Wait until Pyeongchang: Latvia, Norway, Austria, Slovenia
Sorry, folks. I just don’t see much coming from these four teams when matched up with hockey powerhouses like Canada, the US, Russia, and Sweden. Even teams like Finland and the Czech Republic are going to be too much to handle in all likeliness. Of course there are very talented players from these countries (For instance, Thomas Vanek from Austria, and Anze Kopitar from Slovenia), but the depth does not exist on these teams.
We need some new blood: Slovakia, Czech Republic
Slovakia has the misfortune of being put into a group with the United States and Russia, so unless one of those two teams underperforms, the Slovaks’ chance at getting out of the group stage is pretty small. The Czechs will probably hold their own against Switzerland and Latvia, but Sweden represents a very difficult challenge. Because of the way Group C is structured, look for the Czechs to get out of the group stage but not much further.
All eyes between the pipes: Finland
The Finns are going to be an interesting team to watch, but the big names on their offensive and defensive lines look a little too old to dominate in these Olympics. Yes, Teemu Selanne (does “The Finnish Flash” age at all? I’m not sure anymore), Mikko Koivu, and Tuomo Ruutu are still stars, but the combined offensive lines lack the depth and firepower of the higher-tiered teams. The same problem exists on defense: Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen are accomplished and decorated, but they are not getting any younger. Admittedly I do not know much when it comes to the sizable contingent of KHL and Finnish league players, and it is hard to gauge how the skill level in those leagues stacks up against the NHL.
The good news for Suomi is that they have some of the best goaltending in hockey. In Vancouver, longtime Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff’s skill between the pipes led Finland to a bronze medal. This time around, they are anchored by the San Jose Sharks’ Antti Niemi, Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen, and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.
I am surprised to not see Pekka Rinne on this roster. With Ryan Suter and Shea Weber in front of him, Rinne was nearly unstoppable with the Nashville Predators. Nevertheless, I’d readily go with the skills of Tuukka Rask for the Olympics. Rask led a nearly offensive-less Boston Bruins team to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2010, and brought his team to the Cup Final in 2013, losing in 6 games. While it’s true that Antti Niemi has had more playoff appearances and a Stanley Cup, I believe Rask is still the better goalie. He is also younger than Niemi.
I expect the Finns to get out of the group stage. Norway and Austria are beatable, and a stunning goaltending performance by Rask or Niemi could lead to an upset of the Canadians.
Unfortunately, Team Finland is going to have to rely on one aspect of their game to win any medals. One could argue that goaltending is the most important and game-changing aspect of hockey, but it’s going to be difficult for Finland to keep up with the next teams, even if Rask or Niemi stands on their head.
Let’s bring home some hardware, boys: The United States, Canada, and Sweden
These three countries are all very likely medal contenders. The United States may have the best goaltending in the tournament. Canada and Sweden boast balance, a mix of young flash and veteran talent, and no glaring weaknesses.
Sweden's advantage over the United States and Canada is simple, but may come to be significant. The American and Canadian rosters are nearly all from the NHL, where the size of the rink is smaller than in the Olympics. Sweden, on the other hand, will be more likely to adjust quickly to the larger Olympic rinks. Sweden also plays a different style of hockey-the speed-based, finesse-heavy European game. The US and Canada, by contrast, play a gritty, physical game. This may put the United States and Canada at a disadvantage with the larger rinks.
The United States rode a white-hot Ryan Miller into the gold medal game in the 2010 Olympics, and they'll again have Ryan Miller between the pipes. Miller, despite playing on a pitiful Buffalo Sabres team, has put out another excellent season. The lack of Jack and Eric Johnson may hurt the American defense, which is relatively young. The American forwards are strong, but it's hard to tell if they'll be able to score enough to make up for deficiencies in the defense. They're not in an easy group either-the Russians will come in angry and the Slovaks shouldn't be underestimated.
Canada has a remarkably complete team, like Sweden, but they may have an Achilles' heel between the pipes. This is not to say the goaltending Canada possesses isn't extremely talented, but the two main goalies they've brought to Sochi have reputations of inconsistency. Carey Price has never brought the Montreal Canadiens very far in the playoffs. Roberto Luongo, recently recovered from an injury, has always shown difficulty in the playoffs. If he's on his game, he's damn near unstoppable. But if he's not...Canada could see an early exit.
Gold or Bust: Russia
Team Russia will be under extraordinary pressure this Olympics, for obvious reasons. This is the first time Russia has ever hosted the Winter Olympics, and one only needs to look back to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver to see what happens when a hockey-mad nation wins Olympic Gold on their home ice. Rogers Arena, normally home of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, was packed to the brim with red and white-clad Canadians who seemed to never stop chanting the familiar refrain of “GO CANADA GO!”
It’s safe to assume that Canada would have seen the Vancouver Olympics as nice, but ultimately disappointing if the national hockey team did not take home gold. The exact same applies to the Russian team in 2014.
The Russian offense is elite, fast, and relentless. Alex Ovechkin is enjoying another fantastic year. Pavel Datsyuk, known for his magician-like stick-handling, is going to dazzle fans and players alike if he is not adequately covered.
The second line is also dominant. Vladimir Tarasenko has been a large reason for the rise of the St. Louis Blues. Alex Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk have enormous talent-if they avoid the problems they had in Nashville and New Jersey they will be a force to be reckoned with. The Russians did not play as a team in Vancouver-they have no excuses in Sochi. Look out for rising Dallas star Valeri Nichuskin: he has shown a lot of growth this year.
A big question for the Russian offense remains, though: Where are KHL linesmates Sergei Mozyakin and Danis Zaripov? Mozyakin is one of the best point-scorers in the KHL and neither will have to adjust to Olympic ice.
Defense may be a problem for the Russian team. True, Markov and Emelin have shown themselves to be effective for the Montreal Canadiens, and Slava Voynov is blossoming into a premier defenseman, but the reliance on two Columbus Blue Jackets’ defensemen (Nikitin and Tyutin) may be risky, as Columbus has played out to a very average 19-20-4 so far.
When it comes to goaltending, questions persist. Semyon Varlamov is probably the best bet for Russia in net, but he is still relatively inexperienced compared to his counterparts in Sweden, Finland, Canada and the USA. Sergei Bobrovski did win the Vezina last year, but he’s been less consistent this year.
Can this team win Olympic Gold? Yes, but it’s going to require a few lucky breaks and 110% coordination between everyone on the team.