Just a couple weeks removed from the 2016 Rio Olympics, we can look ahead to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Men’s hockey qualifications were completed Sunday and Norway, Slovenia and Germany all locked up places in the 2018 Games, set to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Norway faced France Sunday for an Olympic berth out of Group F, which also featured Italy and Kazakhstan. Norway took the game 2-1 on a goal from Frolunda’s Mattias Norstebo, past former NHLer Cristobal Huet, with just 2:29 left in the contest.
“This is one of the best wins in my career, for sure,” said Mats Zuccarello after the game in his native Oslo. He was the lone NHLer on the Norwegian side. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. I grew up down here and this was probably my last game at this rink so it’s a little emotional. Playing in the Olympics is the biggest thing you can do with your national team, so to qualify there is amazing.”
Frölunda's Mattias Nørstebø puts Norway ahead with just under two minutes remaining in regulation. Huge goal. pic.twitter.com/HvDMl7oMaI
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) September 4, 2016
Norway qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics as well, landing in a group with Canada, Finland and Austria. They didn’t make it out of the group stage, losing all three of their opening round matches.
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The win Sunday lands them in 2018’s Group C with Sweden, Finland and Germany. While it’s not the easiest path to an Olympic win for Norway, having Germany in the group certainly gives them a chance to grab a win in the group stage.
France’s lone NHL player was Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (no Antoine Roussel), who will be teammates with Zuccarello on Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Even the Prime Minister wanted to congratulate Mats Zuccarello for Norway’s Olympic spot. “Greit,” she said. pic.twitter.com/GCha90wCmg
— Risto Pakarinen (@puckarinen) September 4, 2016
All three games were tight Sunday, but none was tighter than Slovenia’s win over Belarus. A late power-play goal by Andrei Stepanov for Belarus sent the game into overtime.
With no result after the extra frame, the game went to a shootout where Anze Kopitar notched one for Slovenia before Stepnov again kept Belarusian Olympic hope alive. Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg’s Rok Ticar potted the next attempt for Slovenia and landed them a berth in the 2018 games.
The moment you know you will play for @2018PyeongChang! @lovehokej pic.twitter.com/IeJglN8OXk
— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) September 4, 2016
The win places the team in Group B up against Russia, the United States and Slovakia. They were a part of the 2014 Games, and made it out of the group stage with a win over Slovakia. They beat Austria in the qualification playoffs before taking a 5-0 elimination loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Germany may have had the toughest path out of the qualifiers into the Olympics. Group E had them up against Japan, Austria (who were without Thomas Vanek, captain of the 2014 Olympic team) and Latvia. It was the latter of those three that Germany faced with an Olympic berth on the line.
Early in the second period, the Germans carried a 2-0 lead on goals by Leon Draisaitl and Felix Schutz. But Latvia roared back, tying the game.
However, with just over five minutes left in the game, Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl scored the game-winner from Draisaitl past Elvis Merzlikins, sending Germany back to the Olympics. They did not qualify for the 2014 Sochi Games. They are the only team, aside from South Korea, who is hosting, that will take part in the 2018 Games but were not in the 2014 Games.
Latvia and Austria are the two teams that will not make a repeat Olympic appearance in 2018. Austria, in particular, had a disappointing qualification round. Latvia beat them 8-1 and Germany shut them out 6-0.
After Germany's win @Tkuhn14 and coach Marco Sturm talk about making @2018PyeongChang Olympics. @DEB_eV pic.twitter.com/zCeQpGxlTY
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) September 4, 2016
With the men’s Olympic qualifications at an end, international hockey will turn its focus to the 2016 World Cup and how that will influence whether or not NHL players will be able to participate in the 2018 Olympics. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said that there are no plans to revisit NHL Olympic participation until the winter.