Your Washington Capitals will not play another game until February 27th. This is good for the players who desperately need some rest, but it stinks for those of us who love watching them play. Fortunately, the Ancient Greeks foresaw our love of ice hockey (well, more or less), and gave us the Olympic Games!
Olympic hockey is a lot like NHL hockey with a few subtle differences. Below, I’ll discuss the rules, the structure of the tournament, and the Capitals who will be rocking the red (or white, blue, or yellow) in Sochi this month.
I assume you’re coming into this with some knowledge of NHL hockey rules, so we’ll focus on the differences, primarily rink size, overtime, and fighting. NHL rinks are 200’ x 85’, whereas Olympic rinks, like International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rinks, are 60m x 30m (about 197’ x 98.5’). The wider ice generally leads to less contact among players and, some say, reward for a more “finesse” style of play. The difference is less than 15 feet, but, in a proverbial game of inches, it can be significant.
In the Olympics, a tied game in the preliminary round is decided like an NHL regular-season game (i.e., one 5-minute 4-on-4 period of sudden-death overtime followed by a shootout). In the playoff rounds, the sudden-death period lasts for 10 minutes, and 20 minutes in the gold medal game. Keep in mind, 4-on-4 opens up the ice, and there’s more ice to begin with; I don’t expect many to get as far as the shootout.
Fighting is not allowed in the Olympics. Lots of people are very pro-fighting in the NHL (or at least anti-anti-fighting), but I don’t think there’s much debate that it’s not necessary in this version of the sport. An Olympic team only exists for a matter of weeks, so the “standing up for my teammates” and “letting people know we won’t stand for this or that semi-infraction” rationales doesn’t hold up as well. Also, the hard feelings resulting from a nasty fight between two NHL teams pales in comparison to what you might see between, say, Sweden and Finland. Anyway, fighting in an Olympic game will result in the ejection of all perpetrators.
In addition to all of that, icing is a little bit different in that its sine qua non is the puck crossing the goal line, not being touched, there is no trapezoid behind the net, so the goalies can play the puck anywhere, anyone can take a penalty shot if one is assessed, Henrik Lundqvist can use his ridiculously-inflated pads from last season, the teams dress 20 skaters instead of 18, pulling the goalie for an extra skater is still allowed, and some minor penalty infractions, particularly stick penalties, may be administered slightly differently.
Structure of the Tournament
The Olympic ice hockey tournament is broken down into a preliminary round and a playoff round. Like the NHL, every team makes the playoffs (in the Olympics, literally every team), and performance in the preliminary round determines playoff seeding.
First, the 12 participating countries (determined based on IIHF rankings) will be divided into three groups of four. Group A features the USA, Russia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. (There’s no time like the present to brush up on European geography and history!) Group B is easily my least favorite, with Canada, Finland, Norway, Austria, and not one single Washington Capital. Group C includes Sweden (expected by many to win gold), the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Latvia.
Each team will play each other team in its group between Wednesday and Sunday. The teams’ performances in those three games will determine the seeding for the next rounds.
The playoff rounds will be played between Tuesday, February 18th and Sunday, February 23rd. The best four teams from the preliminary round will earn, for lack of a better word, a bye for the first playoff round. Those teams are not necessarily the three group winners plus a wild card, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which each group’s best team does not end up in the overall top four. Earning a bye through superior play in the preliminary round is a huge advantage; the first two playoff rounds are played on back-to-back days on the 18th and 19th. The teams that do not play on the 18th will play the tired teams that survive.
After the first playoff round, the Olympic playoffs work much like the NHL playoffs, except that the Olympic playoffs are single elimination. The highest-seeded non-eliminated team plays the lowest until the last undefeated pair face off to determine who gets gold and silver. The two teams to lose in the semi-finals to the gold and silver teams play for bronze. The winner of the bronze medal will be determined on Saturday the 22nd, and the gold medal game will be at (ugh) 7 A.M. on Sunday the 23rd.
