x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Extra game could benefit Canada

What's that, Brian Burke? Team USA are underdogs at these Winter Games? Your team is too young, too inexperienced, too generally untested to make much noise this time around on the international stage?

What's that, Brian Burke? Team USA are underdogs at these Winter Games? Your team is too young, too inexperienced, too generally untested to make much noise this time around on the international stage? Nice try, Mr Burke. The problem is, your plucky, underdog team of teenagers (well, early 20-somethings) looked pretty impressive in going undefeated in three round-robin games, including a gutsy 5-3 victory over Canada.

The big win over the host country secured Group A honours for the US: more importantly, it gave them a bye into the quarter-finals and, as the No 1 seeds, they will face the weakest remaining country. In other words, the US look good to cruise into the semi-finals - and after that, who knows? It would not exactly be a miracle if the US capture gold - never mind what Burke, US team's general manager, says - but it would be surprising.

The lion's share of the credit can be piled on Ryan Miller, the US goaltender, whose heroics against Canada overshadowed the fact that his team were outshot 45-23 and were probably beaten on chances by a 2-1 margin, too. In a short, two-week tournament like the Olympics, where single-elimination games rule the day, a hot goalie like Miller is sometimes all you need. So, Team USA are No 1. That is a lofty accomplishment, but the round robin is now shoved aside, replaced by intense, do-or-die games in which losing is not an option.

The US have proved they can win when the expectations are not overwhelming; the next challenge is to win when the pressure is on. Canada struggled on this front in the round robin (needing a shoot-out to squeak past Switzerland 3-2 before losing to the US), and now the hosts have to play a qualification game (against Germany, the No 11 seeds who went winless in the round robin) just to advance to the quarter-finals.

And while there is national disappointment in Canada at the moment, the optimists in the country are taking solace in the hope that an extra game - against a team that Canada should beat easily - might get the home side back on track, and maybe even increase the overall team chemistry. Sweden, meanwhile, were the only team besides the US to go 3-0-0 in the round-robin segment, earning the No 2 seeding. And, as the defending Olympic champions with a nice mix of young (Nicklas Backstrom, the Sedin twins) and old (Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson and, yes, Peter Forsberg), along with top-notch goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden have quietly moved into a prime position.

Like the US, they will have a relatively easy quarter-final match-up; a berth in the semi-final is not guaranteed, but it would be shocking if they did not make it to the final four. Over in Group C, Russia overcame a 2-1 shoot-out loss to Slovakia to win the division and claim the No 3 seed. Like Canada, the Russians did not play as well as expected in the round robin. Unlike Canada, though, they have a bye and they are in an enviable position.

The Czechs and Finns, which entered the Games as sort of second-class citizens of the "Big Seven" - ahead of Slovakia, of course, but regarded as a notch below the top four teams - held their own and are perfectly capable of upsetting their way into the semi-finals - and beyond. If we have learned anything from the round robin portion, it is this: at least seven teams can win this thing, and a Belarus-over-Sweden type of upset (circa 2002) is not out of the question, either.

In other words, it is just starting to get good. sports@thenational.ae