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The puck has officially dropped on the 2014 men’s ice hockey tournament at the Sochi Games, with 12 nations hoping to take home the gold on February 23. The hosts from Russia, the defending gold medalists from Canada, and 2006 gold medalists Sweden enter the tournament as the three favorites in what appears to be a very strong field.
The defending silver medalists from Vancouver, the Americans enter this year’s Olympic Games with much lower expectations than in recent years and boast a roster that frankly doesn’t stack up as favorably as in the past. A lot of people were left confused after the team was announced on New Year’s Day by a few of the most notable omissions to the roster, including highly skilled Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan, and there were some questions about some conflict at the top of USA Hockey. The team looks to become a minor dark horse in this year’s tournament, but will likely find themselves off the podium a week and a half from now.
Difference maker: Tie, forward Patrick Kane and forward Zach Parise
Achilles heel: Defense. Only two, Brooks Orpik and Ryan Suter, of the team’s eight defensemen suited up for the Red, White, and Blue four years ago in Vancouver, and with the average age of the d-men at just over 26 years old, this is a very young, and therefore relatively unexperienced, defense corps both to the Olympics as well as in the NHL.
All eyes will be on the highly-touted Russian squad in this year’s Games and they are the team with the most to lose, while also the most to gain. Playing on their home ice, the expectations are high for all the Russian athletes, but with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, being so outspoken about his expectations for the team, they will have an immense amount of pressure on them.
Difference maker: Alex Ovechkin
Achilles heel: Goaltending. You can score all the goals you want, but if you don’t have a top notch goalie at the back end who is keeping the puck out himself, it’s going to be hard to win. The likely starting goalie for the Russians is Semyon Varlomov, and while he has put up good numbers with his surprisingly good Colorado team so far this season, he is still only 25 and has yet to prove himself as an elite goaltender. The team’s inexperience in goal could hold them back.
Few would argue that the Canadian roster is the deepest and most talented of any of the other teams competing in the Olympics. The Canadians pulled out an incredible overtime victory over the United States in the 2010 Games in Vancouver and return a strong number of players from that team. Their experience from Vancouver will set them up nicely to make another run for gold this year. Another thing that will benefit the Canadians is their relatively soft preliminary schedule, which features two of the weakest teams in the field in Norway and Austria.
Difference maker: Sidney Crosby
Achilles heel: Goaltending. Like I said before, you can’t win without good goaltending. While Team Canada’s roster features two of the game’s biggest goaltending names, neither Montreal’s Carey Price nor Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo have proven they are able to win big games and both have suffered from severe ups and downs over the past few seasons. If one of these two can catch a hot streak at the right time, the Canadians should be able to cruise to gold, but they have yet to prove to anybody that they can be consistently relied on for that.
The Swedish team will never beat anyone if they are forced to beat a team in the physicality department, but they make up for this deficiency with their speed and goal-scoring ability. Sweden has traditionally produced small, fast, talented players who can just whiz around the ice and baffle defenses. On the Olympic sized ice sheet (200 feet by 100 feet, fifteen feet wider than an NHL rink), the Swedes will have even more room to work and make their plays, and their fast, shifty forwards will have even more room to operate. Most teams did not add big physical defensemen to their rosters, which is one of the best ways to prevent and maintain this style of play, and for that reason, I expect to see blue and gold on the podium.
Difference maker: Tie, forward Daniel Alfredsson and goalie Henrik Lundqvist
Achilles heel: Lack of physicality. The Olympics as a whole is not really a place where nations showcase their physical style of hockey, however you may see teams do it against the Swedes as it will be the best way of shutting down their high-powered offense.
Potential Cinderella: The Czechs as well as the Swiss are two teams that never seem to be easy outs in International hockey. The Czechs lack a goaltender that will be able to carry them to a potential medal, however the Swiss will be led between the pipes by Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller, one of the game’s most underrated goalies, who they could ride a long way in this tournament. I don’t expect either team to advance to the gold medal game, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either play for a bronze.
Team on upset alert? Russia. With so much pressure and so many potential distractions, it seems as though it would be easy for the Russians to struggle to focus on the task at hand. They will really be relying on Alex Ovechkin, and if he has one bad night in the single elimination round, the Russians could be making an early exit.
Medals: Gold: Canada, Silver: Sweden, Bronze: Russia. The Canadians are simply too good and have too deep a roster to be chosen against. Look for them to take their third gold in the last four Olympics.
The United States opens its Olympics against Zdeno Chara and Slovakia at 7:30am ET on Thursday, February 13 on NBCSN (channel 76.42 on campus).