Olympic Hockey: Can Canada Be Beat? Yes, Probably

At the end of round robin play, the defending gold medalists, Canada, have played well. Though not nearly to the level of Team U.S.A., who have looked world class through their first three games.

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At the end of round robin play, the defending gold medalists, Canada, have played well. Though not nearly to the level of Team U.S.A., who have looked world class through their first three games.

Let's back up and explain how Olympic hockey works, because it's complicated. The tournament starts with round robin play, where the twelve participating countries are divided into three groups and forced to compete against each team in their group once. Then they are seeded based on performance for the next round. If you win your group, you get a bye into the quarterfinals. The best of the remaining nine teams also gets a bye. Those four teams get a crucial day off to rest. The remaining eight teams are divided up and forced to play a single game for survival, with one of the top four teams looming on the other side for the victor.

This year, the four top countries earning a bye to the next round are: Sweden, U.S.A., Canada and Finland, in that order. The rest of the bracket shakes out like so:

That Russia did not make it into the top four was the only surprise. Finland and Russia won and lost the same amount of games, but the Finns finished their opponents in regulation, while Russia needed a shootout to dispatch the Slovaks. The Gang of Eight play their last chance to dance elimination games on Tuesday, then the quarterfinals are played Wednesday, the semifinals on Friday, the bronze medal game on Saturday, and the top two countries will tangle for gold on Sunday. It's an exhausting, breakneck week of hockey. If your Canadians friends are significantly more irrational than usual, this is why.

The round robin play taught us a few things about each country and their chances, to medal, so let's break down the major story lines as we head into a busy week.

A Hard Road Lies Ahead for Canada

Canada may be the defending Olympic champions, but Sweden has won gold, two silvers, and bronze medals from 2010 to 2014 at the annual IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships thanks to a promising crop of young players, cementing themselves as one of the premier hockey countries in the world. Comparatively, in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver games, Canada won four gold and a silver medal with many of the players on the 2010 and 2014 Olympic teams. But, since Vancouver, Canada's  young players won two silvers and a bronze at the Junior Hockey Championships, and came away empty handed the last two years. Which is to say, Canada's reign of terror over the rest of the world may be coming to an end.

Through round robin play, Canada's defense has been outstanding, shutting down Norway, Austria and Finland with relative ease, but the offense has struggled to get going. The team's leading scorer is defensemen Drew Doughty, who seems to always perform on big stages. But with a matchup against Team U.S.A. looming should Canada beat the winner of Switzerland/Latvia, Canada's forwards, unquestionably the best group in the tournament on pure talent alone, need to coalesce and start putting pucks in the net. Gold will likely go through Sweden or Russia, mapping out a journey no team would ever want to endure.

Team U.S.A. and Russia lead the tournament with fifteen goals a piece. In contract, Canada has only put eleven pucks in the net. It would seem a game against either team would end in shattered dreams for the Canadian squad.

What's Eating Sidney Crosby?

That Canada has struggled offensively is both a surprise and somewhat expected. Canada boasts the best group of forwards in the world, a dream team that theoretically should fire pucks through opposing goaltenders like a tommy gun ripping apart henchmen in a mob movie shootout. Instead, they are third in goals, most of which came against a lowly Norwegian squad.

Before the tournament even began, Canada lost its best goal scorer, 24-year-old Markham, Ontario-native Steve Stamkos, who is supernaturally talented at making the puck meet twine. He broke his leg three months before the Olympics and nearly recovered on time for Sochi. Waiting to hear whether he would make the trip was the closest thing Canada has experienced to Lebron's "Decision" to sign with the Miami Heat. In the end, doctors told Stamkos he could not take his talents to Sochi.

But one person will face more scrutiny than anyone within Canada's frosty northern borders this week: Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world, who was held scoreless through three games. His two assists did not satisfy Canadians, who expect so much more from boy they watched grow up in Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia to bring the country a gold medal in Vancouver, on the other side of the country, uniting the coasts in drunken jubilation.

This is a nightmare scenario Canadian hockey officials specifically worked to avoid. Sid the Kid struggled in Vancouver, too, until his overtime goal to secure the gold medal over the U.S. wiped away any lingering memories that our national hero didn't play all that well in the preceding games. Chris Kunitz, Crosby's line mate in the NHL, was drafted to the Olympic team because, the thinking went, he knows Sid well and would bring out the best in Canada's golden boy. This decision was not universally praised. And, so far, Kunitz has not delivered what the country hoped would be a fully-realized, dream-like offensive wrecking machine in Crosby. The Canadian press have already called for Kunitz's benching in favor for Martin St. Louis, whose spot on the Olympic squad is a dramatic can of worms for another day. That the best player in the world struggles at all, no matter his line mate, doesn't make sense, and yet this is the only reality Canada can choose. Whether Crosby deserves the attention when his fellow forwards are performing at the same pace doesn't matter. He's The One, the best one since Gretzky, and the country expects the best from him, fair or not. The team needs to figure things out, and do it quickly.

Phil Kessel and T.J. Oshie Are American Heroes

On Saturday morning, over six million people watched T.J. Oshie become a household name, scoring four goals on six "game winning shots" and defeating the Russian team at home, inside the incredibly raucous Bolshoy Ice Dome, in front of Vladimir Putin. The President noticed, and so too did the Internet. Within minutes,Twitter and Tumblr were full of Photoshops of Oshie riding bald eagles to glorious victory. Mash-ups with Miracle were made. A legend was born.
But Phil Kessel continues to be Team U.S.A.'s hatchet man, dismantling defenses with a surgical precision, racking up four goals and three assists in three games. He is everything Canada wants Sidney Crosby to be. He is everything we predicted he would be: an American hero who could potentially serve the Canadians the dish they want the least: revenge, cold, in the semi-finals.

Can Russia Win at Home?

Russia has looked uneven through three games, going to the shootout against the U.S.A, and then again versus Slovakia, two teams drastically far apart in talent. They beat Slovenia in regulation, at least. But if they hope to get out of the quarterfinals alive, they will need to rely on their best goal scorers — Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evengi Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk — all of whom have under performed so far. The path to gold, or at least the semi-finals, goes through Finland and goaltender Tuka Raask, one of the best in the world. Ovy, the NHL's reigning goal scoring leader, Malkin and Kovalchuk each only have one goal so far; Datsyuk leads the bunch with two. If Russia fails to deliver Putin's wish for a hockey gold medal at home, those four will bear the brunt of the scorn, if only for so long.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.