OLYMPIC PREDICTION - CAN USA WIN GOLD?

Monday, 02.17.2014 / 1:32 PM
Anthony SanFilippo  - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter

I try to stay out of the hockey prediction business, I really do.

It’s mostly because I invariably make a fool of myself when my predictions are wrong (which is often the case) and when I’m right, it’s usually shrugged off as, “he should be right, he works in the sport.”

Yet, I can’t tell you how often I throw out predictions privately, whether it’s in the office to my co-workers here at the Flyers, or to my family at home, or my friends at the bar on the rare off night.

Yet, as much as I try, I can’t help but always go back to my sooth-saying ways.

I chalk it up to some kind of narcissistic defect where I feel the need to make bold prognostications just to get a rise out of people.

Or maybe I’m just like Joe Carroll in “The Following” in the fact that “I am inevitable.”

So, without further ado, here are my predictions for how the Olympic Men’s hockey tournament will play out now that I watched parts of 16-of-18 preliminary games (yes, I could have found better uses for my time, I know.)

QUALIFYING ROUND

No. 5 Russia vs. No. 12 Norway – Russia finds themselves in the same boat Canada was in during the Vancouver games in 2010. Some may find it disappointing that the host country has to play an extra game, but really, does anyone see Norway upsetting the Russians? If nothing else, it gives the Russians a game to clean up some of their recurring mistakes and allows them to build confidence moving forward. It’s rare that a No. 5 seed seems to have the best path to the Final, but it’s hard to argue that Russia would trade with anyone else in the pool at this point. RUS 5-1

No. 6 Switzerland vs. No. 11 Latvia – This game is the most intriguing of the round. The Swiss have been awesome defensively, allowing just one goal in three games and getting two shutouts by Jonas Hiller, who is channeling his inner Antero Niittymaki from Torino in 2006. However Latvia has played all three of their games hard and close, including the tournament opener against Switzerland that the Swiss didn’t win until the final seconds of regulation 1-0. I’d expect another low-scoring affair in this one and if Latvia pulled the upset, it wouldn’t surprise me. But, I think Hiller is locked in and is dangerous for any team to go up against – not just Latvia. SUI 2-1

No. 7 Czech Republic vs. No. 10 Slovakia – For those watching the women’s hockey tournament, there’s obviously no love lost between the Americans and the Canadians. On the men’s side, that bitter rivalry is between these two countries. Former kinsmen until the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the two sides have been in a hockey arms race for more than two decades.

The Czechs have more talent, but they’re older. The Slovaks looked disinterested in the tournament – until they took Russia to a shootout. Again, this should be a close contest with a lot of nasty. The big question is, who starts in goal for the Slovaks? Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues should be their go-to guy, but how do you go away from third-stringer Jan Laco after his 36-save performance shutting out Russia until the shootout? I think that’s where things get murky for the Slovaks and allows the Czechs to advance. But again, an upset here wouldn’t surprise. CZE 4-2

No. 8 Slovenia vs. No. 9 Austria – Raise your hand if you will be up at 3 a.m. to watch this one. Why is mine the only one in the air? Doesn’t anyone want to see Michael Raffl? The Flyers rookie has been pretty impressive for an Austria team that has a real chance to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1976. With three NHLers on the squad, they have more than Slovenia – who has only Anze Kopitar. However, Slovenia played well against Russia and then upset Slovakia before getting waxed by the Americans. Still, it’s been a good showing for the Slovenes in their first Olympics, and many think they will win here as well. I don’t. I like Austria. Don’t know why, just a feeling that Slovenia made their Olympics with the win over the Slovaks and a second win isn’t in the offing for a team not expected to even compete, let alone win any games. AUS 4-3

QUARTERFINALS:

No. 1 Sweden vs. No. 9 Austria – The Swedes keep plugging away without top-end talent. No Henrik Sedin (Vancouver), No Johan Franzen (Detroit) and now no Henrik Zetterberg (also Detroit), they keep finding ways to win. This could hurt them against some of the more talented teams, but against Austria, who is thrilled to make it this far, it doesn’t. SWE 4-1

