The Vancouver Olympics gave us one of the great international hockey tournaments ever, with Canada ultimately defeating Team USA in a thrilling overtime gold medal game. This time around, the TV times aren't quite as ideal -- all of the Team USA games in the opening round begin at 7:30 a.m. Eastern -- but there are no shortage of storylines. Can Canada repeat as Olympic champions? Can the Americans capture gold for the first time since the Miracle on Ice? And will Russia win it all on home ice?
The tournament, which begins February 12, opens with a preliminary round in which the twelve teams are divided into three groups. No teams are eliminated during the prelims. Instead, each group plays round-robin-style to determine seeding for the medal round. Each group winner, plus the best second-place team, gets a bye to the quarterfinals, while seeds 5 through 12 face off in play-in games to determine the other quarterfinalists. From there, it's a single elimination format until one team is left standing, with the semi-final losers squaring off for the bronze.
As we prepare for the Olympics to get started, let's review a tourney power rankings, from the teams just happy to qualify for the tournament to the ones gunning for gold.
None of these countries have ever medaled in Olympic hockey.
Anze Kopitar is a legitimate star, but he's the only player on the team on an NHL roster. Worse still, they're in the most difficult preliminary round group, with Russia, the United States, and Slovakia.
They're making their first Olympic appearance since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and at least have a couple of NHLers in Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the Islanders.
Did you know 41-year old Sandis Ozolinsh is still playing hockey? Well, he is, in the KHL, and for the Latvian National Team, coached by Ted Nolan of the Sabres.
Mats Zuccarello is one of the NHL's best bargains (39 points so far this season with a $1.15 million cap hit), but he's also the league's lone representative on Team Norway.
About a third of Switzerland's roster plays in the NHL, including Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller. In Vancouver, they took eventual champion Canada to a shootout in the preliminary round and made it to the quarterfinals, where they lost 2-0 to the United States.
Their roster is dotted with NHL stars, including Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa, though Marian Gaborik hasn't played since before Christmas because of a broken collarbone. (In all, about half of Team Slovakia plays in the NHL.) Goalie Jaroslav Halak's game isn't quite where it was two years ago when he combined with Brian Elliott to win the Jennings Trophy, but he can keep his team in games in a tough preliminary-round group. Chara, by the way, will actually miss two Bruins games before the NHL's Olympic break so he can carry his country's flag at the Opening Ceremonies.
These countries have all medaled since NHL players have been allowed to participate in the Olympics, and all have a chance at finishing in the top three in Sochi.
6. Czech Republic
Since winning gold at the 1998 Nagano Games, the Czechs have won just one hockey medal, a bronze in Turin in 2006. The best player on that team, Jaromir Jagr, is still chugging along and showing flashes of his old self, but he's not the dynamic player he was 16 years ago. Jagr's hardly the only aging veteran on this Czech roster: Petr Nedved, now 42 and playing in his home country, made this team. The Czech team has a decent core -- roughly two-thirds of its roster plays in the NHL -- but they lack the goaltending that even Slovakia and Switzerland have. Last time around, they lost in the quarters to Finland. Also last time around: Jagr got leveled by Alexander Ovechkin on this hit in the prelims. Careful in the neutral zone, everybody. This ain't the All-Star Game.
Finland has medaled in three of the four Olympics with NHL participation, including bronze four years ago in Vancouver. Finland's biggest strength is in goal, with Boston's Tuukka Rask and San Jose's Antti Niemi available to start. (Kari Lehtonen will likely serve as the third-string option in Sochi.) Another team with a lot of familiar names, they'll also have one of the better storylines to follow: Team captain Teemu Selanne, who is retiring from the NHL at the end of the season, will play in his sixth Olympics. (He's already got a silver medal and a pair of bronze medals.) Meanwhile, Mikko Koivu's status for the Games is still unknown; he broke his ankle last month, but could still be cleared to play in Sochi.
4. United States
We know more about the construction of Team USA than we do about any other team in the tournament, thanks to Scott Burnside's all-access look at the selection process. They assembled the team with an eye on building a certain type of first line, and certain type of checking line, and so on. They know already what they want their power play to look like. And players like Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle were left off the roster because they didn't fit into that plan. The idea is to build a team that looks like a team, rather than picking the best players regardless of role or position and then figuring out what to do with them from there.
