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Not the Olympic Results We Hoped for But Still Well Worth Watching

Associated Press Photo

By Scott Lowe -

Well, this certainly wasn’t what most people expected.

Casual hockey observers – and there are many of them every four years when the Olympics come around – might be shocked to learn that there will not be at least a semifinal showdown this time around between Canada and the United States men’s teams. They’d even more dismayed to find out that neither team advanced to the semifinals in Beijing.

Those of us who follow the sport more closely are not quite as surprised, although it was thought that at least one of the two teams would likely get this far – especially after the U.S. went 3-0 in Group A to earn the top seed in the playoff round and a bye into the quarterfinals.

So, while Slovakia, which the Americans lost to in a shootout, advanced to the semifinals, is the lone major surprise of this year’s final four, Russia and Finland entered the Olympics with the most talented and experienced teams on paper and Sweden was not far behind. 

“It’s a tough pill to swallow, it really is, just losing in any fashion,” U.S. coach David Quinn told the media after his team was eliminated. “No disrespect to Slovakia or anybody, we just felt so good about the direction of our team and the way we were playing."

Those remaining four teams take center stage starting Thursday at 11:10 p.m. Eastern when Finland and Slovakia face off in the first semifinal. Russia takes on Sweden Friday at 8:45 a.m. The winners will play for the gold medal Saturday at 11:10 p.m. Each of those games game can be seen live on USA Network in the U.S. and CBC Streaming in Canada.

Generally considered among the favorites at pretty much any international hockey tournament, Canada and the U.S. were among the second group of teams expected to be in medal contention in Beijing along with 2018 silver-medalist Germany and possibly the Czech Republic or Switzerland. Not long ago, the expectation was for two epic showdowns between Canadian and U.S. teams stacked full of the National Hockey League’s top stars – one in the preliminary round and one with a medal at stake.

But alas ‘twas not to be as the NHL announced just before Christmas that it would not be allowing its players to compete in Beijing as COVID numbers once again soared around the globe. That decision sent USA Hockey and Hockey Canada into scramble mode as the governing bodies hurried to come up with a philosophy and formula for piecing together competitive teams in China.

USA Hockey decided to use the opportunity to send some of its best and brightest young prospects to develop and compete under the bright Olympic lights while also rewarding a few older players with professional experience in the U.S. and abroad who would provide veteran leadership. There were 15 current college players on the roster and only one returning Olympian. Recent top-five draft picks Matty Beniers and Jake Sanderson were joined by Matthew Knies, Brook Faber and Drew Commesso as the first American teens to play in the Olympics since 1992.

Canada also sent some of its top prospects but mixed them in with a group of seven solid veteran players with nearly a combined 3,000 games of NHL experience, including former gold-medalist Eric Staal, in hopes of developing some players and still having a legitimate shot at gold. The Canadian roster also featured younger former NHL first-round draft picks Josh Ho-Sang and Brandon Gormley as well as recent top-three NHL picks Mason McTavish and Owen Power. They rounded out the roster out with a few players who have performed well in Russia’s KHL.

The overall results for the two nations essentially were the same, as Canada also bowed out to Sweden in the quarterfinals after beating China in the playoff qualification round. The U.S., which played a fast brand of attacking hockey, was fun to watch and can hang its hat on a 4-2 preliminary-round win against the arch-rival Canadians.

"Part of wearing this jersey is winning," Canadian goalie Matt Tompkins told assembled media after the 2-0 loss to Sweden. "It's heartbreaking to fall short. {We} came here to win a gold medal, and anything less than that {was} not what we were hoping for."


And Then There Were Four

So, what does that leave us with?

For anyone who saw this video of young Slovakian hockey players celebrating their country’s upset of the United States, it’s hard not to pull for the underdogs. Similar scenes played out on a February Sunday afternoon in 1980 all over the United States after the U.S. beat Finland to capture its memorable Miracle on Ice gold medal. That victory gave hockey a shot in the arm in the United States that helped grow interest in the sport to levels never previously achieved.

And as much as it hurt our North American pride to see our nation’s teams fall short of the medal round in Beijing, performances like Slovakia’s and Germany’s surprise silver medal four years ago are great for the game’s growth internationally. While most of us probably can unite in our desire to see someone send Russia home without a gold medal, the reality is that the Beijing semifinals probably have the tournament’s top-three teams – and its best story – competing to decide who takes home the gold, silver and bronze.

