SOCHI – The preliminary round of the 2014 Sochi Olympic hockey tournament is in its final day. Much, however, remains at stake.
The seeding for the qualification playoffs and the order of the four byes into the quarterfinal round will be decided by the results of the four games Sunday, when the schedules for Group A and Group B are completed.
In the early game, Austria beat Norway 3-1 in the battle for third place in Group B. In the afternoon games, Russia plays Slovakia and the United States plays Slovenia to close out Group A. The Americans, the Russians and even the Slovenians can finish atop the group.
In the final preliminary-round game, Canada and Finland play to determine the Group B winner and, perhaps, the No. 1 seed.
For the United States, a regulation victory against Slovenia will give it the Group A title with eight points. It will also guarantee the Americans are seeded no lower than third. They can't earn the top seed because Sweden, the Group C champion, has nine points. The Swedes can finish no lower than second.
An overtime win would also give the U.S. the top spot in Group A. The Americans would finish even with the Russians at seven points, if they beat Slovakia -- but the first tiebreaker for group standings is head-to-head and the U.S. beat Russia 3-2 in a shootout Saturday.
The United States can earn the No. 2 seed only if the Canada-Finland game goes to overtime. In that case, the winner would have eight points as well and the first tiebreaker in the qualification standings is goal differential. Heading into Sunday, the Americans have a plus-6 goal differential. Finland has a plus-9 differential and Canada is plus-8.
Russia can win Group A only if the Americans lose to Slovenia and it beats Slovakia. In that scenario, the Russians would have the No. 3 seed.
Slovenia can win the group only if it beats the Americans in regulation and Russia loses to Slovakia. In that case, Slovenia will win the group with six points and take the No. 3 spot.
Slovakia is playing for position in the qualification round Tuesday, which will feature the teams seeded fifth through 12th in elimination games (No. 5 vs. No. 12, No. 6 vs. No. 11, No. 7 vs. No. 10, No. 8 vs. No. 9).
In Group B, the Canada-Finland victor wins the group. A regulation win by either gives the victor the top seed based on goal differential. A win after regulation could drop the winner all the way to third, depending on the outcome of the U.S. game.
The final bye, which goes to the best second-place finisher among the three groups, almost certainly will go to the Group A or Group B runner-up. Switzerland, the second-place finisher in Group C, has six points but only a plus-1 goal differential and is likely to be seeded sixth.
The top four teams advance directly to the quarterfinals Wednesday.
Norway's loss to Austria assured that Latvia will not finish last in the 12-team field. Latvia, at 0-3 with a minus-5 goal differential, entered the day in the No. 12 spot, but Norway dropped behind the Latvians with a minus-9 differential.
Slovakia enters its game against Russia with at minus-8; a loss by two or more goals would drop the Slovaks to the bottom of the standings, assuring them of the toughest matchup in the qualification round.
As complicated as all of this might seem at the moment, clarity will arrive as the final day of pool play is completed.
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