (save the preliminary matchup against Russia) in the smaller Shayba Arena. While Shayba is known for its’ very active boards (something the U.S. consistently used to their advantage), Bolshoy is not. They struggled at times to control play against Russia at Bolshoy, something they cannot afford to do against any of the three remaining teams.
If the U.S. is able to play physical without getting into penalty trouble, they may wear down their opponents and capture their first ice hockey gold since 1980.
# 3 Canada
The defending goal medalists, Canada is still surprisingly struggling to find any chemistry amongst their forward lines.
It isn’t for lack of trying.
Canada has a staggering 168 shots in their four games, but has scored on only 7.74 percent of them (far and away the worst efficiency of any of the remaining teams).
On the other side of the coin, they have allowed their opponents a tournament low 74 shots on goal.
Canada likes to set up their cycle in the offensive zone, and look to their booming point shots to either score or generate rebounds. Despite their plethora of riches up front, defenseman Drew Doughty and Shea Weber lead Canada in scoring.
Doughty and Weber have combined for seven of Canada’s 13 goals. Captain Sidney Crosby has zero.
In all of their contests thus far, they have been able to limit their opponents’ chances and pepper their opponents until something went in. The talent disparity will be much smaller going forward, so they will need to be more efficient on offense if they wish to repeat as champions. Some offense from their forwards may also be a must.
Some people may be surprised to see Finland left standing.
They shouldn’t be.
In fact, Finland has been the most consistently successful country since NHL players were allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1998, winning medals in three of four games (one silver, two bronze).
They do this with commitment to team defense.
The do not mind allowing opportunities from the outside, but eliminate second chance opportunities with sound rebound control and punishing anyone who dares attempt to go to the front of their net.
With injuries to Valtteri Filppula, Mikko Koivu and Aleksander Barkov; they are weak up the middle. Something they compensate for with their defense and speed on the wings.
Their offense is predicated on turnovers, and they look for chances on the rush.
Captain Teemu Selanne leads the attack offensively, and still has a deadly accurate shot; but one has to wonder how much tread the “Finnish Flash” has left on those 43-year-old tires.
To be successful going forward, they need to score early, sit back with the lead late and pray their defense holds up. If they can stand teams up at their own blueline, they may bring home gold.