It's finally, mercifully, all about the gold now. The new tournament format really didn't do a lot for me, to be honest, with little momentum built throughout the tournament and the fans in the host cities didn't take to it for a variety of reasons, either. Unequal teams were playing each other in most games, and the final day of the tournament ended up serving only one match of any intrigue. If I had a vote at the IIHF Annual Meeting, I'd definitely be voting for a return of the progressive round robin system that served the Championships the past couple of years, which had the ability to raise the importance of each game in succession.
We're hear now, and for the most part, we're hear with little surprises. Canada and Russia won their groups, Norway won out amongst the world's mid-level powers to nab a quarterfinal spot, and Slovakia returns just in the nick of time to qualify for the Olympics. We're left with four matches that should be competitive, or in the very least a bit more than what we saw for most of the past couple of weeks.
Quarterfinal 1: Canada vs. Slovakia (12:00 PM CEST, 6:00 AM EST)
Putting Canada in an early game isn't really the most conducive to getting hockey's founding nation into this tournament, but that's the tradeoff with putting the host nations in prime time. Duncan Keith might be the tournament's best player so far, notching an astonishing 11 points to lead the Canadians while playing over 21 minutes a game, which is a bit of a breather for Keith compared to the NHL but quite a lot in an IIHF tournament with 7 or 8 defencemen dressed. John Tavares leads the Canadians up front as is becoming the custom each spring, but the Canadians' true strength is in its depth, with scoring coming from three lines and defending coming from three pairs. Which means it will take the customary 'total team effort' for Slovakia to stop Canada, which they are more than game for. Michal Handzus arrived late but has been a stabilizing force down the middle for Slovakia, who have been involved in close games each time they've stepped on the ice. After close losses to open the tournament to Canada (2-3) and Finland (0-1), Slovakia reeled off five straight wins with only a 5-1 win over Belarus that gave them breathing room. 30 year old netminder Jan Laco has been great in his IIHF debut, though it should be noted that great goaltending and having Zdeno Chara lead your team in icetime have had some sort of relationship to each other for a number of years now. Can they stop Canada, or will it be another hard fought loss like in Vancouver 2010?
Preliminary Round Result: Canada 3, Slovakia 2.
Quarterfinal 2: Russia vs. Norway (2:45 CEST, 9:45 AM EST)
Russia has been making fools out of everyone this tournament, and they keep getting stronger the further we go into the tournament. Adding Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on Pavel Datsyuk's wings for the last round robin game is downright criminal, but we're all better for it. Evgeni Malkin is keeping a firm grip on the 'Best Player in the World' status he earned this year in the NHL, with a ridiculous performance against Sweden topping anything we've seen in this tournament in the past couple of years. The team has been giving up a decent amount of shots (not surprising since they've been leading most games since puckdrop), over 31 per game on average, but their goaltending has been quite strong, led by Semyon Varlamov. That'll be important to stop the offensive juggernaut that has been Norway this tournament. It still feels weird saying that, but no team in Stockholm scored more goals than Norway and they boast the tournament's leading scorer in Patrick Thoresen. 35 year old defenseman Mats Trygg, a noted non-scorer, has been playing with the hammer of Thor himself with five goals this tournament. Jonas Holos is averaging 27 minutes a night on the blue line while Lars Haugen keeps building up a strong IIHF resumé with his second strong tournament in a row as Norway's #1 goalie.
Preliminary Round Result: Russia 4, Norway 2.
Quarterfinal 3: Finland vs. USA (5:30 CEST, 11:30 AM EST)
This is the main event in Helsinki, and it could very well be the defending champions' last stand. Finland has had a hard time finding consistency so far, opening the tournament with consecutive 1-0 wins, finally finding some offence in the middle of the round robin before being blitzed by this USA team 5-0. NHL stars Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen and Valterri Filpulla are doing their part mostly, but Mikael Granlund has been stunningly silent so far. I don't expect that to last much more than 7 games, to be honest, so the Americans may not know what they're stepping into at Hartwall Areena. One thing we do know we'll see is a lot of Max Pacioretty for the Americans. With twelve points and 22 shots on goal, we've seen a lot out of Pacioretty so far, and his linemates Bobby Ryan and Paul Stastny are the offensive catalysts of Team America. What we're also seeing in Team USA is the development of some pretty strong young blueliners. Jack Johnson is providing the leadership and big minutes, but Alex Goligoski, Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk are providing the sizzle. Is this team too young to compete for a medal against a Finnish team that has been there, done that? I wouldn't be so sure about that. FInland will try and wear the Americans' top players down and keep this one close to the very end.
Preliminary Round Result: USA 5, Finland 0.
Quarterfinal 4: Sweden vs. Czech Republic (8:15 CEST, 2:15 PM EST)
The last game in Stockholm this year is a doozy: the home team takes on a traditional superpower in the Czechs, who seemed to be turning things around near the end of the round robin. For the Tre Kronor, it's a chance at redemption in front of the home fans after their embarrassing showing against Russia in the biggest draw of the tournament to date. Loui Eriksson might just be able to attain the stardom he richly deserves if he continues this hot tournament up, while Henrik Zetterberg continues to be... Henrik Zetterberg. Erik Karlsson is continuing his offensive dominance from the blueline, but the Swedes have not been as solid throughout the lineup as they have been in years past. The late addition of Nicklas Backstrom at centre might help that significantly. For the Czechs, balance hasn't been the issue, but there has yet to emerge a dominant star to lead this team in this tournament up front. Ales Hemsky has been the closest to that up front, but Tomas Plekanec, Martin Erat, David Krejci and Petr Nedved have taken those roles at times as well. Milan Michalek has yet to make an impact, but like Granlund for Finland, I expect we'll be seeing something out of him before the tournament's up, and if we don't, the Czechs won't be in it very long. Hands up if you had Petr Caslava and Jakub Nakladal as the Czechs' leading defensemen before the tournament began.
Preliminary Round Result: Sweden 4, Czech Republic 1.
Let's get down to business and start thinking about some medals!