|NHL players returned for an Olympic ice hockey encore after its Nagano experience four years ago. This much anticipated event was thrilling for viewers as they were treated to highly skilled and competitive action.
The Preliminary Round consisted of two groups of four competing in a round robin format, with the top team from each group advancing to the Final Round. Slovakia, a team favoured by many to move on to the next stage, wanted to utilize their top players but were hard pressed to form lineups since the NHL would shut down only after this initial round. In the end, Belarus qualified for the main event as they did back in Nagano and Germany surprised many by also advancing to face-off against the "Big Six".
Fast paced entertaining games were the norm during the Final Round, again consisting of two groups of four that essentially determined the match-ups for the QuarterFinals. Team Canada struggled out of the gate, bowing 5 - 2 to Sweden and then held on for an unimpressive 3 - 2 victory over Germany. The Swedes and the Americans showed good form en route to top spot in their respective groups, and a seemingly easier playoff opponent in Belarus and Germany. USA disposed of the Germans, but the major upset of the tournament came when Belarus eliminated Sweden with a shocking 4 - 3 victory. Defending Olympic champions Czech Republic lined up against Russia, meaning one of these powerhouses would be sent home. This classic battle ended with Russia squeaking out a 1 - 0 win, and later Canada joined the final four after defeating Finland.
In the first semi final, Canada dominated Belarus from start to finish, winning 7 - 1 to earn a spot in the gold medal game. The final turned out to be an all North American affair, as the USA held on to beat Russia 3 - 2 in the other semi final. Both teams were obviously familiar with each other and in this one game winner-take-all match, Team Canada aware of the expectations back home prevailed. Canada improved their play as the tournament went on, thus ending a fifty-year drought between gold medals for the hockey nation. USA settled for silver, after collecting gold in both 1980 and 1960. In fact it was their first Olympic loss on American soil since 1932. Russia claimed the bronze the day before, cruising by Belarus 7 - 2.
Team play was definitely the theme but great individual performances still emerged. Mats Sundin led all scorers with nine points in just four games, while Russia's Nikolai Khabibulin was a standout in goal. Canadian captain Mario Lemieux despite injuries, was an inspiration to the team with his gritty performances and Joe Sakic led Canada with seven points including game-winning goal in the final. Directorate Awards went to Khabibulin, (Best Goaltender), USA's Chris Chelios, (Best Defenseman) and Sakic who took home the Best Forward honours.