The qualification round for men's hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics began with Team Slovenia beating Team Austria Tuesday, February 18. All four San Jose Sharks in the tournament are pictured with their numbers so far and projections for their elimination games that begin Wednesday because preliminary round play already earned all a spot among the final eight teams.
Joe Pavelski is the top center of Team USA, the second seed after winning the best group in the Sochi Olympics. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has played every game on Team Canada's blue line, while Patrick Marleau has been on its deep, talented forward corps in all three games.
By contrast, Antti Niemi might not mind the nets for one minute thanks to the depth of Team Finland. Not seeing action in the preliminary round against teams not considered contenders makes it is hard to imagine he will play when facing elimination against anyone good enough to advance to the final eight.
Still, all four have a good chance of bring a little extra cargo home to San Jose. Three of the four teams winning that quarterfinal game will earn medals, and the teams earning that first-round bye only have to win one game to get there...over an opponent coming off a game the day before.
Team Sweden is the top seed, but will be missing captain Henrik Zetterberg for the rest of the tournament. Nevertheless, they should have no problem with a Team Slovenia that has just one NHL player (Anze Kopitar) and just earned its first-ever quarterfinal berth.
No one actually thinks Team Russia is in danger against Team Norway, but no one thought that against the Slovenians. Still, that game was the day after the emotional letdown of a controversial loss to the rival Americans—especially difficult for a team that is not deep.
The Russians did still win in a shootout and showed they are capable of strong defense when their scoring drops—at least when they were not playing a good offense. That being said, the pressure could really build if the hosts struggle to get on board. An early break for the Norwegians could mean a game with fewer scoring chances for either side, and the pressure would only build for the home team expected to win gold.
It is more likely Russia wins 4-1 and faces Finland in the quarterfinals. The crowd could carry them over their tired legs the next day, but yielding the home-ice advantages of last line change and faceoff stick placement to a deeper team that is likely to be better in net means there is more likelihood of a situation where the pressure builds.
This is more of a rivalry game for the Finns and a last chance for a few of their aging players to win gold. They also play a game suited to the international ice, and thus have never failed to medal in the previous five Olympics.
Finland is simply more likely to advance, and would face another rival for the right to play for the gold. Those matchups have leaned toward Sweden (4-2-3) in the past because of talent.
With Zetterberg out, there is too little a difference to matter against a team that has faced tougher competition to get to the semifinals. Having home-ice advantage will not be enough to compensate for the greater desperation of the Finns, since the Swedes just won gold in 2006.
Those will not be the only rivalry games in the medal rounds. After the best run it its history at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Team Slovakia looks for its first win of the 2014 tournament against Team Czech Republic for the right to play the Americans in the quarterfinal.
After a very difficult route through Group A, look for the better defensive Slovakians to earn the upset. Both teams are aging, but some of the Czechs have already won gold while their opponents are desperate to get their first medal of any kind.
Either way, the team to emerge will be no match for the more-rested, younger, deeper and defensively stronger Americans. That pits the red, white and blue against the winner of Canada and most likely a Team Switzerland that faces the weakest team in the Sochi Olympics Tuesday—Team Latvia.
The Swiss defense often frustrates the Canadians, but there is too much of a gap in talent to predict an upset. Even the one position disadvantage seems negligible considering the well-manned nets in the Sochi Olympics by Carey Price and Roberto Luongo.
Learning to match and play through that kind of defense will help Marleau, Vlasic and the rest of Team Canada beat Team USA to play for the gold medal. Pavelski will help bring a bronze home over a Team Sweden that is neither as deep nor as young to take the grind of a deep tournament run.
Team Finland faces even more of a gap in depth and a team that is younger but also rallying around a player in his last chance to win gold. The Olympic win will be Canada's first on international ice outside of North America.