No team in this year’s Olympic tournament has looked as good as the United States.
The Americans started off with one of the toughest schedules of the group round and thrived. Slovakia, which is traditionally counted as one of international hockey’s eight strong countries, should have been a challenge for the United States but was humiliated in a 7-1 loss. Next up was a tough Russian squad playing on home soil; it took Team USA to the limit, but the Americans ultimately prevailed. Finally, the group round finished with an obligatory win over Slovenia.
That the United States was able to prevail in a tough situation is to the team’s credit. The U.S. (and for that matter, the now-defeated Russians), just came out of a schedule that might be likened to a difficult river passage, while top opponents Canada and Sweden saw only moderate challenges.
Unfortunately for U.S. medal hopes, that treacherous schedule does not end with the completion of the group round. The Canadian and Swedish routes to gold are going to be difficult, involving two games against top teams. But the American voyage is going to be extremely hard to make and likely means Team USA isn’t the gold-medal favorite at this point despite its success.
It starts in the quarterfinals. Thanks to the vagaries of international competition, only six of international hockey’s so-called “Big Eight” teams will or have competed in this round of games. Canada was lucky enough to draw the upstarts from Latvia and barring something wholly shocking happening, they are guaranteed a spot in the semifinals. Sweden took on a similar challenge in the form of Slovenia and dispatched them easily by a 5-0 score to advance.
The United States has no such luck. Instead, it faces a Czech team capable of beating it. The two teams haven’t played each other in the Olympics since 1998, when the Czechs knocked off the United States in the quarterfinals en route to a gold-medal win.
This year’s Czech Republic team isn’t the equal of that 1998 squad. It is most evident in net, where the team doesn’t have a generational goalie like Dominik Hasek. Instead, they have to choose between one of the NHL’s weakest starters (Ondrej Pavelec) and a pair of KHL goalies (Alexander Salak and Jakub Kovar).
Making that choice even more difficult is that Pavelec played Tuesday (Feb. 18) and has an ugly history in back-to-back games at the NHL level:
There’s a good argument, too, that the Czechs aren’t making the best use of the players at their disposal. It started with the naming of the team, a team that now includes 42-year-old Petr Nedved and excludes two of the NHL’s top five Czech scorers (Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata). Nedved, incidentally, has been getting more ice time than NHL players like Martin Hanzal, Michael Frolik and Ondrej Palat. And let's not forget the fact that Tomas Kaberle, who washed out of the NHL a year ago, is second on the blue line in time on the ice.
But for all the controversy surrounding the team, the Czechs are still a medal threat in every tournament, boasting significant talent up front and on defense. There are signs, too, that Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik is settling into a more sensible game plan with his roster.
In the Czech Republic’s first elimination game, against Slovakia, the team almost exclusively used NHLers in its top-nine forward group, with the lone exception being Roman Cervenka, who scored twice and has 12 shots in the tournament. Michal Barinka, the controversial roster inclusion who the IIHF reveals is also the coach’s son-in-law, was scratched for the game.
The United States is certainly favored to beat the Czechs, but as every hockey fan knows, anything can happen in a single game, and the gap between the two teams is narrow enough that it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to see the Czech Republic knock Team USA out of the tournament. As Czech forward Ales Hemsky said, via Larry Lage of The Boston Globe, "It will be a tough game, but at this point in the tournament there’s no easy games. So anyone can win against anybody."
So, while Sweden beat a far inferior team and Canada plays a similar one, the Americans will be white-knuckling their way through a game against a legitimate medal contender. The potential ramifications are made obvious by the fate of the Russian Federation, which was felled by an under-powered Finnish team competing through injury.
It only gets harder after the Czechs. If the Americans prevail, they’ll likely face Canada, the team they lost the gold medal to in 2010. Only if they manage to beat Canada will they meet the winner of the other side of the bracket (Sweden or Finland) in a gold-medal tilt.
It will be a tough trek, and the riskiest portion of the journey starts Wednesday against the Czech Republic.