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Should Team Canada worry about goal differential?

Team Canada's Corey Perry tries to wrap the puck around the nest in a game against Team Norway during the first period of Olympic Ice hockey action at the Sochi Winter Olympics February 13, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

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It was a debate that sprung up during Team Canada's first game against Norway, an expected blowout that ended up close.

Did it matter that they hadn't racked up the score? Or is a 3-1 win essentially as valuable as any other?

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The Olympic tournament format this year involves 12 teams and every single one moves onto the next round. After playing three games, however, the next loss is fatal, so it pays off if you can be one of the top four teams out of that initial round and get a bye right to the quarter-finals.

And ideally what you want in the quarter-finals is to try and avoid another powerhouse and a very difficult game.

Teams are ranked one to 12 coming out of the round robin, with the ranking criteria looking like so:

1. Highest rank in their group

2. Highest number of points (three for regulation win, two for shootout win, one for shootout loss)

3. Better goal differential

4. More goals scored

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5. 2013 IIHF world ranking

So the most important thing is winning your group, which means winning your games, preferably in regulation. Only after that does goal differential come into play.

The best way to illustrate how only beating Norway by two goals affects Canada is just to play out the scenarios. If we assume Canada does win its three group games in regulation, but does so with a weak goal differential, that would likely place them third out of 12 after the group stage.

The third place teams get that previously mentioned bye and in the quarter-finals, they would face the winner of the sixth versus 11th game.

If we just go based purely on world ranking, the sixth versus 11th game in this tournament would involve the United States taking on Austria.

So Canada could in theory end up with the 2010 silver medalists as a potential quarter-final opponent.

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It's a different story if they win their group with a better goal differential. Finishing first or second out of 12 teams after the group stage would mean facing, at best, the seventh or eighth ranked teams in the quarter-finals, which is where you probably get into second-tier teams like Slovakia, Switzerland, etc.

Those aren't gimmes by any means, but you're probably not getting a pushover in the final eight at this event any more.

Now, it's way too early in the Games to try and predict exactly who finishes where, but if the best teams finish in the top six, the team that places third or fourth after the round robin will likely have to face a pretty good team (i.e. Finland or the Czech Republic) in the quarter-finals.

That's a bit of a step up from the alternative and how goal differential can matter.

Either way, whoever you face after Sunday, you have to win or you're going home.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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