12 questions heading into Olympics knockout round
|Canada's lineup is a major question heading into the elimination rounds (Getty Images).|
SOCHI – Some questions have already been answered in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but all that's done is create more queries heading into the elimination phase.
Though the final answers won't come until Sunday, here are 12 questions to ask and analyze Monday, the off day before the qualification round Tuesday and the quarterfinals Wednesday:
Can Canada stay patient?
Canada needed patience to beat Finland on Sunday because the Finns sat back and tried to push everything to the outside. It was almost as if the Finns were daring Canada to try something. They were even trying to force them into mistakes by applying pressure.
It was a good lesson for the Canadians, and they handled it well. If Switzerland is the opponent in the quarterfinals, the test will be different, yet still somewhat similar.
The Swiss won't pressure as much as the Finns, but they will position their five guys back toward the front of the net. They won't care if Canada is playing with the puck outside of the faceoff dots. No team is dangerous from that far out in this tournament, or in any league or tournament really. The goal is to keep them on the outside and wait for something to open up for a transition play the other way.
Canada will need to have that patience again, but it also needs to get some offense from its forwards.
The Canadians have scored 11 goals in three games here, with six coming from defensemen, including four by Drew Doughty. Jeff Carter has three goals thanks to his natural hat trick against Austria, and Ryan Getzlaf and Jamie Benn each have one.
Patience is a good thing, but Canada has to find a way to get more from its forwards.
Will Sidney Crosby find chemistry with linemates?
Let's get one thing straight: This isn't about Crosby; it's about the guys he is playing with and the unreasonable expectations placed on Canada's captain.
Crosby had an assist and was arguably Canada's most dangerous forward in its 2-1 overtime win against Finland on Sunday. Carter and Jonathan Toews might be able to fight for that tag, but that's about it.
But that doesn't matter because Crosby is faced with the pressure of having to contribute on the score sheet in every game even though he is surrounded by 12 forwards who are faced with those expectations every night in the NHL.
The problem is that Crosby's linemates against Finland, Jamie Benn and Patrice Bergeron, left a little to be desired. Similarly, Chris Kunitz, his regular linemate with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has looked like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole in the tournament. The big ice just doesn't seem to suit Kunitz's hard-nosed, net-front presence. Don't be surprised if he's scratched in the quarterfinals.
Coach Mike Babcock's decisions on his lines for the quarterfinal game will be dissected and analyzed 100 times over in the media, but whoever he puts with Crosby will likely face the best defenders the opposition has to offer. Crosby has to find a way around that to be a dangerous player. He did against Finland, but he can't be as effective as everyone wants him to be without help.
Who will become the odd forward out for Canada?
If you read the analysis under the previous question, you probably know where the analysis here is going.
Kunitz should be the forward who sits out in the quarterfinals. It definitely should not be Martin St. Louis. If anything, St. Louis might have an inside track to be Crosby's linemate.
The worries people had coming into the tournament about how Kunitz would fare on the big ice are proving to be legitimate. He hasn't seemed like the same player he is in the NHL. He's on the outside too much. It's a struggle for him to get inside. He isn't dangerous enough, save for his opportunity against Finland, when he was set up for a one-timer in the slot and Tuukka Rask took it away with a dazzling glove save.
Or Canada could scratch two defensemen, as Babcock suggested as a possibility while speaking with media Monday, and dress all 14 forwards.
Will there be any surprise decisions on starting goalies?
Slovakia's situation is the one that seems the murkiest now because Jaroslav Halak should be its No. 1, but he hasn’t been good in the tournament, and third-stringer Jan Laco was excellent against Russia on Sunday, stopping all 36 shots he faced through 65 minutes before giving up goals in the shootout to Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk.
For as good as Halak is in the NHL, how can Slovakia coach Vladimir Vujtek turn his back to Laco here?
The United States is expected to go back to Jonathan Quick in the quarterfinals against either the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Quick was excellent against Russia and got a well-earned day off against Slovenia. Ryan Miller played well against the Slovenians, but it's pretty clear that he's the No. 2.
The feeling was the goalie Canada used against Finland would be the goalie it would try to ride in the elimination round, and Carey Price gave Babcock no reason to think otherwise. He wasn't tested a lot, but he made the saves he had to make, 14 in all, to help Canada get the 2-1 overtime win.
Russia certainly had no complaints about Semyon Varlamov against Slovakia. He was perfect with 27 saves through 65 minutes and another two in the shootout. Sergei Bobrovsky was good against the Americans, but Varlamov was the favorite coming into the tournament, and there's no reason for coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov to change his opinion now.
Tuukka Rask should start for Finland, and unless something crazy happens, Henrik Lundqvist will definitely start for Sweden. Jonas Hiller should get the nod for Switzerland, and Ondrej Pavelec better start for the Czechs if they want a chance to win.
Will Russia's power play be effective?
Russia's inept power play might be the biggest surprise in the tournament so far.
Despite having enough firepower to blow the roof off Bolshoy Ice Dome with stars like Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin, Russia's power play finished the preliminary round ranked seventh out of 12 teams at 15.38 percent (2-for-13).
Norway has had a better power play (2-for-12), and Latvia's been better with the man advantage (3-for-11).
Russia's power play would be even worse had it not been for Dustin Brown's kneeing penalty on Vladimir Tarasenko in the third period Saturday, a penalty that cost the Americans the lead when Datsyuk scored with 8:16 remaining in regulation.
Look out if the Russians get it going on the power play, but can they? Will they? Nothing they've done so far suggests the answer to either of those questions is yes.
Is Russia deep enough up front to win gold?
