STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - MAY 13: The team of Norway celebrate with the crowd after the IIHF World Championship group S match between Germany and Norway at Ericsson Globe on May 13, 2012 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
You've got to hand it to the Norwegian hockey program, they've built a good team despite some long odds against it.
There is only one Norwegian player who saw NHL action this past year: Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers, who was limited to 10 games. Yet after qualifying for the 2010 Olympics as the 12th seed (finishing 10th), Norway has reeled off three consecutive quarterfinal appearances at the World Championships to vault themselves into the top 8 in the IIHF World Rankings, and as a result will be given an automatic berth in the 2014 Olympics. Head Coach Roy Johansen has managed to find a balance between playing what internationally renowed players the country does have (Patrick Thoresen, Jonas Holøs, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Per-Åge Skrøder) and lesser known quantities like Mads Hansen and Morten Ask into a consistent performer, even at times an overachiever. 35 year old defender Mats Trygg has four goals this tournament after having two goals during the entire Elitserien campaign, for example, while the team's starting goaltender Lars Haugen has played all of one game in a top league in his career (for Dynamo Minsk of the KHL).
The Polar Bears are a bit of a rag-tag collection that is hanging just outside the elite of the international hockey scene, and in fact has been outperfroming Slovakia in recent years. So congratulations to an under the radar program on a tremendous achievement... I know I wasn't exactly expecting this. They also became the first non-traditional power to score over ten goals in a World Championship game this century, defeating Germany 12-4 on the weekend.
Tuesday's games wrap up the preliminary round of the World Championships, and there's only one game that matters in terms of determining who will keep playing on Thursday, as France has surprised observers by making their final game against Slovakia matter. A French upset in regulation would vault one of the IIHF's founding nations into the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995. The more probable results of a Slovakia win or OT loss would send Slovakia to the quarterfinals with an Olympic berth secured. Here's a breakdown of where things stand Olympic wise:
Qualified: Finland, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic, Canada, United States, Norway.
Could Still Qualify (2 of these teams): Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland, France*
Potential Qualification Tournament Hosts (2 of these, plus last place of above group): Latvia, Denmark, Belarus, France*.
Anyone in the bottom two groups has a lot at stake on Tuesday, as does France, although France would require more than just making the quarterfinals in order to leapfrog anybody, and would need to win gold in order to have a chance at a Top 9 World Ranking and automatic qualification. A French gold medal (as hard as that would be to believe) would tie them in rankings points with Slovakia, with France getting the tiebreaker due to a better result in the most recent tournament. Final qualification for the 2014 Olympics would be determined next February in three separate tournaments.
Norway avoids that scenario, and that's a great accomplishment for a nation that wasn't in much of a position to dream of such a thing four years ago.