International Ice Hockey Federation

Who’ll succeed in Group C?

Who’ll succeed in Group C?

Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany ready to duel

Published 15.02.2018 14:04 GMT+10 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Who’ll succeed in Group C?
Group C opponents: Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden), Eeli Tolvanen (Finland), Jonas Holos (Norway) und Christian Ehrhoff (Germany). Photo: Matt Zambonin, Andre Ringuette, Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Sweden and Finland have combined for 10 men’s Olympic hockey medals in the last 30 years. Do underdogs Norway and Germany have a chance? Let’s preview Group C.

Sweden

After the glory of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal shootout victory over Canada, head coach Rikard Gronborg brings a completely different group of players to Korea in search of Sweden’s first Olympic gold since Turin 2006. Well, make that about three-quarters different.

With NHL non-participation, the lone returnees are 2011 Worlds MVP goalie Viktor Fasth (Vaxjo Lakers) and forwards Dennis Everberg (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk), Carl Klingberg (EV Zug), Linus Omark (Salavat Yulayev Ufa), and Joel Lundqvist (Frolunda Gothenburg). The twin brother of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist makes his Olympic debut as the captain and the team’s oldest player at 35.

“To be able to be here and fight for that kind of medal is very big, taking part in an Olympic Games,” said Lundqvist. “But when you get here there’s only one goal that matters – to win. It’s as easy as that.”

The Norris Trophy-worthy defence with Victor Hedman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, which formed the backbone of Tre Kronor’s latest World Championship, is obviously no more. Even the presence of budding 17-year-old superstar Rasmus Dahlin (Frolunda Gothenburg), the projected #1 overall pick in the NHL Draft who won World Junior silver in Buffalo, can’t make up for that. Fellow Olympic debutant Patrick Hersley, 31, could be a catalyst with his big shot: he’s got 33 points with KHL champion SKA St. Petersburg so far.

Overall, blue-and-yellow supporters have reason for optimism. With or without superstars, Sweden’s team play is always its strength. If history means anything, the Swedes won the last non-NHL Olympics in Lillehammer 1994. And if it comes down to a shootout again, the flashy Omark, who currently sits fifth in KHL scoring with 51 points, could emulate Peter Forsberg’s iconic one-handed winner on Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch. Sweden earned silver in Sochi in 2014.

 

Finland

The Finns love to be underestimated, and since their roster doesn’t feature anyone with the marquee value of 2014 Olympic MVP Teemu Selanne, they’ve got the other teams right where they want them.

Remember how the pundits counted Suomi out in 2006 after injuries excluded goalies Miikka Kiprusoff (hip) and Kari Lehtonen (groin)? Unheralded Antero Niittymaki stepped in and earned three shutouts en route to silver and Turin MVP honours. This year, it’s towering Mikko Koskinen’s turn to start. The 29-year-old, who backstopped Finland to silver at the 2016 Worlds in Russia, enters with a sparkling 1.48 GAA and .940 save percentage with league-leading SKA St. Petersburg. With veterans Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk) and Karri Ramo (Jokerit Helsinki) as alternatives, the Finns have no worries in net.

How about the defence? It’s a very competent collection of KHLers, all of whom have seen action at recent Worlds, with the exception of stud 18-year-old Miro Heiskanen (HIFK Helsinki) and fellow Olympic first-timer Miika Koivisto (Karpat Oulu). Sami Lepisto (Jokerit Helsinki) (7-21-28) will be expected to quarterback the power play.

The Finnish forwards may struggle to put the puck in the net, unless, say, centre Petri Kontiola (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) rediscovers the form that saw him lead the 2013 Worlds with 16 points. The great X-factor is 18-year-old winger Eeli Tolvanen (Jokerit Helsinki), who brings the tournament’s best one-timer after Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk. Despite scoring 17 times this season, Tolvanen has only amassed three goals in 11 career World Junior games, but that doesn’t worry head coach Lauri Marjamaki regarding these Olympics: “I think it is easier (for him) to be with the men’s team than the U20 team, because with that team, you have to almost carry the team.”

The Finns will need a total team effort to get to the top. But effort is rarely a problem for this hockey nation. Finland earned bronze in Sochi, medaling for the sixth time in the last eight Olympics.

 

Norway

The Norwegians sit ninth in the IIHF World Ranking, and in a 12-team Olympic tournament, normally no one would be surprised to see them finish ninth. They made the IIHF World Championship quarter-finals in 2008, 2011, and 2012, but haven’t cracked the top eight since then. However, this year, Norway hopes its familiar veterans and promising youngsters will develop chemistry quickly and surprise some bigger nations.

