2014 Winter Olympic Hockey: Musings on Men's Tournament as Brackets Form

Bruce Bennett

Will Russia's potent skill wake up? Can Switzerland or Finland defend their way deep into the tournament?

I often say I don't care very much about the Winter Olympic hockey tournament in the months leading up to it. Will the NHL players go? Will they not? "Just a risk," I say. "I don't want Dallas Stars getting injured. I don't like the break."

But here we are. And the tournament is awesome. It really is.

The NHL drags its feet to participate, but it's a unique spectacle when held against what the NFL, MLB and NBA have to offer- Which is nearly nothing in comparison. The level of competition in men's basketball in the summer olympics has increased over the years, but still lacks parity and a pack of "heavy hitter" nations all on comparable levels.

Soccer has it in the World Cup and Olympics. An embarrassment of riches, and fabulous tournaments. Baseball has that international thing ever so many years that no one really knows or cares about. American football is king here but lacks global participation.

So celebrate it for one more week. Then it's back to the stomach curdling business of the NHL's playoff race.

Benn, Kari, Nichushkin

To see Valeri Nichushkin look like...himself...is encouraging. This is a big stage. The Russians are under a ridiculous amount of pressure. But Val is Val. Strong like bull. The concern there is that a puck taken off the skate may hamper him going forward, and it bears watching, but this has been good for his exposure and we assume, for his confidence and growth as a boy becoming a man.

In a game Finland had to have they went to Tuukka Rask, so you wonder if Kari Lehtonen's tournament is done already. Jamie Benn has availed himself well, earning a turn with Sidney Crosby, but is part of a forward group struggling to put the puck in the net.

And that's all there is. Those three. Sometimes my mind turns to Jim Nill when watching these games. There's a Blackhawk. There's another. There are a couple of Blues. There are two Kings battling each other. Do the Stars have enough Olympians? Isn't that what he's thinking?

The average among Western Conference playoff teams is 5-7. The Stars have three. The Wild, Avalanche and Sharks only have four, so it's certainly not a requisite thing.

Sleeping Giant

Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Malkin, Semin - They're so stacked, and their power play has been so quiet. When it wakes up can it take them all the way? Their goaltending has been good enough, and in a short tournament like this, as Razor says, special teams and goaltending can get you where you want to go.

People are down on them but they scared the you-know-what out of this American on Saturday morning.

Struggling Czechs

There was a lot of talk about Martin St. Louis and Bobby Ryan, but Czech not inviting Radim Vrbata, particularly in light of the mess that team is in now, might be the biggest joke of them all. I may have "Oh Sh^t" colored glasses about Vrbata as a Stars fan, but he could have helped that team. Now it's not clear who will prevail to face the United States- Them or Slovakia.

If it's Slovakia the United States could be in for the same kind of defensive struggle Canada appears to be with Switzerland, if they can knock off Latvia.

Sweden seeded number one. But are they?

Sweden opened with a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic, which looked solid. Now we know more about that Czech team. They beat Switzerland 1-0, which is the way the Swiss want to play, sure, but if Sweden fancies themselves one of the big boys they'd like to do more there. Then they lead Latvia in the third period on Saturday 4-3 in the third with the underdogs pushing hard.

They finish with the full 9 points with three regulation wins, but that's a mixed bag against a mediocre group. Famous last words, perhaps, but color me unimpressed with the Swedes so far. When they get Russia or Finland in the semi-finals, then we'll see.

The IIHF had them ranked number-one, so I may just be crazy here. Their power play has been great and they have Lundqvist. So...

Russian Protests?

We're going to go ahead and assume that this says "Please make sure that rule is changed so that the continued correct application of it in the future is not as painful for someone else as it was for us."

Because, yes the Americans got away with one there by NHL standards, but the rule is the rule.

At the American embassy, even? I thought North Americans had the market on ignorant sports fans cornered...

Defense wins championships?

Or is it that defense simply gets you into the quarterfinals, as it gets Nashville and Phoenix into the NHL's playoffs sometimes? That's what teams like Finland and Switzerland or even Slovakia are hoping to find out, and that the games are being played on that big sheet matters not.

Teams can still pack it in on a big surface. They can still force the action to the outside. It's odd, or fitting, even, to see the same kind of NHL-style play acted out thousands of miles away under different rules.

In the end, puck possession and higher-end skill usually win out. In a one-and-done environment, anything is possible.

Relevance

T.J. Oshie's antics on Saturday were great. There was a controversial disallowed goal. And another yesterday in the Canada game. At the very least the United States triumphing over Russia in Russia should have been enough to generate a few extra lazy 1980 Miracle comparisons.

So as I got into my car this morning to listen to the Monday morning sports news cycle start up I dialed in all three local sports radio stations and heard Michael Sam talk, NBA All-Star talk, NBA All-Star halftime talk, NBA dunk competition talk, something about Ritchie Incognito, something about racing, something about the Cowboys, the NFL draft, and of course, pitchers and catchers reporting.

The compelling games the hockey world was high-fiving itself for spawning all weekend long are already nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps the medal rounds will inspire more attention, and even then, only if the United States can get there. And even then, it won't air live in prime time, which is another must to draw in casual interest.

Reaching such a level of local interest in Texas may never happen. On the plus side, the Russia/USA game was the most watched ever on NBC Sports Network.

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