With the 2018 Winter Olympics kicking off in Pyeongchang, South Korea, hockey fans will party like it’s 1998. That is because for the first time since the Nagano games, when NHLers made their Olympic debut, ice hockey will be broadcast in North America in the early mornings, with action typically kicking off a little after 7:00 AM. Schools, get ready for a whole bunch of kids to call in sick this week (something my own mother is all too familiar with from back in 1998).
One reason the Winter Olympics tournament is so successful is due to its unique formatting. There will be three groups, each consisting of four teams. Each team plays three games within its group, and after those games, the top teams in each group, along with the top second place team, will receive a bye into the quarter-finals and be seeded accordingly. In addition, there will be four elimination games between the remaining eight squads, with the four winners moving on to the quarters.
The biggest difference in these games from the ones in 1998 is, of course, the fact that NHLers will be missing the games this year after the league and IIHF could not reach an agreement before their self-imposed deadline.
But not to worry. These games feature many former NHLers playing across the globe who will make these games memorable and incredibly entertaining to watch.
Here’s how the tournament should shake out:
South Korea/North Korea
Top Dog: Canada
Unlike most countries, whose teams generally consist of players currently playing in one country or league, Canada has by the far the most diverse team. With players from the AHL, KHL, Swedish Hockey League (SHL), National League (Switzerland), as well as the German and Austrian leagues, team Canada will have no shortage of stories to tell one another about their experiences across the globe.
Because Canada counts among its countrymen some of the best hockey players in the world, many Canadian players, who might otherwise have no problem making an Olympic squad if not for their nationalities, have long believed their chances of ever playing on the ultimate national stage were slim to none. With the NHL’s withdrawal from the Olympics, members of team Canada, many of whom are former NHL players, will have a chance to accomplish that which they previously thought impossible.
While the team is lacking the typical star quality of players like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, it nonetheless consists of several familiar names. Habs fans will remember Maxim Lapierre, the former hometown kid who played for the Montreal Canadiens for six seasons. Lapierre is in his third season in the NL and is having his most productive season thus far for his club, HC Lugano. Lapierre served the role of pest during his time in the NHL, but will now take on the role of a primary scorer, as he is entering his his third season in the NL and is having his most productive season thus far for his club, HC Lugano. Other fine players like goalie Ben Scrivens and Rene Bourque, perhaps once downtrodden over their inability to catch on with NHL teams, can now count this stumble as a blessing as they earn an opportunity they would not have had otherwise.
Analysts looking for a weakness are pointing towards the back-end, as the Canadian team lacks their usual depth at defensemen and goaltending. However, this claim is based largely on the lack of visibility these players have, rather than a lack of talent. For instance, Marc-Andre Gragniani, has the most points by a defenseman in the KHL so far this season. In addition, Ben Scrivens has experience playing in several high pressure markets, like Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton. He will be ready for the moment if given the starting job.
Canada will be looking to its experienced group of veterans to lead them through group play. One of these veterans is Bourque, who is known as a streaky goal-scorer. However, when he’s hot…he’s hot. In addition, Wojtek Wolski, Mayson Raymond, and Gilbert Brule, the former sixth overall pick in the loaded 2005 Draft, should be able to provide enough offense for this plucky group of Canadians to advance straight to the quarter-finals.
At the end of group play, Canada should come out on top after some close calls with the Czechs and especially the Swiss. Switzerland always plays Canada extremely close, which will require Canada to be patient and wait for their shot.
Canada will be playing hard. That is what they do. They will make up for their lack of talent with their work ethic and tenacity and should be ready to compete for the gold after their first three games. And, while the NHL may not be participating, they will certainly be watching, making this a huge opportunity for these players to make their way back to the NHL.
In The Hunt: Switzerland and Czech Republic
Behind Canada, the Swiss and Czechs should each be formidable opponents.
The Czechs have a couple of familiar names. Montreal Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks fans may remember Jiri Sekac, who had a brief stint in the NHL before heading to the KHL. The player with the most name recognition will be Martin Erat, who should provide much needed leadership to this team. While Erat and Sekac can handle things up front, the Czechs will be relying on their secret weapon: Pavel Francouz, who is leading the KHL in save percentage this season. By keeping the puck out of the net, the Czechs will be able to compete with Canada, along with Switzerland, and could surprise some people come elimination time.
The Swiss, on the other hand, are who we think they are: a defensive-minded team that will happily take a 1-0 victory after defending for 55 minutes before creating that one counter chance for a goal. That is what the Swiss do every tournament, and for the most part, it still works.
Making this strategy feasible requires strong goaltending, which the Swiss have in Jonas Hiller (remember him!). Further, experienced defenseman, Raphael Diaz, should lead a unit that will be counted on heavily.
One other factor helping the Swiss is that their entire roster plays in the NL, which means they should be the most familiar with playing with each other from the beginning of the tournament. This could prove very advantageous in obtaining those early points.
Best Hosts: South Korea/North Korea
Being the host nation automatically qualifies South Korea for a tournament that they would not normally participate in. That said, while the team is expected to fall well behind other group members, those watching can prepare to be inspired by the fact that the South Korean team will include players from North Korea, a development previously unthinkable with the overwhelmingly tragic history of these once unified countries. Sure, they might not put up the big points. But count on people around the country to nonetheless tune in to what could be a historic moment – not only for hockey, but for the world as a whole.
Top Dog: USA
Much like team Canada, the U.S. roster is full of players scattered across the globe.
