Four years ago, the U.S. Olympic hockey team earned the easiest possible route to the gold-medal game and a rematch with Team Canada: In the quarterfinals, it played Switzerland, the weakest of the teams advancing from the play-in round. (The U.S. shut them out, 2-0.) And in the semifinals, the part of the tournament in which there aren't any truly weak teams left, the Americans drew Finland, a very good team but one that wasn't quite as scary as some of the countries on the other side of the bracket. (They routed Finland, 6-1, to guarantee themselves a medal.)
So here's the bad news for Team USA: This time around, the path will not be as easy. But the good news is that it could have been a whole lot worse. Here's who it'll have to go through to take home gold:
Quarterfinals: Czech Republic or Slovakia
The U.S. won its group and finished the preliminary round with the second overall seed (behind only Sweden, who enjoyed an easier opening-round schedule). As a result, the Americans get a bye to the quarterfinals on Wednesday, where they'll play the winner of Tuesday's Czech Republic-Slovakia match-up. The U.S. will be favored either way, though neither opponent would be a pushover.
The Czech Republic will be the favorite to advance to play the U.S., though this isn't the strongest team the Czechs have sent to the Olympics since NHLers have been participating. Their roster has a handful of recognizable names -- some two-thirds of its roster plays in the NHL -- but it lacks an elite goalie. They finished 1-2-0 in the opening round, beating Latvia, one of the weakest teams in the tournament, for their lone win. In their opening game, they fell behind 4-0 to Sweden, ultimately falling by the more respectable score of 4-2. And they also lost to Switzerland, one of the up-and-coming teams in this tournament.
Slovakia, meanwhile, has been a tougher team to figure out. Through the first two games, it may have been the tournament's most disappointing team. It opened its Olympics by getting drubbed 7-1 by Team USA, then fell to Slovenia, the 17th-ranked country in the IIHF standings. (Slovenia, which has a smaller population than Brooklyn, had never won an Olympic hockey game before.) But Slovakia won back some dignity in its final game of the prelims, taking a very good Russian team to a shootout, where it would lose but at least salvage a point, which was enough to get the 10th seed out of 12.
The Americans played their best game so far against Slovakia, and one would like their chances should a rematch happen in the quarterfinals. But the U.S. should be able to handle the Czechs, too. Three games aren't much of a sample, but we've learned a bit about the American team so far. Its young defensive corps, a bit of a question mark entering these Games, has held up well. Thhe pairing of Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh shut down Russia's top line, which is as good as any in the tournament, and is way more dangerous than any combination that either the Slovakians or the Czechs will throw at them. Combine that blue-line play with stellar goaltending, and the U.S. has done a fine job keeping the puck out of its own net. The one goal it allowed against Slovakia came after the linesman missed an offsides violation, and the one it allowed to Slovenia came in the final seconds of a blowout. That leaves just two goals, both of which were scored by Pavel Datsyuk. No shame in that.
The U.S. has scored a lot of goals, too, though most of them came against inferior opponents. In the one game against a truly elite team, the team struggled to generate offense five-on-five, relying on two power play goals and T.J. Oshie's shootout magic to get the win over Russia. (The Americans also cruised against Slovenia, though they could have been sharper. Perhaps they were experiencing a hangover from the Russia game, or perhaps they took it a bit easy, knowing they could win big without their absolute best effort.) In any case, the U.S. finished the prelims with the best goal differential of any team -- better than even Sweden, the only team to go 3-0-0 in group play.
Semifinals: Canada, Switzerland or Latvia
Latvia isn't likely to get past the play-in game, but Switzerland could give Canada trouble. Behind goalies Jonas Hiller and Reto Berra, the Swiss allowed just one goal in the prelims. Their problem? They scored only two goals in three games, all of which were decided 1-0, en route to a 2-1-0 record.
Canada, meanwhile, has had trouble scoring as well. Or more specifically, its forwards have: Of the team's 11 goals through three games, just five have been scored by forwards. The Canadians entered these games as a popular pick to win gold, but they hardly cruised through the prelims: Finland took them to overtime on Sunday, and failing to win that game (the last of the opening round) meant they'd have to settle for the third overall seed in the knockout round. In other words, in a do-or-die situation, the Canadian forwards will be trying to break out of their scoring funk against a team that's been stingy defensively.
Having said that, the Canadians remain favorites to advance to at least the semis, which could mean a rematch of 2010's gold-medal game, this time one round earlier. There'd been much speculation about whether the U.S. team could thrive on the larger Olympic ice rink -- it actually might have come into play on one of the goals allowed to Russia this weekend -- but if Team USA does indeed play the Canadians, its opponent would be facing similar questions. Canada hasn't looked dominant in this tournament, but if it break outs in the elimination round the way it did four years ago, it's an awfully tough semifinal matchup.
Gold-Medal Game: Anyone From The Other Side Of The Bracket
The final four on the other half of the bracket will likely be Sweden, Finland, Russia and The Team Sweden Easily Defeats En Route to the Semis. (It'll be either Slovenia or Austria.) Sweden's gotten the goaltending it has needed from Henrik Lundqvist but has also been hit hard by injuries. Despite the top seed, Sweden won't cruise to the gold-medal game. Finland, meanwhile, earned the four seed as the best second-place team during group play and has been flying under the radar a bit, despite winning bronze in Vancouver. Taking Canada to overtime serves as a reminder that Finland can be dangerous.
And that leaves Russia, which has been shaky so far and will have to play Tuesday just to advance to the quarterfinals (against Norway for the right to face Finland.) The Russians let Slovenia hang around before pulling away in the opener, then they controlled play for stretches against the U.S. but mustered only a point in the shootout, thanks to Jonathan Quick and especially Oshie. And they needed a shootout to beat a disappointing Slovakia team on Sunday. Everyone knows by now the kind of pressure they're under to win, but imagine how the drama would be amped up even further if they have to go through either Canada or the U.S. in the gold-medal game.