The Caps have sent five guys, and it makes me hungry just typing that, to represent four different countries in the tournament that begins tomorrow, Wednesday, February 12.
Sending players to the Olympics is a mixed bag. These players get a rare opportunity to play the game for nothing but pride on the world’s biggest stage. But they miss out on nearly a month of rest that most of the rest of the league will get. The larger ice reduces—but does not eliminate—the chance of injury. It’s conceivable that a player’s solid performance in the Games could propel him to exceptional play down the stretch, or that a crushing defeat could deflate him emotionally in a lasting way. The guys playing in the Olympics, with their NHL allegiances and rivalries suspended but not forgotten, provide an additional level of intrigue in the tournament.
John Carlson, D, USA
First, and most important to most of us in the District, top-pairing Caps defenseman John Carlson will represent Team USA in Sochi. Carly scored the game winning goal in overtime to beat Canada and secure gold for team USA in the 2010 World Junior Championship, and since then, he has been a fairly reliable presence on our blue line. He tends to come up bigger in clutch situations, so don’t be shocked to see him as a difference-maker in the tournament. He’s penciled in on Team USA’s top-4, interestingly paired with the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh.
Martin Erat, Forward, F, Czech Republic
leading the Caps in jersey sales a tough first half of the 13-14 season, Marty Erat was not initially selected to the Czech team. He wasn’t pleased, and he fairly blamed his lack of ice time for the snub. Erat has been a performer on the Czech team before, and this is easily his worst season as a pro, so it’s good to see him get an opportunity to play for his country as an injury replacement. The Czech squad is not a favorite going in, but they’re not to be taken lightly.
Marcus Johansson, C/LW, Sweden
Like Erat, Johansson was initially snubbed, but team Sweden picked him up to replace some guy named Henrik Sedin when he got hurt. And like Carlson, Jojo excelled on an international stage in the 2010 Juniors, where he scored 6 points in 5 games and captained his team to bronze. He’s penciled in as an extra, but this is an assist machine who has learned at the left hand of one of Sweden’s best playmakers; he may get an opportunity to wow the world.
Nicklas Backstrom, C, Sweden
Did I mistype by calling Backstrom “one of” Sweden’s best playmakers? He’s been centering their second line in practice, flanked by Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson, but that is probably a nod to captain Henrik Zetterberg’s body of work as much as anything. Nicky is not the kind of guy to put a team on his back and steal the show, but he is one of several good reasons that everyone expects Sweden to medal. I can see him doing in Sochi what he has been doing in Washington—making the guys around him look even better than they are.
Alexander Ovechkin, LW, Russia
Possibly no one in the world is feeling the pressure of the 2014 Olympic Games as much as Alex Ovechkin. Russia has fared poorly in the Olympics since NHL players have been allowed to play, has never won gold without the rest of the U.S.S.R., and failed to win a medal in the past two Games. The Russian government has dumped a ton of cash into these games (whatever we may hear about the facilities). The Russian people care about hockey, and they feel entitled to gold. Ovi is not the captain of the Russian squad, but he is its leader. If the offense comes up short, it will be because he failed to score, and if the defense is too porous, it will be because he failed to score enough.
This is not a guy who generally shrinks under pressure (in 58 playoff games for the Caps, he has 31 goals and 61 points), and I don’t think the pressure will get to him during the tournament. As a Caps fan, however, I worry about how the outcome might weigh on him. When Russia went down against the Canadians in Vancouver in 2010, the expectations had been high. Before the resurgence of the this year and last, some thought the emotional scars of that Olympic loss, together with two consecutive, heartbreaking game-7 playoff losses, had hollowed out a star that had overflowed with talent. Could the baggage of defeat weigh him down again?
It’s probably silly to speculate, but, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking that if it’s not the USA taking gold, I want it to be Russia. And if it can’t be either, please, anyone but Canada.