VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Tuesday was a make-or-break day for teams that didn't earn a bye to the quarterfinals – it was a day they had to win or pack up and go home. No more losing here; only winners are allowed in the next phase of the Olympics.
What I love about the Olympics is that you get to watch matchups with players and teams you don't normally see. Teams are either unknown because their players don't play in the NHL or you just don't think of them as hockey nations. But in tournaments like this, we get to watch these teams play the powerhouses like Canada, the United States and Russia. And when they do meet, we're treated to a game that has entertainment galore and raises the intensity to the highest level.
On Tuesday we had a few surprise results and a few expected results. Here's what I saw from the qualification round, with my predictions for Wednesday:
In my prediction Monday, I wrote that Belarus would win this game 3-2. I got the score right, but had the teams switched.
You have to watch out for the Swiss. How often have they come to these big tournaments and upset the powerhouse teams? Canadians will never forget the beating they got in Turin in 2006, when the Swiss blanked Canada 2-0. You can't take this team lightly at all.
Belarus learned this the hard way on Tuesday in a shootout defeat. It was an unbelievable game as both teams entertained another large crowd at Canada Hockey Place.
I thought Swiss forward Hnat Domenichelli played very well and scored a great goal in the second period to put the Swiss ahead 2-1. On the Belarus side, I was impressed by Konstantin Zakharov, who tied it up at 2-2 with a great power-play goal.
Belarus gave up tons of chances, gave up the trap and is now the first team to go home. Shootouts are a tough way to lose and an even tougher way to be sent home packing from the Olympics.
My stars for the game were the two netminders. Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks has been brilliant for the Swiss team throughout the tournament, and he came through once again with a 20-save performance. Andrei Mezin had the tougher job, as he was forced into making 40 saves.
Ken's stars of the game:
1. Jonas Hiller: The winning goalie stopped two of the loser's three shootout attempts.
2. Andrei Mezin: With 40 saves for the night, he was a workhorse despite the loss.
3. Romano Lemm: An awesome winning goal in the shootout.
Canada 8, Germany 2
That's the way to do it, Canada. After a heartbreaking defeat to the U.S. on Sunday, you could feel the tension and worry about Canada's hopes at the Olympics. We all know the Canadians are under enormous pressure to win gold, and anything less will be considered a failure by the hockey diehards.
On Tuesday, the Canadians came out meaning business. They played the kind of game they needed to boost their confidence. They looked sharp and focused, and the result was an easy win against the overmatched Germans.
The top line of Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal looked fabulous – they were the stars. With Staal and Iginla by his side, Crosby now has guys on the ice with him who share his quickness and hockey smarts. Crosby is always thinking three steps ahead, and it's part of the reason why it's difficult to find linemates that will complement his off-the-charts hockey brain. Coach Mike Babcock seems to have found the right combination, and it's one that will give the Russians trouble Wednesday.
Joe Thornton was also impressive as he finally scored his first goal, showing that he may be finding his game after a subpar effort against Team USA. Thornton and his San Jose linemates, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, will be a strong second line of offense for the quarterfinal meeting with Russia.
The game wasn't perfect, however. That's what everyone is talking about (other than the win). Babcock made a questionable choice by allowing Crosby to take the penalty shot after Rick Nash was hauled down during a partial break on goal and Canada holding a cozy 4-0 edge. It was obviously a statement from Babcock that this is Sidney's team and he will lead Canada to glory. But it was an act of overcoaching that wasn't needed. I would have let Nash take the shot. If he had scored (unlike Crosby), it would have been his first goal of the Olympics and would have done wonders for his confidence.
That aside, Canada is ready to take on whatever comes its way. The host team showed a great workmanlike attitude and proved it can play like the great team that Babcock and Steve Yzerman envisioned. The veterans such as Scott Niedermayer showed that they can still skate and score, the top lines showed that they have chemistry and Roberto Luongo proved he can stop the puck.
Ken's stars of the game:
1. Sidney Crosby: He was solid. He proves time and time again why he is one of the best in the NHL and the world.
2. Jarome Iginla: He had two goals in classic sniper fashion. He went hard to the net using his size and strength, outmuscling defenders to the net.
3. Eric Staal: Although he didn't get a goal, he set up his linemates perfectly. He moved the puck well and set the tone for the team with some punishing hits in the first period.
There's nothing like a good David-vs.-Goliath story. Sometimes the best games involve the biggest upsets. When that happens at the Olympics, there's almost nothing more exciting to watch as a sports fan. Latvia almost upset the hockey giant known as the Czech Republic on Tuesday night.