Leading the squad is former New Jersey star and Montreal Canadiens captain, Brian Gionta, who chose not to play in the NHL this season with the hopes of being named to the Olympic team. Gionta represents the type of leadership you want for your team, and his teammates will certainly rely on the experience he has accumulated over a successful 15-year NHL career.
Another key cog for the U.S. will be defensemen, James Wisniewski, one of the best threats from the point you will see in the tournament. If the U.S. finds themselves on the power play often, Wisniewski might be among the tournament leaders in points.
Working in the Americans’ favor is the strength of their group…or lack there of. Slovakia and Slovenia should not pose much of a threat, leaving one crucial game against the ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia.’ The Russians might have more skill on paper but have done nothing but underperform at these international tournaments as of late. That said, the U.S. has a great chance at a relatively easy path to the quarter-finals.
In The Hunt: Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAFR)
Armed with talent that can go toe-to-toe with any other squad, the Russians need to show up in a big game. After disappointment after disappointment, expectations are super low for this squad.
Looking to change the narrative are Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev, teammates for the KHL’s SKA and the top two in points across the league. The two should certainly spark some much needed offense for the Russians, who might have some trouble on the back-end. They will be leaning on Nikita Nesterov and Slava Voynov, two former NHLers who can hold their own, but are not considered to be game changers. The Russians will certainly miss the experience of Andrei Markov, who is not on the roster despite returning to the KHL this season after 16 years in Montreal.
There is no doubt the Russians will be leaning heavily on the leadership of their esteemed captain, Pavel Datsyuk, one of the greatest international players of his generation. Expect Datsyuk’s leadership to spread throughout the locker room, even to Vadim Shipachyov, the Golden Knights’ prodigal son, who returned to the KHL after falling out with the organization earlier this year. Shipachyov can be a real asset for the Russians, so expect Datsyuk to be in his ear for much of the tournament.
Due to the strength of the group, the Russians should find themselves with a favorable matchup for their elimination game, and may even snag that fourth early spot for the quarter-finals. They believe they have the team to surprise a couple of people, and this might be the tournament where the Russians can thrive in an underdog role.
Thanks for Coming: Slovakia & Slovenia
These two nations will be overmatched against superior opponents. These are nations who have long relied on their NHL talent to maintain any level of competitiveness in international tournaments. Slovenia without Anze Kopitar will have trouble generating any offense. Slovakia, without any of its big names, will face similar struggles.
Top Dog: Sweden
When comparing all of the rosters that will be competing in Pyeongchang, Sweden appears armed with the most talent from top-to-bottom. The reigning World Champions boast a daunting lineup that will certainly give them an edge over many opponents.
Up front, Sweden will rely on Linus Omark and Alexander Bergstrom, two elite offensive players in the KHL, who sit atop the league’s offensive leaderboards.
On the back-end, the Swedes are even more stacked, with KHL standouts Patrik Hersley and Staffon Kronwall. Further, playing for Sweden is Rasmus Dahlin, the presumed number one overall pick in this year’s NHL entry Draft.
Perhaps most surprisingly, for the first time in recent history, the Swedes greatest weakness will be in nets. Without their fearless leader Henrik Lundqvist in nets, Sweden will rely on such names as Jhonas Enroth and Victor Fasth to carry the load. Both are quality goaltenders, but offer nowhere near the safety of King Henrik. To beat Sweden, teams will look to attack the crease all game and poke home any loose pucks that might come their way.
Tough Outs: Finland and Germany
While not loaded with as much talent as some of the other nations competing at the Olympics, teams like Germany and Finland will prove competitive throughout, and might even surprise some by elimination time.
Germany is clearly not flush with NHL experience, but will rely on what they have in Christian Erhoff and Marcel Goc, a defenseman and and forward, respectively, who will lead their units.
Finland on the other hand, will, as per usual, rely on elite goaltending to carry them through the tournament. The Fins can count on one of the best in the KHL, Mikko Koskinen of SKA to continue this streak. Koskinen should keep the Fins in every game.
One of the best matches that will take place early on is the Germany-Finland matchup. The two nations will actually square off on the first day of the men’s tournament. If you don’t have much going on at 10:00 AM on Valentines day, make sure you check out the game. As a bonus, this game serves as a great way to test your significant other. After all, if they can’t be counted on to enjoy some Olympic hockey, what CAN they be counted on for?
Thanks for Playing: Norway
The Norwegians are simply outmatched in this group. Norway should wind up at the bottom of the standings, and should be out of the tournament by the time their elimination game concludes.
The Final 4:
When all of the dust clears after the quarter-finals, the four teams that should be left standing will be Sweden, Canada, the U.S., and the Olympic Athletes from Russia. Based on seeding, the Swedes would play the Russians in one semi-final matchup while the Canadians and Americans renew their rivalry in the other.
The Swedes play a near-flawless team game and go on to beat the Russians in a rout.
The other matchup is much closer, but in the end, Canada will prevail in a nail-biter, setting up the Gold medal game:
Canada V. Sweden
For the Canadians to win this game, they will have to withstand a strong Swedish attack that will be relentless from puck-drop. The Canadians must remain patient and play their game, while also staying out of the penalty box (that means you, Lapierre).
In a game for the ages, the teams are tied and the gold medal will be decided in overtime. Just like in regulation, the Canadians are on their heels early on, when all of a sudden a loose puck finds Rene Bourque, who takes it and buries the game-winner. Canada will erupt, Sweden will swear, and all will be right in the hockey world.
Bronze: USA (for Gionta!)
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