Friday, February 19, 2010

Why The Swiss Game Matters

It's incredible in this day and age, with all the hype surrounding this hockey tournament in Canada, that all the sites where one can follow this thing on the web (at least the ones immediately obvious to most) are so poor.

TSN, RDS and Sportsnet, who usually have decent web pages have been funneled into CTV's site, who I would kindly say have muffed the Olympic hockey portion of the site. The official site of the Games is best of the lot, but given the standard of websites in 2010 isn't exactly taking advantage of all the best new practices.

Among the issues that spring from this is the confusion over the format of the Olympic hockey tournament. While sites do present the standings, few present them in the most useful way.

You see this Olympics, the IIHF has tweaked the format of the tournament so that group play is essentially a team sorting mechanism. Each team will play 3 games against the pre-selected opponents in their groups to sort out the rankings of all teams from 1 to 12.

From these rankings, the top four teams get a bye to the quarterfinals and teams 5 to 12 (all of them, none are eliminated) will face off in 4 playoff games to fight for a quarterfinal berth.

Thanks to a difficult to find page at (not an Olympic site) we know that the deciding factors are:

1) Group position
2) Points gained
3) Goal difference
4) Goals for
5) IIHF ranking (2009)

This means that all three group winners proceed to the QFs, no matter what. The 4th team in the QFs will be the top second place finisher. Thanks to OTW and OTL, this will probably be sorted via points.

Teams 5 and 6 will be the other two second place finishers; teams 7-9 will be the third ranked teams; and teams 10-12 will be Norway, Latvia and Germany (or, if you prefer, the three last placed teams).

I think that given the inevitability of this happening, it might be more useful for everyone if we display the standings from 1 to 12, so as to remove any illusion that anything else is important:

Team Position GP W OTW OTL L Pts GF GA Diff
USA A1 2
Russia B1
Finland C1
0 0 0 3
Canada A2 2 1 1 0 0 5 11 2 +9
Czech Republic B2 1
1 0 0 0 3 3 1 +2
Sweden C2 1 1 0 0 0 3 2 0 +2
Slovakia B3 2 0 1 0 1 2 3 4 -1
Switzerland A3 2 0 0 1 1 1 3 6 -3
Germany C3 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 2 -2
Belarus C4 1 0 0 0 1 0 1
5 -4
Latvia B4 1
0 0 0 1 0
2 8 -6
Norway A4 2 0 0 0 2 0 1 14 -13

Why that OTW might hurt later

As Canadians bask in the glory of beating the Swiss team, it is perhaps a good idea to consider for minute what coming up short by a point means for the tournament.

As it goes, Canada is now guaranteed first or second in the group. Surely good news. And, if they beat the US, there's no doubt of a bye – also good news. But here are some scenarios:

Canada beats USA

If Canada beats the US in regulation, they'll be sitting pretty with 8 points. That will be enough to clear Russia. However, Czech, Finland and Sweden could all go clean in the group (and one probably will) meaning that Canada won't get the first seed.

You may not think this matters, but consider the semi-finals. if Sweden goes clean they should draw USA or Finland in the semis, barring upsets. Canada will be faced with the possibility of the Czech Republic or Russia. Not the better side of the draw really.

What's more, though they don't like the Swiss, Canada would be foolhardy not to be hoping to face Switzerland in the quarters should no upsets occur. This is because, though they are a top 8 team, the top 7 teams have a certain mystique about them that makes them surpass workmanlike Switzerland.

Canada in the two seed could draw Slovakia. this team used to be easy pickings, but thanks to Halak, they now have a credible goaltender. They also have Hossa and some other interesting forwards up front and the Norris trophy Chara at the back. They're not a joke. And teams that take them lightly (Russia, ahem) do so at their peril.

Canada loses to USA

Stranger things have happened. If this occurs, Canada will have 5 points. No offense to Germany and Belarus, but I think Finland and Sweden will be on 6, or more both. Group B will toss up at least one 5-point second place teams (Slovakia) and quite possibly a 6-point one as well as Group C.

Either way, Canada would likely miss the top second which they would have clinched by beating Switzerland and their goal difference. It would at least mean an extra game, extra chance of injury, etc.

5th or 6th means little difference in the playoff (Norway or Latvia), but Canada would again be in the #2/3 semi rather than getting a crack at the 4th place team to make a final.

Koivu understands

I know it's all just quotes, but Koivu seems to clearly understand what his team needs to do:
"Obviously, finishing first in your group is the first goal for every team - and trying to avoid that extra game before the quarters," said Koivu. "I think that's going to be a huge advantage - for those teams and for the top second-place team. I've never liked tournaments that are about goal differential - or if someone benefits from scoring two more goals against a weaker team."
Koivu is the type of player whose gamesmanship goes well beyond the rink, as he gets totally embroiled in what needs to be done. It should come as no surprise then that he threatens to overtake the Olympic assists lead and tie the record for ice hockey medals at the Olympics.

Others seem to take results as they come. This may be something they reflect upon later while the medal places are being decided:
"I didn't even try to understand it. I didn't get past the point where we cross over (in the quarter-finals). I just know we open(ed) against Switzerland." – Ryan Miller

I think Team Canada showed with their clumsy win yesterday that they are among the latter group – seeing what happens.

It's all well and good to stumble through to the medal round. it often works (see World Cup, Italy), but it's playing with fire in some ways. Especially for a team that's got a bit of a reputation for not doing well with the fire handling at these big tournaments.

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