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The Olympic Hockey Tournament Format

Even though there's NHL hockey being played this weekend, the hockey world is begin to shift its focus to the Olympic games which opened last night.  These are nervous days for players, managers and fans who are all hoping that everyone makes it through the weekend healthy.  If ever there was a time to play the Canucks or Sharks, this weekend might be it, especially if you come in ready to play a physical style. 

This Olympic tournament is particularly noteworthy because the hockey is going to look more like NHL hockey than it has in past tournaments.  This is the first time the Olympics are going to be played on the smaller NHL-sized ice surfaces.  It's the first time the Olympics will be using the two-referee system.  And it might be the last time that NHL players appear.  So let's make sure we enjoy these games because it could be the last best-on-best tournament for quite some time (with apologies to Jochen Hecht). 

There are also some differences from the NHL game.  The international game uses no-touch icing, doesn't give an automatic penalty to players for shooting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone and doesn't use the goaltender trapezoid behind the net.  It's like pre-lockout hockey with no-touch icing and no fighting (it results in an automatic game misconduct).  After the jump we'll take a look at the tournament's format. 

The men's tournament begins with a group stage.  The twelve teams are split into three groups and are seeded according to their nation's International Ice Hockey Federation ranking in 2008:

Group A is Canada (1), the United States (6), Switzerland (7!) and Norway (12).  Group B is Russia (2), the Czech Republic (5), Slovakia (8! and they're actually down to 9th in the 2009 rankings) and Latvia (11).  Group C is Sweden (3), Finland (4), Belarus (9) and Germany (10).  Every team plays the other three teams in its group once and they're awarded points based on their W-OW-OL-L record (That's right Bruce!  Three points for a win, two for a win in overtime or shoot-out, one for a loss in overtime or shoot-out and no points for a loss.  There are some thing to be learned from this whole international hockey thing). If the game needs overtime, a five-minute four-on-four period is played and if there's still no conclusion it goes to a five-man shoot-out.

Once all of these games have been played, no team is eliminated from the competition.  Instead, all of the teams are put into one standings column organized by standings points.  In the event of a tie in standings points, the first tiebreaker is goal differential, the second is goals scored, and the third is IIHF ranking (the team with the higher ranking gets the higher placing).  The top four teams immediately advance to the quarterfinal round while the bottom eight play each other in qualification games (5 v 12, 6 v 11, 7 v 10 and 8 v 9).  The interesting thing about this format is that winning your group does not guarantee you an automatic spot in the quarterfinals though you'd likely need one group to have three teams in one group go 2-0-0-1 in order fort that to happen.  In this playoff qualification round overtime is extended to 10 minutes, after which time there would be a shoot-out if the score remains tied.

The four winners of the qualification games then join the four teams that were atop the standings in the group stage for the quarterfinal round. The team that finished first plays the 8/9 winner, the second place team takes on the 7/10 winner, the team in third gets the 6/11 winner and the team that finished fourth will play the 5/12 winner.  We then have one game semifinals as between the 1/8/9 winner and the 4/5/12 winner as well as the 2/7/10 winner and the 3/6/11 winner.  We're then down to two teams who meet in the gold medal game which would have a twenty-minute four-on-four overtime period if the score is tied after regulation.  Let's all hope it doesn't come to that.

Edit: I was mistaken above.  The first "tie-breaker" is actually position in your group and not standings points.  So a team with fewer standings points but a higher position in their group would finish higher.  So, for example, if one team finishes 3rd in their group with two points and another team finishes fourth in the their group with three points, the team with two points would be ranked higher.  Thus winning your group does guarantee you a bye into the quarterfinals.