If you’re a hockey fan, that alone makes it worth watching. And if you’re just a sports fan or someone who loves a great story, you can tune in and root for the upstart Slovakian underdogs. While U.S. and Canada supporters might have looked askance at this tournament with both nation’s sending what amounts to their “B” or even “C” teams to compete, that’s not the case around the world. Just watch the celebration when a champion is crowned Sunday if you need any evidence of that.

This is still the Olympics, and it means EVERYTHING to the other international hockey organizations. That alone guarantees us four high speed, high-intensity, rough-and-tumble semifinal games. And please don’t forget that Sweden and Finland hate each other, so a gold-medal tilt between those two countries would be one for the ages and must-see TV for sure.

Here is a look at each of the remaining teams:



While the former Czechoslovakia emerged as a world hockey power before dissolving in 1993, Slovakia never has won an Olympic medal in the sport. The Slovaks generally are mixed in with that group below the elite nations when it comes to their perceived place among the international hockey world order. Slovakia has produced a ton of good NHL-caliber players, but never quite has the depth need to make a deep run or seriously contend in the bigger international events.

This year, coached by 14-year NHL veteran and former NHL coach Craig Ramsay, the Slovaks have gotten a boost from 17-year-old phenom Juraj Slafkovsky. Slafkovsky plays in the top Finnish professional league, so he is no stranger to many of the Finnish players or their gritty, determined style of play.

Slafkovsky has just four points in 21 professional games playing against grown men this season, but if the agile 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound forward wasn’t high on NHL draft lists coming into the Olympics, his stock is soaring now. He is tied for the tournament lead with five goals, is tied for fifth in overall scoring and is a plus-5 in five games.

“Before the tournament if someone would tell {me} I would score even one or two goals I would laugh, but it is actually happening,” Slafkovsky told Reuters. “I am pretty surprised. I was coming here for some other role … I can play physical and win some battles along the boards. That’s how I present myself.”

Ramsay hopes the magic continues after those familiar feelings from his Stanley Cup-winning season as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning returned following victory over the Americans.

“It was so exciting. I know how they feel, and I feel it,” he said.


Tournament Record: Overall 2W 2L 1SOW 


Road to the Semis: 3rd Place, Group C

Beat Germany, 4-0 qualifying round

Beat USA, 3-2 in shootout quarterfinals


Best Player You May Not Know:

Juraj Slafkovsky (you know him now)


Others You May Know:

Tomas Jurco, Michal Cajovsky, Martin Marincin, Marko Dano



With its success in the World Junior Championship and other big international tournaments over the past decade, Finland has firmly established itself as a world hockey power. The Finns’ last Olympic medal, however, was bronze in 2014, so they will want this one. Badly.

The possibility of playing arch-rival Sweden or defending gold-medalist Russia in the championship game will only add to the Finns’ fire. Ice hockey is Finland’s “national sport,” so the players’ and fans’ passion for the game and this moment should not be underestimated. After all, the national team is called the Lions. 

The Finns have won silver or bronze six times but never gold. This may be their best chance to date.

Sporting a roster that has a wealth of NHL experience as well as players who have played in big-time international tournaments, the Finns came into the Olympics considered to be one of the top two teams along with Russia. They have an unblemished record to date in Beijing, but it hasn’t always been easy.

Finland was taken to overtime by Sweden in a 4-3 victory and beat Latvia, 3-1. The Finns did handle Slovakia in what appeared to be an easy 6-2 win on the surface, yet the Slovaks held a 33-30 shots advantage. Finland scored three goals on the first six shots and led 3-1 early despite being outshot, 9-6, in the opening period.

In addition to the NHL experience on this roster, Sakari Manninen and Teemu Hartikainen rank among the tournament’s scoring leaders, and netminder Harri Sateri continues the tradition of world-class Finnish goaltending with his 1.33 goals-against average and .957 save percentage.


