Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Neutral No Longer

Team USA begins their Olympic hockey quest today when they take on hated Switzerland at noon Pacific time. They follow up with a contest against even more hated Norway on Thursday at noon Pacific time before closing out their preliminary round play on Sunday evening against that pariah of the civilized world, Canada. It's for good reason that US hockey fans have taken to referring to the three other teams in their pool as the Axis of Evil.

Okay, so the rivalries ain't exactly USA-USSR circa 1960 or 1980. But it is Olympic hockey and it promises to be a great tournament with national pride on the line. Canada comes in as the favorite with home ice advantage and the International Ice Hockey Federation's number one ranking. The other teams that the US has to face would seem to be easier pickings with Norway ranked #12 and Switzerland #7. But the US team is only ranked sixth and the Swiss proved to be scrappy in 2006 in Torino going 2-1-2 in the preliminary round and beating the Czech Republic and Canada in the process. The bad news is that there won't likely be any gimme games for Team USA in the preliminary round. The good news is that the preliminary round games don't really matter.

Well, they do matter in terms of seeding and possibly playing an extra game in the qualification playoff round, but they don't matter in terms of advancing in the tournament. After the preliminary round is complete, the top four teams in points will advance to the quarterfinal round. The other eight teams will be seeded #5 through #12 and face off in the one game qualification playoff. The four winners will then advance to the quarterfinal round and play the teams the top four teams who essentially had a bye. From there, it's on to the semis and then the Gold and Bronze medal games. So it's possible to go 0-3 in your preliminary games and still taste Gold. Confused? So was I. The tournament rules have changed since the last go round in Torino.

Rather than getting bogged down in the arcane details and various possibilities, the mission for Team USA is just win baby. Especially when we're going up against history's greatest monsters as we are today in our matchup with the sinister Swiss.