The skill in Russia's top six can be matched only by Canada. Sweden might have been up there too if not for injuries to Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen. The United States is deep across the board, but even coach Dan Bylsma admitted that it can't beat the Russians in a skill-on-skill game.
However, Russia's third and fourth lines have been somewhat invisible.
Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin is the only one among the bottom-six forwards with a goal. Alexei Tereshenko is the only one among them with an assist (two). Tarasenko, Artem Anisimov, Nikolai Kulemin and Alexander Popov have no points and 15 shots on goal between them.
The Canadians haven't gotten production from their forwards, but no one would blink twice if all of a sudden their so-called bottom-six guys started to lead the way offensively. It would be shocking if Russia's bottom-six forwards did that.
Depth is one of the most important factors in winning this tournament. Russia may not have enough of it.
Will an underdog emerge?
Look out for Switzerland and don't sleep on Slovakia.
The Swiss play a gnawing game. If they get into the quarterfinals, they will frustrate the Canadians because scoring will be secondary to keeping Canada away from the net. Slovakia will be the same way if it gets past the Czechs and into the quarterfinals against the United States.
The good news for the Canadians and Americans is they played and won tight games in the preliminary round, games where scoring chances were hard to come by and patience was required.
Remember, though, Switzerland finished second in the 2013 IIHF World Championship. Slovakia was second in the World Championship two years ago and finished fourth in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The big stage will not bother the Swiss or the Slovaks.
Will resiliency get the United States to the top of the medal stand?
Along with consistency, abrasiveness, skill and timing, the Americans have also been the most resilient team in the tournament so far. It's an important trait to have because they will be faced with more adversity in greater pressure-packed moments this week.
The U.S. had the toughest draw of any team in the preliminary round because it had to play Slovakia and Russia in the first two games. What Bylsma learned about his team in those two games he saw again early in the game Sunday against Slovenia.
The U.S. overcame a tough goal-against early in the second period of what was still a close game against the Slovaks by scoring six unanswered goals for a 7-1 win.
It came back against Russia to grab the lead and didn't lose its focus when Datsyuk scored to tie the game midway through the third period.
When a letdown was a possibility against Slovenia after the emotional win against the Russians, Phil Kessel scored twice within the first 4:33 to erase any concerns there en route to a 5-1 win.
Is Finland too depleted down the middle to beat a big boy?
The Finns didn't play a perfect game against Canada on Sunday, but it's fair to wonder if they can play better than they did because of their obvious lack of depth at center.
Finland was hoping to have Mikko Koivu, Saku Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov as its centers in Sochi. That would have been formidable.
Only Barkov made the trip, and now he’s out of the tournament and possibly much longer with a knee injury. Jarkko Immonen was Finland's No. 1 center against Canada. No offense to Immonen, but he's not scaring anybody.
So when Finland plays Russia in the quarterfinals (unless Norway stuns the world and beats the Russians), it will have to play another shutdown game and hope that the pressure it applies in the defensive zone is enough to create turnovers.
The Finns do have speed and creativity so they can be a dangerous in transition even without the centers they were hoping to have, but it's hard to win when you get 15 shots on goal.
Will Sweden be able to overcome its injuries to reach the medal round?
Sure it can, as long as Lundqvist is the best player on the ice and Sweden's power play continues to click the way it did against Latvia on Saturday.
No offense to Immonen, but Sweden hasn't had to replace its top-two centers (was Nicklas Backstrom really a No. 3 center?) with guys who couldn't cut it in the NHL. Backstrom and Patrik Berglund are solid NHL players.
Sweden's depth on defense can match up with any team in the tournament. It's even better now that Alexander Edler is playing after serving his two-game suspension from an incident in last year's World Championship.
The Swedes finished the preliminary round with the best power play in the tournament thanks to the four goals they scored Saturday against Latvia. Erik Karlsson is having a phenomenal tournament.
However, Sweden won its three games by underwhelming scores (4-2 against the Czech Republic, 1-0 against Switzerland, and 5-3 against Latvia). It also has the second-most penalties of any team.
The Swedes haven't been dominant, but they are still the only team that was perfect in the preliminary round. They can still win gold here.
Can Slovakia score enough to win if it stays committed to playing defensive hockey?
After losing by a combined 10-2 to the U.S. and Slovenia, Slovakia got defensive against the Russians and nearly pulled off the upset. The one problem is the Slovaks didn't put a single shot past Varlamov.
Credit Slovakia for rediscovering the merits of defensive hockey, but it has to score to win and there doesn't appear to be enough firepower in the lineup.
The Slovaks knew they were going to miss Marian Gaborik (broken collarbone), but his loss becomes magnified if they want to continue to play a defensive game. They may be able to open it up a bit against the Czechs, but a win Tuesday means they get the Americans on Wednesday, and they'll have to lock it down again.
They scored one goal against the U.S. when they tried to play a wide-open style.
Is the Czech Republic in too much disarray to be a serious threat?
Unless something changes between before the puck drops against Slovakia, the answer here is yes.
The Czechs have made some curious decisions to say the least, starting with the roster they picked last month.
Why the Czechs didn't include Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata and Jan Hejda is still a mystery to anybody who has been following the NHL this season. Why they picked Martin Erat, who has one goal with the Washington Capitals this season, over Hudler and Vrbata when Vladimir Sobotka had to withdraw because of injury was and still is a head-scratcher.
And why coach Alois Hadamczik opted to not only bench but scratch Pavelec, his only NHL goalie, for the opener against Sweden is still the biggest what-is-happening-here moment of the tournament.
Give the Czechs credit for beating Latvia 4-2 and dominating with a 39-20 advantage in shots on goal, but it seems that everyone here is waiting for Hadamczik to make another baffling decision.