Tournament Record: Overall 3W 1OTW 0L


Road to the Semis:

1st Place Group C

Beat Switzerland, 5-1 quarterfinals


Best Players You May Not Know:

Harri Sateri (G), Sakari Manninen and Teemu Hartikainen

Both Manninen and Hartikainen are tied for second in Olympic scoring. Manninen has 3-3-6, while Hartkainen has 2-4-6 to rank second in assists. Hartikainen has 111 points in 164 career AHL games and 355 points in 472 career KHL appearances. He also has played 52 NHL games. Manninen currently plays in the KHL and has 163 points in 211 career outings. He has 96 points in 184 career games in the top Finnish pro league.


Others You May Know:

Mikko Lehtonen, Sami Vatanen, Valtteri Filppula, Markus Granlun and Leo Komarov



Long considered to be a part of the international hockey elite, Sweden is expected to be a serious medal contender in any event it enters. The Swedes have won Olympic gold twice (who can forget the famous Forsberg shootout winner?), silver three times and bronze four times. Much like Finland, though, Sweden was not on the medal stand in 2018, finishing a surprising fifth, and its last medal was silver at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

Sweden has not captured gold since 2006 in Turin, and after pushing Finland to overtime in a 4-3 preliminary loss earlier in Beijing, the Swedes must think this year presents, excuse the pun, a golden opportunity.

The Swedes finished second in Group C with two wins and an overtime loss. They beat Latvia, 3-2, and Slovakia, 4-1, before shutting out Canada, 2-0 in the quarterfinals. Goaltender Lars Johansson has posted a 1.00 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage, helped by a 22-save whitewashing of the Canadians. Sweden’s other netminder, Magus Hellberg, played a handful of NHL games to go along with 187 AHL contests.

Sweden’s roster has a nice mix of seasoned NHL and North American professional veterans to go along with the solid goaltending. Lucas Wallmark, who has 59 points in 187 career NHL appearances, has been on top of his game in Beijing. He is tied for the tournament lead in goals with five and for fifth with five points. Anton Lander has contributed three goals and an assist, while the defensive corps is anchored by NHL vets Carl Klingberg and Oscar Fantenberg.


Tournament Record: Overall 3W 1OTL


Road to the Semis:

2nd Place Group C

Beat Canada, 2-0 quarterfinals


Best Players You May Not Know:

Lars Johansson (G), Anton Lander

Johansson has a 1.00 GAA and shut out Canada, while Lander has four points on three goals and an assist. He is tied for third in goals.


Others You May Know:

Carl Klingberg, Oscar Fantenberg, Fredrik Olofsson, Lucas Wallmark, Max Friberg, Marcus Kruger, Joakim Nordstrom, Magnus Hellberg (G)



Better known as the Russian Olympic Committee for Olympic identification purposes, Russia came to Beijing favored by many to repeat its gold-medal performance from four years ago when a budding young superstar named Kariil Kaprizov netted the overtime game-winner to thwart Germany’s magical Cinderella run to the gold-medal game. 

The Russians have a seasoned team consisting mainly of veterans with NHL and KHL experience, including familiar names such as Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Nesterov, Vyacheslav Voinov and Nikita Gusev.They are coached by former NHL stars Alexei Zhamnov, Sergei Fedorov and Sergei Gonchar.

Russia was expected to roll to the top seed in Group B but had to struggle to earn top billing and the quarterfinal bye that goes with it. The Russians nipped Switzerland, 1-0, to open the tournament before barely outscoring their next two opponents by a combined 7-6 margin to finish on top of the group. Massive goalie Ivan Fedotov stopped a combined 49 shots in the win over the Swiss and a 2-0 blanking of Denmark before getting scorched for six goals on 41 shots in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Czech Republic.

The Russians bounced back from that setback to beat Denmark, 3-1, in the quarterfinals. 

Despite the rough outing vs. the Czechs, Fedotov has compiled a 1.72 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. Meanwhile, Gusev leads the tournament with five assists, with Nesterov and Kirill Semyonov each contributing a pair of goals to pace the team.

Russia hasn’t appeared to be overly motivated or playing in its best form to this point. There’s no doubt the firepower is there for a repeat, but the question remains as to whether they can ramp the effort up in the medal round.


Tournament RecordL Overall 3W 1OTL


Road to the Semis:

1st place Group B

Beat Denmark, 3-1 quarterfinals


Best Players You May Not Know:

Ivan Fedotov (G), Kirill Semyonov


Others You May Know:

Mikhail Grigorenko, Vyacheslav Voinov, Anton Slepyshev, Nikita Nesterov, Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev

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