Through four days of the men's hockey tournament at the Sochi Winter Olympics, only veteran defenseman Sami Salo has any points (1 assist), as the young Tampa Bay Lightning skaters struggle with different roles on their respective national teams. Day 4 also saw the Olympic debut of Kristers Gudlevskis, who got the start in net for Latvia against Sweden.
Slovakia (1) vs. Slovenia (3)
It's been noted in many places how much of an underdog Slovenia really is -- their only NHLer is Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings and the entire country (of just 2 million total people) has fewer registered hockey players than many small towns in North America:
Best part about Slovenia's win today is they're listed with 148 adult male players. So nearly 20% of them are Olympians...— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 15, 2014
Their win over Slovakia to open up Day 4 of the men's hockey tournament in Sochi further demonstrates a shrinking gap between the perceived "second-tier" teams, like Slovakia, and up-starts that are making some noise like Latvia and Slovenia.
The Slovenians outshot the Slovaks in both the first and third periods, and while Slovenian goaltender Robert Kristan made some nice saves, he by no means "stole a win". Slovenia capitalized on the chances they created, and Slovakia did not. In a sixty minute hockey game, sometimes that's all it takes to earn a win.
Richard Panik took 14 shifts in 10:52 of ice time in mostly 4th line duty, even after winger Tomas Kopecky was injured early in the match. While not totally invisible, he managed very little in the way of offense, had zero shots on goal, and was once again held off the scoresheet as only Tomas Jurco of the Detroit Red Wings scored for the Slovaks. Panik was able to draw a penalty on Anze Kopitar in the second period, and has shown flashes of offensive creativity, but hasn't really been put in the positions to score by the coaches for Slovakia, and there's little indication that anything will change soon even despite what should be noted as an embarrassing loss (no disrespect meant to Slovenia).
There is still some hope for Panik to heat up and claim more ice time, but any dreams of Panik getting his groove back have to be farfetched at best right now as he's not doing much with the limited opportunities he is getting.
USA (3) vs. Russia (2) (Shootout)
The host nation, Russia, fell to USA in an eight-round shootout after regulation and overtime couldn't find a winner. That game featured a lot of back-and-forth play and generated a surprising amount of buzz stateside. T.J. Oshie's a bit of a folk hero now after putting 4 goals behind Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky during the shootout, singlehandedly securing the victory for the Americans and a whole bunch of new Twitter followers for himself.
David Baldwin had a terrific FanPost recapping the USA victory here, so there's no need to rehash the details of the game especially since neither side features any Tampa Bay Lightning players.
Switzerland (1) vs. Czech Republic (0)
As we saw with Slovakia vs. Slovenia, the gap between some of the perceived "third-tier" teams is closing, and fast. While Switzerland lacks any real offensive punch (Damien Brunner is probably their best forward, and he's barely a top-6 forward in the NHL) they are strong on defense and in net with Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks and Reto Berra of the Calgary Flames.
The Swiss haven't been shy with trying to play a tight, defensive, low-scoring game, understanding that it may take only a single goal for them to win with the type of goaltending they've been getting from Hiller especially, who was fantastic once again, stopping all 26 Czech shots on goal.
Radko Gudas made his Olympic debut for the Czech Republic after sitting out their first two matches fighting the flu. He didn't really seem worse for wear and looked healthy enough in 26 shifts with just over 17 minutes of ice time, skating mostly alongside former NHL defenseman Tomas Kaberle. Gudas took a pair of minor penalties but the Gudas/Kaberle pair looked good for the Czechs, though like the rest of their team they struggled to generate sustained offensive pressure in the Swiss zone.
After sitting on the bench for the last game as the 13th forward that never took a shift, Ondrej Palat returned to the ice in this game, albeit no longer as a top-6 forward like when the tournament began. He took 18 shifts in 12:43 of ice time but made no more impact on the scoresheet than he did against Latvia with 0:00 of time on ice. Palat didn't make any glaring errors but was mostly unremarkable either negatively or positively, as his line often skated out, defended, dumped and changed.
Sweden (5) vs. Latvia (3)
Ted Nolan turned to Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Kristers Gudlevskis to start in net for this match, which means the 20-year old goalie has been on four different rosters this season (ECHL Florida Everblades, AHL Syracuse Crunch, NHL Tampa Bay Lightning, Latvia) and played for all but the Lightning.
A cursory glance at the box score would have you thinking Gudlevskis didn't play a very good game; Sweden scored 5 total goals on just 30 shots, so his overall save percentage was a sub-par .833. But factoring in that Sweden might be the third best (or better?) hockey team on the planet right now and that Latvia handed them 6 power plays, it's not really a surprise that in the end Gudlevskis got lit up a bit.
Sweden scored 4 of their 5 goals on the man advantage, which saw the overmatched Latvian penalty killers desperately running around their own zone trying to deny time and space and get in shooting/passing lanes. They mostly failed to do that with any regularity, leaving Gudlevskis to fend for himself in the crease. Setting aside the power play time and just examining his 5v5 play, one has to be encouraged by what they saw from the still very young, very raw goaltending prospect. His movements were crisp and efficient and he was reading the play extremely well. More importantly, Raw Charge alumna Clare Austin pointed out that his atittude and demeanor remained calm and confident even as Sweden started piling up goals:
The thing to remember for Kristers is that he's not panicking or getting rattled. He's 21 years old, playing one of the best 3 tms in world.— Clare Austin (@Puckologist) February 15, 2014
He's going to make some mistakes, but he's playing calm and poised. He hasn't changed his game, hasn't second-guessed himself.— Clare Austin (@Puckologist) February 15, 2014
I'll say this: I've seen Gudlevskis much less focused than he has been today.— Clare Austin (@Puckologist) February 15, 2014
The prelims wrap up with Austria vs. Norway tonight at 3AM Eastern; the morning games are Russia vs. Slovakia (Richard Panik) and Slovenia vs. USA at 7:30 AM Eastern, followed by Finland (Sami Salo) vs. Canada (Martin St. Louis) at 12PM noon Eastern. Those games will determine the final seeding for the qualifying matches to follow.