Olympic Ice Hockey – all stars on ice – reaches the business end as the final eight teams square-off today in the quarter-finals.
Canada, arguably the tipsters favourites prior to the Olympics, will have no more second chances. They will face a tenacious and supremely talented Russian outfit that includes Alexander Ovechkin – the NHL’s top scorer since the lockout and Evgeni Malkin, MVP of last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Both teams have faltered. Russia tripping over themselves in a 1-2 shootout loss to a spirited Slovak team while Canada managed a 3-5 loss to the US team, despite pounding innumerable shots at American goaltender Ryan Miller.
Both teams will need to be better in this game. The result could easily come down duelling goaltenders facing a barrage of shots. Make no mistake; both teams will revel in taking the other down. For Canada and Canadians, there is much more at stake than a gold medal. Anything less than gold will be considered national failure. Hockey is an affirmation of Canadianess much like football is synonymous with being English and rugby lies at the heart of every New Zealander. A loss will result in national mourning and an inquisition into what went wrong.
Still, on paper, the Canadians have a team that should clean up all and sundry. Heading that list is Sidney Crosby, the 23-year old phenom whose battles with Alexander Ovechkin for personal and team supremacy have been the best highlights of the post-lockout NHL.
In the other games, USA should sweep aside Switzerland, though that result is by no means guaranteed. The Swiss have consistently shown they can mix it with the big boys, especially when they pushed the Canadians all the way to a shootout. They will need the stellar goaltending NHL player Jonas Hiller has delivered throughout the tournament.
The Czech Republic will need to be more convincing against Finland than they were last night against Latvia. The Czechs are my favourite team and have showed flashes of brilliance, but any patriotic Czech would be a little nervous given their inability to finish in the last two games.
Sweden – my pick for the gold medal (again) will have their sternest test yet when the Slovakin team shows up with a handful of top snipers. The two Marian’s – Hossa and Gaborik have scored in the tournament but one feels the breakout game for them is coming. Sweden have not conceded a goal in through group play and are stacked with NHL stars and former NHL superstar Peter Forsberg. They don’t appear to have a weakness. This will certainly be a tussle worth witnessing.
Is today Canada’s darkest day? The success of this Olympics from a Canadian perspective will come down to a 60 minute battle with the world champion Russians. Hockey just doesn’t get any better than this.