After watching the group stage of the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, there have been a lot of surprises, both good (Slovenia and Latvia have played well) and bad (Russia and Slovakia have not). With the knockout stage beginning Tuesday, the tension will be ratcheted up another notch and so will the excitement. As we look ahead, though, the first week of the games gave us plenty to talk about.
Here are the things I've noticed so far at the Sochi Games:
THE U.S. HAS BEEN THE BEST TEAM
We all knew the Americans were a talented team, and after their performance in 2010 in Vancouver, they were clearly going to be a medal contender, but I know I still thought the Canadians and the Swedes would have a leg up. That hasn't been the case. The way the United States has played, its goal-scoring, its defense, I just think they've been the best all-around team. They're the farthest ahead, they have the most chemistry and they have the most lines clicking.
That said, the United States didn't draw the ideal road for the knockout stages. The Americans will have to play the winner of the Czech Republic-Slovakia play-in game, and both of those teams have been disappointing so far, but because neither Canada nor Finland won in regulation Sunday, the U.S. can't avoid Canada until the gold-medal game and instead is on track to face its rival up north in the semis.
The way I look at it, and I think the way the U.S. coaching staff will put it, is that they're going to have to beat the Canadians at some point if they're going to win the gold. They might as well do it now. I actually think the schedule could be a benefit to the U.S., however. As we saw in Vancouver, Canada got better over the course of the tournament. That's happening here too, particularly after Canada had a good, solid win against Finland on Sunday. I think it might behoove the U.S. to play Canada sooner rather than later.
RUSSIA HAS DUG ITSELF A BIG HOLE
I don't think Russia's performance so far is disappointing just because the Olympics aren't over yet. The Russians still have a shot. I do think Russia not getting a bye is still a shock, however. It isn't a reason to panic -- the Russians were just as good as the Americans in that game -- but there's no question it will be tougher on them to face two world powers to reach the final rather than just one. Not clinching a bye will also be tough because this is a team that has been giving its top-six forwards a ton of minutes, and with the exception of Ilya Kovalchuk, many of them traveled from North America for the games and may not have had a chance to adjust yet.
This isn't a situation like Canada, where the coaches have basically rolled four lines and you could argue the best players haven't gotten enough ice time. Most of Russia's top-six forwards have been held in check most of the time. That would worry me if I was Russia. Not only do the Russians have to play an extra game and have a tougher route to the gold, but they will also have to battle fatigue while trying to find their offense. This isn't a team that will win tight, low-scoring games. Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin all need to start clicking if Russia is going to have a chance.
CANADA HAS BEEN GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT
I think for Canada there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is Canada has won three games and Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the world, hasn't even been a factor yet. The bad news is the Canadians need to jump-start their offense. The Jeff Carter line has played well, but Crosby has had three different lines in three different games and the rest of the forwards have struggled. Corey Perry isn't scoring, and neither is Ryan Getzlaf, and that has to be a concern.
Canada is still playing well. The defense has been impressive -- Finland barely had any chances in the third period Sunday -- and of course the Canadian defense has been scoring as well. Carey Price has also been solid in net, and Canada has looked good for the most part, but they won't be able to win it all with most of their scoring coming from the back end. They can be better. The forwards need to start kicking it in and putting pucks in the net.
SWEDEN STILL A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
We all know the Swedes have been hit by injuries and losing Henrik Zetterberg for the tournament was a massive blow, but they've still looked great and will be a tough out. I think you're going to have to play a great game to beat Sweden. The Swedes are not going to beat themselves, Henrik Lundqvist looks great in net, and even with the injuries this roster has enough weapons. They're great defensively, and they're still going to be very, very dangerous.
I'M STICKING WITH MY ORIGINAL PREDICTIONS
When you look at the teams outside the major powers, I still think Switzerland is a scary team. The Swiss always play Canada tough, and with Jonas Hiller in net, they have a guy who can stand on his head and steal a game. That said, I still see this playing out how we all might have expected from the beginning.
I think Russia, despite the extra game, will manage to get past Norway and then Finland in the quarters. At that point, however, I think the Swedes will be able to handle the Russians and take advantage of some issues Russia has had in this tournament. I also think the U.S. and Canada will meet in the semifinal, and just like we saw in the gold-medal game in Vancouver four years ago, I think it will be a great game with Canada pulling it out.
In the end I see Canada against Sweden, and after improving throughout the tournament, I still see a Canadian triumph. As I said earlier, Canada needs to be better and get more contributions from its forwards, but I think that will happen, and the result will be a second consecutive gold.