There seems to be a growing impression out there that the US hockey squad now has a relatively easy path to reach Sunday's gold medal game. While I wish it were so, the truth is that the next two games will not be easy and US victories are far from givens. Yesterday's qualifications playoffs showed once again that the talent gaps between the teams isn't all that large and there is scant margin for error. Even though all the top seeds won, the only game that wasn't close was Canada's 8-2 blowout of Germany. The Swiss needed a shootout to beat Belarus 3-2. The Czechs needed overtime to get by Latvia 3-2. And the Slovaks needed a third period goal to nip Norway 4-3.
There's no reason to think that today's games won't be as tight. And the Swiss team that the US faces today is just the kind of squad you don't want to face in an elimination game. They play solid team defense, don't make a lot of mistakes, and in Hiller have a goalie capable of stealing one from the team that on paper has superior talent. The US beat them in preliminaries 3-1, but it was a struggle. The Swiss stymied the Canadians for most of their preliminary matchup, which Canada finally won in a shootout. Team USA is going to have bring their game today and if there's any kind of a letdown after beating Canada or lack of effort, this could be the end of their road.
If they do beat the Swiss, the semifinal game against the Czechs or Finns on Friday will be another tough test. Both of these teams have veteran players with enough scoring and goaltending to beat any team in the world in a given game. Their matchup today should be a good one and I expect a low-scoring affair decided by a late goal or maybe even overtime.
I'm not trying to paint the US as underdogs here. Based on what they've done so far in the tourney, they should be able to win their quarterfinal and semifinal contests and get a shot at gold. But it ain't gonna be easy and no one should expect it will.
While I'm sure that US hockey fans are bummed that today's game against Switzerland is being played at 2pm (central) and will be difficult for many of us to watch, at least we'll be able to catch the Russia-Canada showdown in primetime (6:30pm central). That is a game that any real hockey fan will not want to miss.