The 2018 Winter Olympics are still 523 days away, but come Sunday evening the field for the men’s hockey tournament will be finalized.
This weekend is the Men’s Final Olympic Qualification Tournament held in Oslo, Norway; Riga, Latvia, and Minsk, Belarus. As we reported in February, the host nations were chosen because they were the highest seeded teams remaining of the qualifiers. Each team have played two games and have one remaining. Each group has two teams that are mathematically eliminated and two still hoping to book their ticket to South Korea. Here’s a recap of what happened and what is on the line Sunday.
Group D (Belarus, Slovenia, Denmark, Poland)
Anze Kopitar has been on fire for Slovenia as they attempt to qualify for the Olympics for the second straight time. He scored three goals during their 6-1 win over Poland Thursday night. Jan Mursak also recorded a goal. The two teams met a couple months ago at the end of April at the 2016 World Championship Division IA, where Poland prevailed 4-1 thanks to a strong second period. Kopitar also recorded an assist Friday when they defeated Denmark 3-1. Gasper Kroselj has kept a shutout for 117:12 of the 120 minutes played so far.
They’ll take on Belarus Sunday who beat Denmark 5-3 and Poland 5-3. Former NHL-turned-KHL players Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn are leading the way, with Sergei leading all skaters in the group with five points. He scored two goals vs Denmark and had a three-assist performance against Poland. Andrei had a goal and an assist against Poland. Both teams have six points, with the winner advancing to the Olympics regardless of whether it comes in regulation or overtime.
Group E (Latvia, Germany, Austria, Japan)
The host Latvians are one game away from qualifying for the Olympics for the fifth straight time. All that’s standing in their way is Germany, who is trying to avoid missing consecutive Olympics for the first time since the first two Olympiad in 1920 and 1924. Germany had their streak of 16 straight appearances snapped in this same Olympic Qualifying Tournament in February 2013 when they failed to beat Austria in regulation in their final game on home ice. Fortunately for Germany, they can win in regulation or overtime to advance.
Both Latvia and Germany have scored 11 goals during the first two games, with Latvia beating 2014 Olympic participant Austria 8-1 and Japan 3-1. Germany has yet to allow a goal with Washington’s Philipp Grubauer between the pipes, blanking Japan 5-0 and Austria 6-0. Felix Schutz leads all scorers with three goals and one assist for four points. There’s a logjam of 10 players from Germany and Latvia with three points, including 20-year-old Rodrigo Ābols who plays for Portland in the WHL. He was drafted by Vancouver 184th overall in this year’s draft. Germany’s notable NHL players with three points include Arizona’s Tobias Rieder and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl. Tampa Bay prospect Kristers Gudlevskis could get the start in goal Sunday for Latvia, as he played in their opening game vs Austria.
Group F (Norway, France, Italy, Kazakhstan)
For the host Norwegians to punch their ticket to South Korea, they’ll need to beat France in regulation. It will be a remarkable bounce back after they were upset by Kazakhstan 4-3 in overtime Thursday night. Norway got back on the winning track by disposing Italy 4-1. France just has to win in any fashion to make their first return trip to the Winter Games since 2002.
The French beat Italy in the first game 2-1 in OT with the game winner coming from former Senators player Stephane Da Costa. They then beat Kazakhstan 4-1 the next night with two goals from Damien Fleury. Former NHL goaltender Cristobal Huet is leading all goaltenders in the group with a 1.00 GAA and a .959 Save Percentage for France. French defenseman Florian Chakiachvili and Norwegian forwards Mats Zuccarello and Patrick Thoresen lead all players with three points. Zuccarello of the New York Rangers is playing in his hometown and scored a second period equalizer against Kazakhstan. He also assisted on the first of two late goals in the final two minutes of regulation to erase a 3-1 deficit before Kazakhstan won 31 seconds into overtime.