And then there were four. “March Madness” may be a few weeks away in the states but the final four for the 2014 Olympic Men’s hockey tournament is set. Sweden continued their dominant run through the tournament with a 5-0 win over Slovenia; Finland knocked off the hosts beating Russia 3-1; USA dominated the Czech Republic with a 5-2 win and Canada escaped a major upset beating Latvia 2-1. Here are some thoughts and tidbits on the action Wednesday as the build-up has begun for two heated rivalries with Finland-Sweden (7 AM ET) and USA-Canada (noon ET) set to take place Friday.
—Henrik Lundqvist was dominant for Sweden again earning his second shutout of the tournament Wednesday. While Slovenia didn’t pose much of a threat with just 19 shots, Lundqvist still stopped them all and has been the backbone of this injury-riddled squad. Now he will try to repeat what he did in 2006 when he led his teammates to a gold medal win over their bitter rivals Finland except this time it will be for the right to play for gold.
–Speaking of solid goaltending and Finland, Tuukka Rask has been absolutely brilliant since admittedly having an off game in the tournament opener when he allowed four goals in the 8-4 win over Austria. Rask made 37 saves Wednesday and staved off plenty of pressure from the desperate Russian offense. The fact that he could do that against the host team fighting for their lives shows once again the Boston Bruins netminder is an elite goalie both at the NHL and international level.
–Per NHL PR, 42-year-old Teemu Selanne broke his own record as the oldest player to score a goal at the Olympics. He also assisted on a goal by Mikael Granlund. Granlund, 21, wasn’t even born when Selanne made his Olympic debut in 1992. Selanne’s goal (his second of the tournament) broke a 1-1 tie and stood up as the game-winner.
–Like Sweden, Finland has been hampered by key injuries as well with their top three centers out. But they have bought in as a team and overcome the adversity. Unlike Sweden though, this team still seems to have that underdog or sleeper feel and therefore remains dangerous.
–Unlike the Finns and Swedes, Russia was anything but a team. There seemed to be too many egos and superstars on their own islands and not on the same page throughout the tournament. Of those superstars, the injured Pavel Datsyuk was the one with some consistency but his comrades like Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin were no where to be found when it counted. The Russians also didn’t get the saves they needed from Sergei Bobrovsky or Semyon Varlamov. Reportedly much of the Russian team didn’t really address the media after. The guess here is they wanted to get out of dodge before Russian President Vladimir Putin showed up in the dressing room to order them to Siberia.
—David Backes was in “Beast Mode” Wednesday. The Blues rugged forward scored his third goal and had a helper. But his net front presence and fore-checking was a key part of the USA’s attack. He is a constant worry for opposing defenders and his teammates were clearly feeding off his physical play.
–Backes’ Blues teammates have been just as good and effective. T.J. Oshie put his stamp on this tournament and USA hockey lure with his shootout success against Russia and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has been a steady presence on the blue line. Shattenkirk had an assist against the Czechs and now has three assists in the tournament.
—Ryan Suter’s vision and passing is as smooth as the other side of the pillow. The 2013 Norris Trophy finalist and Wild blueliner had three helpers on Wednesday and all of them were precise beauties. He had no points heading into the quarterfinals but picked the right time to show his offensive flair.
–Is Phil Kessel the best player on the planet right now? The Leafs winger scored his tournament leading fifth goal and is simply en fuego.
–A tough day for the Czechs and surely for Jaromir Jagr. A Murph’s Musings stick tap to Jagr though on a brilliant international career. The guess here though is that I won’t be saying the same about his NHL career when the current season ends. Jagr still has another season in him.
–While they’re following a similar and frustrating path to 2010 through this Olympic tournament, Canada has to be somewhat worried. They snuck by Latvia – who yes, if not for Kristers Gudlevskis’ 55 saves would’ve been blown out of the game – and their defensemen seem to providing all the offense while their forwards are ice cold. That’s not a good sign as they now must face probably the most balanced scoring team in this tournament in USA. That all-star talent up front needs to erupt in the semifinals or USA may get the revenge they’ve been waiting for.
–Canada also lost a key player – especially on the faceoff dot – with John Tavares suffering a leg injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the tournament. Taveres was leading the tournament in faceoff percentage and was showing why he is one of the best up and coming players in the NHL and for Canada.
–For anyone who doubted why Patrice Bergeron – who was an extra forward in 2010 – made the team again, you’re probably not searching for answers now. The heart and soul of the Boston Bruins has brought his versatile play to Team Canada and been a useful tool in so many ways for head coach Mike Babcock.
–Finally, big props to Latvia and Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan. He did an amazing job with a squad that is even more undermanned than his Sabres team and could be one of the world’s best sports comeback stories this year.