Monday, 5 September 2016

And Three More Makes Twelve

It's September 2016. 2018 is still a long way from today's date, but the men's Olympic qualifying tournament has determined the twelve teams who will play in Pyeongchang. The teams who were left standing when it came to the three qualifying positions have been there before, but there are some regulars who were left on the outside. All of the usual suspects from the the top-nine countries will be there, but these three final qualifiers eliminated a few good teams who normally play at the Olympics.

Norway claimed one of the three spots with a 2-1 victory over France on goals by Mats Zuccarello, Norway's only NHL player, and Mattias Nørstebø. Norway finished in 12th-place in Sochi, but their inclusion to the Olympics in South Korea only proves that the Norwegians are improving. Italy and Kazakhstan made up the remaining teams from Norway's pool, but it was Norway who emerged.

Norway will complete an Olympic northern Europe group as they'll fall into a pool with Sweden, Finland, and Germany in what could prove to be a two-team race for first-place if Sweden and Finland play as they normally do in international competitions.

Slovenia grabbed an Olympic qualifying spot with a shootout victory over Belarus. Anze Kopitar scored once in regulation and again in the shootout for Slovenia. He played the entire five-minute overtime period without coming off the ice - a sign of how much the Slovenian team leaned on the NHL star. Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg Rok Ticar scored the shootout winner as Andrei Kostitsyn hit the post in Belarus' final shootout attempt to give Slovenia the win in their pool with the 3-2 shootout victory.

Slovenia lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Sochi Olympics after getting past Slovakia in the group stage. In South Korea, they'll be in tough as they draw the United States, Russia, and Slovakia once more in their pool, so the Slovenians will have to be at the top of their game once more to get back into the quarterfinals.

The last of the qualifying spots went to the aforementioned German squad who arguably had the toughest path to the Olympics. They played in a pool with Japan, Austria, and Latvia, meeting the Latvians in the final to determine which team would go to South Korea. Despite leading 2-0, the Germans allowed the Latvians to tie the game and build momentum. However, Tom Kuhnhackl scored a power-play goal with 5:09 remaining in the third period to give Germany a 3-2 victory and the final qualifying spot.

Germany didn't participate in Sochi, so this will be a nice return for the squad. As stated above, they'll be in a pool with the three Scandinavian teams - Sweden, Finland, and Norway. If the Germans can assemble all their NHL players, they could be a dark horse in that pool.

Missing from the 2018 Olympics who played in Sochi are Austria and Latvia. Latvia has recently seen their luck hit a low as they finished in 13th-place at last year's World Championships and missed the Olympics after this tournament. Austria finished a disappointing fourth-place at the Division-I World Championships this year behind teams such as Slovenia and Italy, so their appearance at the 2014 Winter Olympics may have been a one-and-done kind of appearance for the nation.

The big question for all of these teams, of course, is whether the NHL will participate in the Olympics. The absence of the league's stars will undoubtedly level the playing fields for the teams who qualified above, but the tournament will lose any major appeal for sponsors and fans if the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Tuukka Rask, and Joe Pavelski aren't in Pyeongchang. With Germany, Slovenia, and Norway having the majority of their team assembled from leagues not named "NHL", it won't affect them much.

If these Olympic Games are anything like Sochi, there will most likely be an eleventh-hour deal made with the IOC, and we'll once again see Henrik Lundqvist, Tomas Plekanec, Roman Josi, and Marian Hossa in their respective country's uniform. More importantly, if the NHL thinks that it can replicate the effects that sending its players to the Olympics by playing meaningless tournaments like the World Cup of Hockey Money, they're sadly mistaken.

Slovenia, Norway, and Germany will be in South Korea. Which team will provide the upset at this Olympiad? We'll find out in 2018!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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