Things become antiquated pretty quickly in this world.
‘Super Sunday’ seemed like a pretty big deal three days ago, but it’s already been supplanted by ‘Wonderful Wednesday,’ which will send four teams home from the Olympics with very little to feel good about, while simultaneously setting up the next big thing, ‘Final 4 Friday.’
There was talk in some circles leading up to the Games about how the hockey world was shrinking, not growing, based on a notion there were less teams than ever that had a legitimate shot at leaving Vancouver with gold.
Ultimately, it may yet be the case that only four squads – Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Sweden – were genuinely in the race for top spot. By the same token, is there any result we could witness today that would utterly and truly have felt like it came completely out of the blue?
Jonas Hiller stoning the Americans? Jaroslav Halak dethroning the defending champs? Surely both hypotheticals would register as big-time upsets, but both feel well within the realm of possibility at a tournament where Canada was forced to play a qualification game simply to take part in the quarterfinal.
Keeping that in mind, we present a few keys to each contest, with the understanding that goaltending will be paramount in every matchup.
Switzerland versus USA
The Swiss have clearly identified themselves as the best of the B teams, having taken Canada to a shootout and playing the U.S. relatively tight in both teams’ opening game of the event.
There’s obviously a wide chasm in terms of top-flight talent here, but the Swiss will take to the ice with a very simple, clear mission of keeping it close and seeing what happens. Universally, you’d rather be the team that enters the game with a mandate of dictating the terms and pace, because keeping it close is a mentality reserved for clubs that realize they don’t have a great chance at winning outright.
Still, as coach Swiss coach Ralph Krueger pointed out after his team nearly knocked off Canada, his team plays together as a group much more than the collection of talented players representing other nations and they use that continuity to their advantage.
Everybody plays within a well-defined role and if the game goes according to plan for Switzerland, it will come down to some big saves from Hiller and one dagger of a power play point shot from Mark Streit.
Canada versus Russia
The Russians get last change in this one, so Canadian coach Mike Babcock won’t always get his preferred matchups. My guess is he’d like to line up the trio of Jonathan Toews between Mike Richards and Brenden Morrow against the top Russian line featuring Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Toews and Richards are both fantastic two-way players, the kind of guys who can thwart a star’s best efforts, then turn around and create offense themselves.
If there’s an advantage for the Canadians to exploit, it’s that inevitably their incredible depth at forward is going to create a mismatch with the underwhelming Russian ‘D.’ Let’s assume coach Vyacheslav Bykov deploys a top pair featuring some combination of Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar, Anton Volchenkov and Fedor Tyutin to deal with Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal; that leaves the likes of Dmitri Kalinin and Denis Grebeshkov to fend off bodies belonging to Rick Nash and Ryan Getzlaf or the puck-churning ways of the Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley combo.
That could lead to some boys in red and white running roughshod over some overwhelmed blueliners.
Czech Republic versus Finland
David Krejci scored the overtime-winner for the Czechs in their qualification game versus Latvia and they need him to be at the fore again. Tomas Plekanec has been a very good center for the Czechs and if Krejci can carry over the good vibes from his game-winner, it will give his team a potent 1-2 punch up the middle.
Martin Havlat getting his first goal of the tournament would also help tremendously.
Finland, meanwhile, was blanked by the only truly stiff competition they’ve faced – their Scandinavian rivals from Sweden – and desperately needs the next generation to step up.
Mikko Koivu, this is your game.
Slovakia versus Sweden
The defending champs just seem to be lying in the weeds, content to let Canada and Russia take all the headlines.
Their low-flying approach could blow up in their face, however, if Marian Gaborik finds a way to burn his New York Rangers teammate, Henrik Lundqvist, in the blue and yellow’s blue paint.
I don’t believe either Gaborik or Halak have the chops to carry Slovakia all the way, but both have the ability to tilt the outcome of one game against a heavily favored foe, as Halak showed in the preliminary round against Russia and Gaborik has shown every time his health allows him to take part in an NHL game.
Beware Swedes: you’ve been able to sleepwalk until now, but Gaborik’s game-breaking potential could make meatballs out of you in a heartbeat.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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