The problem with that kind of plan, though, is that it becomes harder to mix things up if things don't go right. If the top six forwards struggle to score, for instance, Ryan won't be there to take over a role he could otherwise fill without much issue. And the competition is too good, especially in Team USA's group, for everything to go exactly according to plan. (The one exception is in net, where an excellent back-up is ready and waiting regardless of whether Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller gets the nod to start at the beginning of the tournament.) These are supposed to be the Olympics where Team USA builds on a strong, surprising showing in Vancouver. They're certainly talented enough to medal, and even win gold. But on the larger ice surface in Russia, it's also possible they could finish out of the medal picture entirely. The closer we get to Sochi, the more nervous I get that Team USA, as skilled and physical as they are, could take a step backwards this year.
No team was as big a disappointment in Vancouver than Russia, who entered the tournament as one of the favorites to win gold and lost in the quarterfinals after drawing a tough match-up against Canada. There are two ways to look at them this time around: Perhaps they'll benefit from home-ice advantage, and feed off the crowd the way the Canadians did in Vancouver... or perhaps they'll falter under the enormous pressure to take home gold in Sochi. How much have the Russians been looking forward to these games? Alexander Ovechkin announced long ago that he intended to represent his country in 2014 regardless of whether the NHL broke for two weeks to allow its players to participate. (Sample headline from earlier this week: "February could define Ovechkin's career." That's an awful lot of pressure.)
With a top-six that could include Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and Ilya Kovalchuk, it's hard to imagine Russia will flop again the way they did in 2010, especially since they're playing on home ice. But it was also inconceivable that a team with so much talent wouldn't get past the quarters last time, even if the bracket wasn't kind to them. Worth noting: Datsyuk, Team Russia's captain, may not be healthy enough to play in Sochi (and may not be 100 percent even if he does play). And in a tournament with so many talented teams, a loss of such an elite player could be could be huge.
Sweden's got great depth -- their roster is made up almost entirely of NHLers -- and even without the now-retired Nicklas Lidstrom, they have no shortage of big names, including Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedin twins, Erik Karlsson, Daniel Alfredsson and Alexander Steen, to name but a handful. They're not the most physical team, but their forwards are responsible in their own end, which should help cut down on chances against. And in any case, the bigger ice surface benefits teams that don't play an especially grinding style.
But even with as stacked a roster as any in the tournament, Team Sweden will only go as far as their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, will take them. Luckily for them, Lundqvist is playing his best hockey of the year right now, and after a shaky couple of months to open the season, he's again looking like an all-world goalie for the Rangers. Lundqvist, then just an NHL rookie, was in goal when Sweden took home gold in Turin in 2006, and he's only gotten better since then.
Sweden's roster is loaded with talent, Russia is on home ice with some of the most skilled players on the planet, the U.S. team is poised to build on the silver medal they won four years ago... but this is still Canada's tournament to lose. Canada assembles its roster in a very different way than, say, the Americans: They have no problem selecting a surplus of centers, then playing some of them out of position in order to get the most talented players into the lineup, somewhere.
Of course, as inelegant as that might be, it totally worked four years ago, when Team Canada beat Team USA and its properly constructed lines in the gold medal game. Canada, once again, is oozing with talent, to the point that players like Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton and Martin St. Louis could be left off entirely. And though it's believed a team made up entirely of NHL players that grew up on smaller North American rinks would struggle on the larger ice surface, remember than Canada won gold in Salt Lake City on a 60m x 30m sheet of ice in 2002.
Roberto Luongo, the starting goalie on the gold medal team four years ago, was thought to have the inside track on the job again this year, but Carey Price has played well and remains an option to start, though even that wouldn't necessarily mean Mike Babcock will stick with him if he falters. Luongo, after all, didn't begin the Vancouver Games as Canada's No. 1.
Canada hasn't medaled in an Olympics outside of North America since 1994, back before NHL participation. (That was the year Peter Forsberg's one-handed shootout goal beat Corey Hirsch and landed Forsberg on a Swedish postage stamp.) And Canada hasn't won gold outside of their home continent since the 1952 Oslo Games. In other words, history isn't necessarily on their side. But with so much talent on their roster -- they're arguably stronger now than they were four years ago -- they're still the favorites heading into Sochi, no matter how much their neighbors to the south might be rooting for them to fail.