The game started according to the script, with the Czech team scoring two goals in the first period. It dominated the hapless Latvians, and it appeared the defending Olympic bronze medalists were going to move into the quarterfinals quite easily.
But the Latvians followed a different script in the second period and turned up the heat. A totally different Latvian team came out for the second and third periods. Out of nowhere, the Latvians began making great plays and showing loads of passion. Goalie Edgars Masalskis was making amazing saves and doing an outstanding job for his team.
In the third period, the Latvians became the Czechs – and the Czechs became the Latvians. Even before Jaromir Jagr left the game because of an upper-body injury (surely sustained during that massive hit by Alexander Ovechkin on Sunday night), the Czechs appeared to be overconfident. Suddenly they were on their heels. When that happens and your opponent keeps coming at you, it's difficult to turn things around.
After the Latvians tied the game 2-2 in the third, thoughts of a massive – historic, even – upset began to creep into the minds of more than a few observers. Could this team from a small country defeat the mighty Czechs? As it turned out, no they couldn't. The Boston Bruins' David Krejci scored in OT to end the Latvians' dream.
It's the heart and the passion that Latvia showed that made this game so exciting. This is another part of the Olympics I love – the possibility of the underdog upsetting the powerhouse.
Ken's stars of the game:
1. Edgars Masalskis: The goalie did an outstanding job. He's my biggest star of the game by a mile.
2. David Krejci: He ended the game by scoring the winner and ending Latvia's Olympic dreams.
3. Mikelis Redlihs: He scored to tie the game for Latvia. He had many opportunities and played with everything he had against the highly favored Czechs.
Hockey fans were in for a treat as the final two games before the quarterfinals were both closely contested. To my credit, my darkhorse pick from the beginning of the tournament (Slovakia) is still in the Olympics.
This tournament is a curious and fascinating treat because a team that no one guessed would do so well ends up fighting so hard near the end. How is it that a Slovakian team can beat the superior powers of Russia, but almost end its Olympic Games with a near upset against Norway? That's what happened Tuesday night.
Slovakia allowed three goals and 19 shots on net against a team that had trouble in the preliminary rounds. But that's what can happen when a team is on the ropes and it needs to pull out the big guns to win. Norway was close to pulling it off.
I give the Norwegians a lot of credit for playing with all of their might and heart. They came to the Olympics with perhaps the lowest expectations and they leave by losing a game in which they fought hard.
The lowlight of the game had to be the horrible hit Detroit Red Wings and Norwegian defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen put on Slovakian Lubos Bartecko. It was something you just don't like to see in these big games, and Tollefsen cost his team two goals because of the penalty.
Ken's stars of the game:
1. Marian Gabroik: He proved to be dangerous all night long, scoring one goal and one assist.
2. Pal Grotnes: Norway's goalie let in four goals over 40 shots. Pal played an unbelievable game despite being on the losing side.
3. Tore Vikingstad: How can you not give a star to someone named Vikingstad – the best name in sports. Norway's forward deserves it for getting a great goal and for his hat trick against Switzerland earlier in the tournament.
U.S. vs. Switzerland
Playing against the top-seeded Americans will not be an easy task for Swiss. The U.S. is still hungry after its victory over Canada. But as I've said all along, don't count out the Swiss.
We've seen them upset the big teams before, and they could do it again. They'll need to rely on Hiller to make the big saves. The U.S. knows how to steal games with its fantastic goalie, Ryan Miller. Will the Americans get a taste of their own medicine?
It'll be a feisty and scrappy game, but the U.S. is a much deeper, stronger and overall better team.
Prediction: U.S. 3, Switzerland 1
Canada vs. Russia
Don't get me wrong, it's not going to be easy for Canada. The Russians are a very talented team and they defeated Canada in Turin 2-0.
Canada's forwards need play like they did against Germany. They have to get down low, use their body strength, reverse the puck and wear out the Russian defense. Not an easy task, but I think Canada has the perfect team to do it.
Prediction: Canada 4, Russia 2
Czech Republic vs. Finland
I think the Czechs will see Tuesday's game as a wakeup call. They won bronze in Turin, and I don't see why they wouldn't continue to play with passion and strength for the rest of the tournament. Finland will provide a good fight, but I think after the near upset against Latvia, the Czechs will be sure to move on to the semifinals.
Prediction: Czech Republic 3, Finland 2
Sweden vs. Slovakia
It's hard to be objective when my heart is telling me to stick with my darkhorse. But my head is telling me to pick the defending Olympic champions to defeat the tough and hard-working Slovakians.
Prediction: Sweden 4, Slovakia 2