No need to start sweating Olympic results until the quarterfinal

Since NHLers started participating at the Olympics in 1998, no gold medal winner has ever run the table. What really matters is how they’re playing when the elimination games begin.

Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin, Johan Franzen. Sweden has seen its big timber fall like redwoods in the forest, making the gold medal chase at the Olympics appear more like a three-team race. The Americans, Canadians and Russians are, on paper, the class of the field.

On the ice, only one was truly impressive in its opener, as an electric Team USA left scorch marks on the Slovaks in its 7-1 romp. Palms in the host country and Great White North, by comparison, were sweat-beaded as their superstar-laden teams eked out victories over massive underdogs.

Knee-jerk reactionaries would tell us to fear the U.S. and identify them as the team to beat. And they may well be. But if Olympics history has taught us anything, it’s that it’s far too early to make the proclamation.

In the four Games that have featured NHLers, nobody has run the table. In fact, most champs have stumbled early. Sometimes badly.

We’ve learned it takes time for players coming from different systems to gel and find chemistry. That the eventual champ is typically the one that improves with each outing and starts to roll downhill as the Games progress. And that sometimes, the club that looks so unbeatable early on, comes back to the pack and fizzles.

Here’s the evidence:

1998 Nagano
Champion: Czech Republic
Canada and Russia were the only teams to go undefeated in the preliminary round, both sporting plus-9 goal differentials entering the playoffs. And both were knocked off by Dominik Hasek and the Czechs by 2-1 and 1-0 scores, in the semifinal and final. The Czechs played well throughout the tournament, with its only loss coming to Russia early in the event. It’s the closest a gold-medal winner has come to being perfect.

2002 Salt Lake City
Champion: Canada
Who can forget the Sweden-Canada reversal of fortunes? The Swedes stomped Canada in the opener 5-2, chasing Curtis Joseph from the game and Olympics. Tre Kronor was tres unstoppable until Belarus stunned them in the quarterfinal. Canada, meantime, went 1-1-1 in the first round, barely beating Germany for its only ‘W’. It squeezed by Finland 2-1 in the quarterfinal, then beat up on Belarus and quieted the hometown Americans to capture gold.

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2006 Turin
Champion: Sweden
Slovakia and Finland went 5-0 in the preliminary round. The Finns allowed just two goals its first five contests, while the Slovaks dusted off a murderer’s row of Russia, Sweden and USA. The joy ride came to a crashing halt for the Slovaks in the quarterfinal when they were ousted by the rival Czechs. The Finns, meantime, stayed hot until late in the gold-medal game against a Swedish team that only managed a 3-2 record in the first round. The Swedes overcame a 2-0 deficit in the deciding contest to capture the crown.

2010 Vancouver
Champion: Canada
Sweden and the U.S. won their first three games with minimal resistance. The Swedes were promptly knocked out of the quarterfinal by Slovakia, while Team USA rolled to the gold medal game against Canada. The hosts needed a shootout to beat the Swiss, then lost to the Americans in the first round. Canadian hand-wringing turned into high-fives all around with the nation’s second Olympic championship in three Games.

The point is, fans of all nations shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, namely the first round. This is training camp for the medal contenders, a time to get to know their teammates and get used to their surroundings. You can start holding your breath on Wednesday, Feb. 19, when the quarterfinals get underway.

Editor’s note: The score of the Canada-Czech Republic game has been corrected.