After four years of waiting, the puck is finally about to drop on the Sochi Olympics men’s hockey tournament.
The NHL began sending its best to the Games in 1998, making this the fifth time the Olympics have truly been a best-on-best tournament. We’ve seen three different countries win gold and six nations earn at least one medal. There have been stunning upsets and predictable blowouts. But as we look back over those 16 years, some patterns begin to emerge.
OK, sure, we’re dealing with just four tournaments. Is that too small a sample size to draw legitimately meaningful conclusions from? Yes, it probably is. Are we going to try to do it anyway? You’re damn right we are.
So here are 10 lessons we’ve learned from the NHL’s Olympic history, and what they might mean for Sochi.
Lesson 1: Round-robin dominance won’t matter much.
Since 1998, eight teams have gone undefeated during the round-robin portion of the tournament. Not one those teams has gone on to win gold. Four of them didn’t even manage to win a medal. That includes Slovakia, which ran the table at 5-0-0 in 2006 and then immediately lost in the quarterfinals, as well as Sweden, which was 3-0-0 in 2002 and then had this happen.
By comparison, the four gold-medal winners combined to go a rather pedestrian 8-5-1, and not one finished in first place in their group.
This year, all 12 teams will advance to the elimination round. It’s nice if you can get a good enough seed to avoid running into a powerhouse early. But perfection doesn’t matter.
If history repeats: Given the format, in which each group of four has one or two weaklings, there will almost certainly be two or three perfect teams after the round-robin. We’ll all overreact, and assume they’re unbeatable. They won’t be.
Lesson 2: The tournament’s best player will probably be a goalie.
In each of the past two Games, the goalie named to the All-Star team has also been named tournament MVP — Antero Niittymaki in 2006, and Ryan Miller in 2010. And while they didn’t name All-Stars or an MVP in 1998, if they had, Dominik Hasek would have been a lock. The only exception to the “goalie as best player” rule was 2002, when Mike Richter lost out on MVP honors to Juh-yoe Sakic.
And of course, that’s exactly what you’d expect in a single-game elimination tournament. This is hockey, where a hot goalie is the great equalizer. It’s not that the team that gets the best goaltending is guaranteed gold (of the goalies above, only Hasek won it all), but it can get you awfully close.
Maybe the more interesting observation is that you never really know which goalie it’s going to be. Hasek was the best in the world, and Miller was in the middle of a Vezina season. But Richter was a borderline star on his last legs, and Niittymaki was a 25-year-old NHL rookie splitting time with Robert Esche.
If history repeats: Some team is going to go way further than we expect because their goalie stands on his head. This would be a good time to start getting nervous about Tuukka Rask.