Olympic hockey remains great even if Sochi tournament wasn't
The Olympic tournament is over after Canada dominated on its way to gold. While it was great to see Olympic hockey again, it was just an OK tournament.
Few things hold reverence in the sport of hockey quite like the Olympic competition. The Stanley Cup and the Final are obviously in that conversation, and the NHL has tried to get the Winter Classic up to a similar level, but in the end you're still talking about a regular-season NHL game in January.
Only enhancing the lure to Olympic hockey is that it comes once every four years. The wait can be painful but like things people love, distance (in this case time) only makes the heart grow fonder. Simply, people love Olympic hockey. Fans can't get enough of it and the players love it. The only scrooges are the executives in the NHL, for valid reasons.
It's not just the spectacle and grandeur of it all, though. There's also the fact that the Olympics, since the NHL has been taking part, have produced some pretty awesome hockey. The tournament in Vancouver four years ago? Amazing, even beyond the gold-medal game in overtime. The best-on-best international format loads the ice with skilled players, yielding excellent games.
Just not this time.
It was going to be very difficult for the tournament in Sochi to match up against the drama of Vancouver, but it didn't really even come close. In the 30 games played in Sochi, only five featured the lead changing hands at any point in the game. Only two of those came in the knockout round.
As the folks of South Park once did, you can blame Canada. Their team was so strong and so good that it rendered opponents punchless. Every game was like a boxing match where the underdog takes blows the face all day long and tries to survive on counterpunches. It rarely works.
Or you can blame the big ice. The misnomer is that since there is more ice to play on, there is more room to create and space to make passes. The flip side, though, is that play along the boards is that much further from the net and keeping teams to the outside results in sharper-angle shots from longer distances.
While it's not always the case in actuality, we know that many believe you need to see goals to see a good game. They were largely missing in action in Sochi as well. The 12 games played in the elimination round saw the losing teams combine for nine goals. On average, the losers were held to 0.75 goals per game.
The winning teams were able to light the lamp, though. The 12 victors scored 42 goals, an average of 3.5 goals per game. To put those side by side, the average score in 12 knockout round games was 3.5-0.75. There's not a lot of sweating going on there. In the tournament overall there were just six one-goal games.
Of course there were exceptions. The USA-Russia game was utterly thrilling, only enhanced by it ending in a shootout. Canada and Finland battled to overtime in the prelim round. The knockout round had a few close scores as well, most notably Canada's 1-0 win over the USA and its 2-1 win over Latvia. Still those games, especially the Latvian game, weren't that close; Canada outshot the upstart team 57-16. Goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis was worth the price of admission, however.
Overall, the tournament was just kind of "meh." Was it a lot of fun as fans donned their national colors? Yes, absolutely. It just wasn't amazing. There were some amazing facets of the tournament, just not the tournament itself.
As mentioned, Canada's dominance was a thing to behold. By giving up just three goals in six games, people are wondering if that was the best defense we've ever seen created in Olympic hockey. The fact that little Slovenia won not one but two games was remarkable, as was Latvia taking out Switzerland and hanging with Canada. Norway was more competitive this time around too.
The majesty of the Olympics is nearly unparalleled in the sport, something that has just been enhanced with the introduction of NHL players in the last 16 years. The best vs. the best in the cloak of international competition is the best on so many fronts and it will remain that way -- with that caveat of the NHL players returning to South Korea, of course. Olympic hockey will still be extremely popular and near the height of competition and entertainment.
It was just wasn't in Sochi.
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