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The good news is that the Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament has been largely unpredictable as the games have played out in Beijing this month.
That’s a byproduct of NHL players staying behind in North America while up-and-coming prospects, older pro players on the cusp of retirement and some European expatriates compromise most of the men’s hockey rosters at the 2022 Winter Games.
The bad news is that the few familiar faces and commonly favored teams have been ushered out of the tournament as we head to the medal rounds at the end of this week. The Wednesday slate of quarterfinal games was more-than-notable in that regard as both the United States and Canada got bounced from the tournament within hours of each other after being among the favorites entering the Winter Games.
It was crash-and-burn kind of losses for Team USA and Team Canada, which is something both of those hockey federations are not used to in Olympic play.
David Krejci, Eric Staal and last year’s No. 1 overall pick Owen Power were arguably the biggest names involved in the entire tournament and now all three are packing up and headed home as Slovakia, Sweden, Russia and Finland all advanced to the semifinal medal rounds. The “Russian Olympic Committee”, as they are being called, have to be considered the favorites at this point with former NHL players like Slava Voynov, Nikita Gusev and Mikhail Grigorenko headlining a seasoned group of KHL players vying for their second-straight gold medal.
But Team USA’s defeat in the quarterfinals is a stunner for a team that earned the No. 1 seed through the preliminary rounds and appeared a pretty formidable hockey club led by young stars like Matt Beniers, Jake Sanderson, Brock Faber and Matthew Nies. They fell in stunning fashion too blowing a 2-1 lead in the final minute of play and then watching as former Boston Bruins forward Peter Cehlarik sniped them in the shootout after a scoreless overtime session.
It was quite a “rug pulled out from under you” kind of moment for an American team drawing Miracle on Ice comparisons with 15 college players on their roster and a ton of wide-eyed optimism about their chances.
“We really feel like we had a lot more in us than just the quarters. I’m sure everyone watching feels that as well,” said Team USA goaltender Strauss Mann, who made 34 saves in the extra session heartbreaker. “It was probably the biggest honor of my life to represent our country on the Olympic stage and just be a part of something bigger than hockey.”
Team Canada was even more jam-packed with NHL names and talent led by the Cup winner Eric Staal, a future NHL franchise defenseman in Owen Power and a number of aging NHL-caliber players like Jason Demers, Landon Ferraro, Daniel Winnik, Mark Barberio, Jordan Weal and Northeastern University goaltender Devon Levi. Instead they showed very little for long stretches of elite international hockey tourney before failing to score in a 2-0 loss to Team Sweden. The top line of Staal, Josh Ho-Sang and youngster Mason MacTavish fizzled throughout the tournament and injuries chewed up their depth headed into the most important games.
It’s the first time in 16 years that Team Canada will head home from the Olympic men’s hockey tournament without a medal of any kind.
Instead, it was Lucas Wallmark’s tournament-leading fifth goal that snapped a scoreless tie in the third period and allowed Team Sweden to get past Canada for their spot in the medal round.
“We came [to Beijing] with a great group of players that combined youth and veterans, and everyone seemed to come together so quickly,” said Claude Julien, who overcame injured ribs to coach Team Canada during the tournament. “As a coach, I just wish our team would have been rewarded with something better than what we are left with.”
Clearly there are no right or wrong answers for the Olympic roster-building as Team USA went extremely young with their group and Team Canada erred on the side of a veteran group of experienced players guided by Julien.
Instead, Team USA and Team Canada will go back to the drawing board and have to hope that the NHL is allowed to participate four years from now, a development that would turn both federations back into heavy favorites as far as the Olympics are concerned.