Sunday, 10 February 2013

The 2014 Field

There were some pretty important games played this past weekend in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany, Riga, Latvia, Vojens, Denmark, Poprad, Slovakia, and Weiden, Germany. The IIHF was hosting a number of teams that were hopeful in playing in next year's Olympiad in Sochi, Russia. Three spots were available for men's national teams while two women's spots were open in the biggest international hockey tournament on the planet. There were some surprises, there were some upsets, and we finally know who will be playing for the gold medal in ice hockey in Sochi.

Group D, being played in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany, featured Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. It was expected that the Germans would skate away with the division at home in Germany, but they ran into some problems against Italy. The Italians dropped Germany in overtime by a 2-1 score on Friday, setting up a must-win game in regulation for the Germans on Sunday against the upstart Austrians. Austria had defeated Italy 3-2 and the Netherlands 6-1, so they just needed a tie at worst through sixty minutes, and they would be heading to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

With Germany leading 2-1, the Austrians needed a goal desperately to prevent the Germans from factoring into a tie-breaker situation. Markus Peintner will now be a household name for Austrians as his goal with 7:38 remaining squared the game, and goaltender Bernhard Starkbaum held the fort through the final minutes as the Austrians would head to overtime with the Germans. It didn't matter who won and lost, though, as the tie through regulation would give the Austrians the most points in Group D to advance to the Olympics.

The Germans have to be disappointed as they will not take to the ice in Sochi to represent their country. It is the first time since 1952 that Germany will not compete for the gold medal in men's ice hockey. Germany's Alexander Barta led the group in scoring with six points, but Austria will be punching their ticket to Sochi in one year's time.

Group E, being played in Riga, Latvia, featured France, Great Britain, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. Latvia, Kazakhstan, and France have been to the Olympics in recent years, but the Latvians looked like the best squad in this group thanks to the KHL making inroads in that country. It was France, however, that used the goaltending of former NHLer Cristobal Huet to a 4-2 win over Great Britain to set up a showdown with the Latvians. Despite having lost to the Kazakhstani team, France could still advance with a regulation win over Latvia.

France jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. Ted Nolan, coaching Latvia's national team, made some adjustments in the intermission, and Latvia cut the deficit to one goal with 5:01 remaining in the second period. The game was tied before the water had frozen on the ice in the third period. Just twelve seconds in, Martins Karsums knotted the game up, setting up a next-goal-wins situation with a berth in the Olympics on the line.

The game would need extra time, meaning that France's dreams of playing in Sochi, Russia would end with the horn. Despite the overtime goal by Pierre Edouard Bellemare and the win over Latvia, the Latvians captured Group E on points, and would advance to the 2014 Olympiad. Latvia's Lauris Darzins led the group in scoring with five points in helping Latvia advance to its fourth consecutive Olympic men's ice hockey tournament.

Group F, played in Vojens, Denmark, was actually decided very early this morning when one team went 3-0 in the group. Slovenia defeated Belarus 4-2 on Thursday, downed Denmark 2-1 on Friday, and then handed the Ukraine a 6-1 loss to wrap up the pool. Belarus would have been the team to challenge Slovenia had the Slovenians lost to either Denmark or the Ukraine, but the Slovenians win over Belarus already gave them the tie-breaker.

The thought of Denmark and Belarus as the featured game on Sunday had major implications on the local community, but Slovenia's dominance in this group made the final game irrelevant to the final standings. Belarus did defeat Denamrk, leaving the Danes as the third-best team in the group.

Slovenia's winning of the group is quite surprising considering they have just 924 registered players and one pro team. Anze Kopitar's abilities aside, there haven't been any other Slovenians to reach the NHL with any regularity, but it appears the Kopitar family will throw a family reunion in Sochi. Head coach Matjaz Kopitar and younger son Gasper Kopitar will get to play with Anze in the country's first appearance as a sovereign nation. Slovenia's David Rodman led the group in scoring with six points.

Group C, played in Poprad, Slovakia, featured four of the top women's teams in the world as Denmark, Japan, Norway, and Slovakia learned to earn one of the two berths in the women's ice hockey championship in Sochi. It was a virtually unknown Danish team that turned this group upside-down as they downed Slovakia by a 2-1 score and then upset Norway 2-1 in the shootout. Japan downed Norway 4-3 before losing 1-0 to Slovakia in the shootout, setting up a final game between Japan and Denmark with a ticket to Sochi on the line. Japan needed a win in regulation to advance while Denmark needed a win or tie through regulation time.

Denmark's run through several qualifying tournaments unfortunately ended today as the Japanese women laid a 5-0 hammering on the Danes. Japan outshot the Danes 34-20, and gave up almost no solid scoring chances in the game. With the win, Japan will play in Sochi in the Olympic tournament for the first time since the 1998 Nagano Olympics where they were the host team. Japan's Hanae Kubo led the group in scoring with five points.

The Slovaks finished a disappointing third in the group, losing on the final day to Norway by a 5-3 score. With the team playing essentially a meaningless game in front of their fans, you would hope that they would put up more of a fight, but they will not be participating in the Olympics next year. This is a program that really needs some direction in order for it to stop taking steps backwards.

Group D, being played in Weiden, Germany, featured China, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Kazakhstan. This group was actually decided before the winning team took the ice today. With the Czech Republic downing China by a 3-2 score in the shootout, neither China nor the Czech Republic could catch the Germans in points. It wouldn't matter, however, as Germany hammered Kazakhstan 5-0 to wrap up the group in style.

If there was one team who is turning the corner in the women's hockey scene, Germany would be it. The Under-18 German women's team is one of Europe's best, and the women are coming into their own now. Seven of the top-ten scorers in this tournament were German-born, and goalkeeper Viona Harrer was the best goaltender in the group. While Germany will still be a long shot when it comes to knocking off Canada or the USA, they could win a few games against teams like Russia, Sweden, or Finland if any of those three teams takes Germany lightly.

The Germans will return to the Olympic stage after missing out in Vancouver. The Chinese women seems to stuck in neutral as they dropped from fourth-place in Nagano to seventh-place in Salt Lake City. After missing the tournament in Torino, the Chinese women finished seventh in Vancouver. Missing the Sochi Olympics won't help their program and, like Slovakia, this is a program that needs some direction in order for them to take the next step.

With the final qualification tournaments in the books, we have our contenders for the gold medals in Sochi, Russia in 2014. The groups will be arranged as follows for the Olympic tournament:

Group A: Russia (1), Slovakia (6), USA (7), Slovenia (18)
Group B: Finland (2), Canada (5), Norway (8), Austria (15)
Group C: Czech Republic (3), Sweden (4), Switzerland (9), Latvia (11)

Group A: Canada (1), USA (2), Finland (3), Switzerland (4)
Group B: Sweden (5), Russia (6), Germany (8), Japan (11)
Note: the women’s ice hockey tournament is played in tiered groups.

I will say that Canada's round-robin group seems to be a two-horse race in the men's competition. Finland and Canada should qualify, but it could be a toss-up for the other groups. Any upset in those groups could push out a favorite, and both Slovenia and Latvia have the talent to pull off a one-game miracle. Needless to say, the 2014 Sochi Olympics could be very interesting.

Especially if the NHL doesn't allow the players to represent their countries.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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