The Preliminary Round of competition came to an exciting conclusion yesterday in Prague, Czech Republic, with a series of closely contested games. The United States, undoubtedly caught looking ahead a bit, had their hands full with a tenacious Slovakia team, ultimately prevailing 5 - 4. Slovakia, which finished fifth in Group B, was somewhat of a hard luck story this tournament, and played much better than its nine points would indicate. The Slovaks had only two regulation losses in their seven games, and took four games to overtime, splitting those contests. They ended with a 17-19 goal differential, driving home the point that they were in a series of extremely tight games. A break or two and they are likely moving on.
Finland ended their preliminary round in style, with a 3 - 2 overtime victory over Russia, and assumed the role of " Team Nobody Wants To Play Besides Canada And USA" in the next round. After getting waxed 5 - 1 by the USA squad to open the competition, the Finns proceeded to register four consecutive shutout victories over Denmark, Norway, Slovenia and Slovakia, scoring 15 goals in the process. They edged a pesky Belarus squad 3 - 2 before downing the Russians in their final contest. Take away the US game, and Finland has a 21 - 4 goal differential over the final six contests, and has allowed the fewest goals in the tournament.
The aforementioned Belarus might place second in the TNWTPBCAU competition entering the next phase. Belarus handed the United States a nasty 5 -2 defeat in the preliminary round, and had but one regulation loss in that round. Admittedly, that loss was a horrifying 7 - 0 blitz at the hand of the Russians. Even with that result on their card, Belarus managed a positive 20-9 goal differential, They edged Norway, 3-2 in their final match of the first round.
Switzerland is another club that is going to cause headaches in the next round, as they have been prone to do in recent international competitions. They dropped a 2 - 1 overtime contest against the host Czech Republic -- one of four overtime losses they suffered in the preliminaries. They are playing their typical tight style, scoring only 12 goals in the seven game opening series, but surrendering only 18.
Then, of course, there is Canada. The Canadians mopped up Austria 10 - 1 in their final outing, and finished with an absurd 49 goals in their seven games -- a tidy 7.00 GPG average. They surrendered just 14 goals in that time (the same total as the US), which stands to reason. You really can't score an average of seven goals per game and allow much possession time to the opposition. The guys with the Maple Leaf on their sweaters are the class of the tournament by a significant margin, and it's going to take a combination of Canadian overconfidence and other-worldly play by someone to knock them from that perch.
The match-ups for the next round are set. Here is the slate of games set for tomorrow, in order:
United States vs. Switzerland
Canada vs. Belarus
Sweden vs. Russia
Finland vs. Czech Republic
As noted above, I don't think that either Belarus or Switzerland are going to be the cakewalks that many surmise. However, ultimately I think Canada's firepower will prevail over Belarus, and the United States should have enough offense to get past Switzerland. A fast start will be essential against the Swiss, as they tend to get only tougher as the game progresses. Give them hope, and it could be a long afternoon.
The Sweden/Russia contest should prove to be an immensely entertaining affair -- as it usually is -- featuring some offensive fireworks. These two squads are the only teams in the competition -- other than Canada -- to have posted 30+ goals during the preliminary round, so this is unlikely to be a 2 -1 affair. Sweden gave Canada a tough battle before succumbing 6 - 4, but struggled in others, including a bewildering 4-3 nail-biter over Germany. However, Russia had its own ups and downs in the first round, including its only regulation loss by a 4 - 2 score to the US. It's close, but I think Russia squeaks by with this one.
In the final match of the next round, the Czech Republic team faces Finland. I've already covered Finland's virtues, but the Czech's have plenty of firepower of their own. They had the #4 offense in the first round, so the matchup with the #1 defense will be worth watching. They will have the home crowd advantage in the final contest of the evening, but I just don't think they will have enough to get past a Finnish team playing in top form.
So, the prediction here is that the semi-finals will see a reprise of the United States vs. Russia, and Canada vs. Finland. More on those later. Stay tuned.