Starting goalie Lars Haugen (Farjestad Karlstad), entering his second straight Olympics, knows he will face a ton of rubber. The 30-year-old plans to auction off his mask for Hockey Fights Cancer after the tournament, but he can’t be too charitable on the ice if coach Petter Thoresen’s team is to steal a win. Haugen, backed up by Henrik Haukeland (Timra IK), has a 2.41 GAA and 91.4 save percentage in the SHL this season.

Minutes monster Jonas Holos will lead the way on a Norwegian blue line that’s virtually identical to the veteran group at last year’s Worlds. At 22, the talented Mattias Norstebo (Frolunda Gothenburg) is another face to watch. However, despite decent mobility and puck-moving, these defencemen just aren’t going to generate much offense either at even strength or with the man advantage.

So without nifty NHL star Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers, where will the goals come from? Brothers Mathis Olimb and Ken Andre Olimb offer a poor man’s imitation of the Sedin twins. They’re enjoying a productive partnership again with Linkopings HC, ranking second and third respectively in team scoring behind Canadian Olympian Derek Roy. At 34, KHL veteran Patrick Thoresen, the coach’s son, still has a little gas left in the tank with 11 points in 13 games for SKA St. Petersburg. With his hard-working younger brother Steffen (Storhamar) also up front, it’s truly a family affair.

Ludvig Hoff, a 21-year-old freshman left wing at the University of North Dakota (2-5-7), will be interesting to monitor as he makes his Olympic debut, never having played before at a higher IIHF level than the 2014 World Juniors. It’s a daunting assignment, but you could say that for the whole Norwegian team. Still, they’re not burdened with expectations.

 

Germany

Head coach Marco Sturm got a vote of confidence from the German Ice Hockey Association before these Olympics when his contract was extended to 2022. Now the affable 39-year-old, who played more NHL games (938) than any other German plus three Olympics, would love to guide his all-DEL roster to his nation’s first hockey medal since West Germany’s 1976 bronze.

Germany joins Russia, Switzerland and host Korea among the only 2018 Olympic nations who are exclusively using players from their domestic leagues. Cohesion and work ethic are never an issue with the Deutschland dudes. Scoring, however, is. Germany got seven goals en route to 10th place at the 2006 Olympics and five en route to 11th in 2010. It didn’t qualify for 2014.

Even with the lack of NHLers somewhat leveling the playing field, stellar goaltending is vital if Germany is to have any chance. However, there’s no clear number one out of the trio of Dennis Endras (Adler Mannheim), Timo Pielmeier (ERC Ingolstadt), and Danny aus den Birken (EHC Red Bull Munich). “We all agree that we support each other – it does not matter who plays,” said the 32-year-old Endras, eight years removed from his MVP performance at the 2010 Worlds, where the host Germans came fourth.

The workmanlike defence will rely heavily on the leadership of ex-NHLer Christian Ehrhoff (Kolner Haie), still a fine skater and power play quarterback at 35. His club teammate Moritz Muller chipped in three assists at last year’s Worlds. But in general, little scoring will come from the back end.

Up front, Marcel Goc (Adler Mannheim), a 34-year-old ex-NHLer and third-time Olympian, should captain this team with determination and skill. Patrick Reimer (Nurnberg Ice Tigers), a three-time DEL Forward of the Year, has proven he can score at the Worlds with 13 goals in 37 career games: he’s making his Olympic debut at age 35. Slick little 22-year-old winger Dominik Kahun (EHC Munchen) is another Winter Games first-timer, and he’s enjoying a career DEL season (12-28-40).

Yet Kahun is an anomaly. Patience and physicality are this national team’s calling cards. However, true inspiration is usually elusive when they’re not playing in Germany. Which is more than 8,500 kilometres away. Sturm has his work cut out for him.

 

Format

The format remains the same like in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. The group winner will progress directly to the quarter-finals, as will the best runner-up from the three groups. The remaining teams will go to a qualification round where four knock-out match-ups will produce the other four quarter-finalists. Click here for details on the format.

 

Predictions

The Swedes boast more star quality up front than the Finns, but Finland could also top Group C based on its relentless defensive play. Norway and Germany will likely slug it out for third and fourth place in the group.

Barring upsets, the playoff seeding will come down to the final round-robin games on 18 February. After that, odds are good we’ll see at least one medal from a Nordic country not named Norway.

 

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