No. 2 USA vs. No. 7 Czech Republic – This will be a good test for the Americans before things get really serious. The Czechs may be older and slower, but they are savvy and have a good amount of NHL players that they may be able to hang with Team USA, but the Americans proved to be fast and precise and overall very strong in the preliminary round, outscoring their opposition 14-4, the biggest goal differential in the opening phase of the tournament in what was widely considered the toughest grouping. If the U.S. had a chink in the armor in the opening round is it went through long stretches of losing the puck possession battle, even if they were pretty staunch defensively in their end. The Czechs are full of puck possession players, which could frustrate the Americans, but in the end, the faster, younger, more talented team will win. USA 5-3

No. 3 Canada vs. No. 6 Switzerland – Canada was the exact opposite of what everyone thought they’d be in the opening three games. Rather than be led by their forwards and be a bit shaky on the back end, the Canadians thrived with their goalies allowing just two goals and their defensemen – in particular Drew Doughty and Shea Weber – accounting for six of their 11 goals. Aside from a natural hat trick by Jeff Carter against Austria, the forwards – some of the best in the NHL – have accounted for just two goals in three games, and that has to be a cause for concern. When Canada came up against a defensive-minded team like Finland, it really struggled to find offense. Switzerland is even more of a shut down squad than the Finns. As previously mentioned, Hiller has been sensational, and the Swiss want to be considered among the hockey elite and will be up for this game. That said, I don’t have the nerve to pick the upset. Partially because I don’t think it will happen and partially because my Friday will be awesome if it’s USA vs. Canada in the semis. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it CAN happen, because it can. And it might. I just won’t pick it. CAN 2-0.

No. 4 Finland vs. No 5. Russia – A complete contrast in styles as the defensive-minded Finns meet the free-wheeling, offense-first Russians. Russia has looked like a team feeling the pressure of playing in its home country, and going against Finland, who frustrated the offensively-gifted Canadians, won’t help ease the building angst. That said, Finland is a shell of itself, having lost players to injury and having others play through nagging ailments to try and keep the team competitive. Meanwhile, Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask (Boston) has been either sensational, or shaky. He’s made some brilliant stops, but also let in a few goals that he should have stopped. In the end, inconsistent goaltending can be a killer, and against a talented team like the Russians, I think it does in the Finns here. RUS 3-2

SEMIFINALS

No. 1 Sweden vs. No. 5 Russia – Here again, the Russians get a team that is battered and bruised and missing top-end talent. Here again, they will take advantage of it. The Swedes have an excellent blue line and maybe the best goalie in the tournament in Henrik Lundqvist, so I don’t expect the Russians to score often, but the concern has to be with Sweden’s offense. Minus the big names mentioned above, the Swedes offense has been minimal, except for on the power play, where they thrived – especially scoring four times with the man advantage against Latvia. Meanwhile, the Russians, known more as an offense-first team has done a good enough job puck possession-wise to limit their opponent to just five goals against. The Russians will also have the home crowd on their side, and with each passing minute will be gaining in confidence coming off back-to-back wins over the other Nordic Nations. RUS 3-1.

No. 2 USA vs. No. 3 Canada – This is probably the game everyone was hoping for in the Gold Medal game again, but this time, it’ll only mean a berth in the Gold medal game. Nevertheless, it should be a doozy. The two best teams in the tournament will clash with Sunday morning on the line. Everyone knows the history. Everyone knows the rivalry. Everyone expects a great game, and I don’t think it’ll disappoint. The thing is, Canada is going to have to ramp it up if they’re going to skate with the Americans. Canada put together a very good team, but they didn’t address the grind of a hockey game in the way the Americans did. Therefore, in a close contest, I’ll take Team USA’s speed and physicality over Canada’s skill and experience. And, in what will be a one goal game, I’ll take Jonathan Quick over whoever ends up in goal for Canada, either Carey Price or Roberto Luongo. USA 3-2

FINALS

No. 2 USA vs. No. 5 Russia – You think their first meeting was memorable, wait until you see what it’s like with the Gold Medal on the line for two nations who have been starving for the gold for a long, long time.

That said, I think this game will be anticlimactic and not nearly as good as its predecessor.

The point is, Team USA has already proven what so many people thought would be a detriment – that they can play their game on a bigger ice surface. The Americans are better in goal. The Americans are better defensively. The Americans are more physical and even though the Russians are more skilled, Team USA has a more diverse lineup and a better team in a sport that is completely team-oriented. Get ready for the Star Spangled Banner because Team USA finally overcomes its gold medal drought on foreign soil. USA 4-1 (Bronze medal game CAN 5-3 over SWE)

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers

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