Analyzing the men's Olympic hockey brackets
In Sochi, there will be 12 countries participating in the men’s hockey tournament.
The format will be the same as the 2010 Olympics, with the 12 teams being broken up into three pools of four teams each to start, with each country playing the three other teams in its pool once in the preliminary round to determine the seeding of the subsequent medal round.
The teams that have the best record in each of the three pools, as well as the best second-place team, will receive an automatic bye into the second round of the medal round.
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In the preliminary round, teams receive three points for a win in regulation time, two points for a win in overtime or a shootout, one point for losing in overtime or a shootout and zero points for losing in regulation. The standings will be determined by points, with the first tiebreaker being the result of the potentially-tied teams’ head-to-head matchup in the preliminary round.
The next tiebreakers would be goal differential in games played between teams that are tied, followed by goals scored in games played between teams that are tied.
If two or more teams are still tied after this, the next tiebreakers will be the goal differential in their own preliminary-round games. If they are still tied, the next tiebreaker will be total goals scored in the Olympics.
The potentially last tiebreaker will be the team’s IIHF World Ranking entering the Olympics.
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After four teams receive byes based on their preliminary-round results, the final eight will then play single-elimination games that will ultimately result in eight teams remaining in the medal round's "second round". those eight teams will be matched up based on their seeding and participate in a single elimination-style tournament that will require three straight victories to win a gold medal.
In Pool A, arguably the most well balanced pool of the three, the U.S., Russia and Slovakia are all considered medal contenders.
Slovenia, making its first appearance in Olympic hockey and possessing only one NHL player—Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings—is considered a longshot to win a single game.
Of the remaining three teams, Russia is obviously on its home soil, and is receiving substantial pressure to win gold for the first time since 1992, which is its longest drought without an Olympic gold medal since the sport was first introduced to the country after World War II.
But despite its drought, on its home soil, Russia is the closest thing to a favorite in Pool A, although the gap—if there even is a gap—between itself and both the U.S. and Slovakia is minor.
The U.S., in fact, has done better in the Olympics than the Russians have since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and should be able to go toe-to-toe with Russia, even in Russia.
Slovakia, long considered an occasionally overlooked, but potential Olympic darkhorse, may be the X-Factor. Slovakia has as talented of players—such as Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa—as there are in the world, but in a country of only 5.4 million people, may have a depth issue that gets exploited due to the injuries of star scorer Marian Gaborik and veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who are both considered unlikely to be healthy for the Games.
However, it would not be a shock if either the U.S., Russia or Slovakia won Pool A.
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In Pool B, the most certain thing will be that defending-champion Canada will be favored to win all of its games, even against 2010 bronze medalist Finland, which actually has the most Olympic hockey medals (5) since 1988.
However, for all of Finland’s success, it has yet to ever capture the elusive gold, and doesn’t have nearly the depth of talent Canada does. Despite this, Finland is clearly the second best team in Pool B going in, and has a track record of giving favored teams a run for their money.
Austria, making its first Olympic appearance since 2002, and Norway, a team that has never finished above eighth in the Olympics and has often not qualified itself, will both be considered longshots to medal.
Sweden, gold medal winners in 2006 and 1994, is packed with NHL talent, and is considered the favorite in Pool C. In fact, with Olympic games being played on an enlarged ice size more typical in Europe than North America, Sweden is considered by many to be a solid pick to win gold in Sochi.
Traditionally, the Czech Republic, gold medal winners in 1998, would be a smart pick at number two in Pool C; however, with the development of young Czech hockey players having been somewhat stagnant over the last decade and traditional team centerpieces Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias now either past or approaching age 40, the Czech team is seen by many as being one in decline.
Meanwhile, Switzerland is a team that has been on the rise in recent years, and despite having a roster that is only about half made up of NHL players, plays a fundamentally sound defensive style that keeps all of its games close—Switzerland’s only losses in 2010 were to the U.S. (twice) and Canada (once), but those three defeats against hockey superpowers came by only a combined five goals.
With Switzerland on the upswing and the Czech Republic seemingly on the downswing, how these countries do compared to one another should dictate the rest of the order of Group C.
Group C’s fourth team, Latvia, is a scrappy bunch, and led by Canadian-born Buffalo Sabres interim head coach Ted Nolan, will need more than its share of breaks to contend for an Olympic medal this year.