The Olympic break is finally upon us and, depending on logistics, could be the last Olympics that features NHL players representing their countries.
Each team will have fairly limited practice time given the short time period between the NHL break and beginning of the Olympic tournament. This could serve as an early benefit for some of the assumed underdogs who have fewer NHL players making the hop across the Atlantic, but even those players will need to take breaks from their respective national teams for the Olympic tournament. The games will officially open on February 8 and the tournament will run until February 23.
There are some changes between the 2010 and 2014 games in which the IIHF allowed the 2010 men’s and women’s tournaments to be played on NHL sized rinks as opposed to an international surface. The Sochi ice will be nearly 15 feet wider than the ice most of the participants are used to and that adjustment could also come into play as the tournament moves along.
One interesting feature of this year’s tournament is the pool seeding. Based on the 2012 IIHF World Championships, there are decidedly difficult pools that were determined by the IIHF World Rankings. The US and Russians highlight an impressive Group A that includes Slovakia and Slovenia, a group that will not provide an easy out for anyone. Group B is headlined by the defending gold and bronze medalists in Canada and Finland, respectively. Norway and Austria round out the group as the Norweigians are no longer the new kid on the block for the tournament. Group C is filled out by Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia. That is perhaps the one group which could produce a surprising upset given the Swiss’ propensity to play big in international events.
Group B may be the easiest to prognosticate with Groups A and B each having a pair of darkhorse teams that could cause trouble for the favorites.
While the United States’ run to a silver medal in 2010 was impressive, they’re faced with an equally difficult road to a first round bye this year. Ryan Miller’s preliminary round dominance helped the Americans over Canada and to a top seeding for the quarters. It will take an equally impressive performance in goal (from Miller or Jonathan Quick) and the requisite goal support to lift the US over Russia this year. The US roster has more elite talent this year compared to what may be described as a more complete team in 2010. While leaving Bobby Ryan out was a surprise to many, the US roster still has some impressive talent in their top-six.
The Russians enter the tournament as the hometown favorite with plenty to prove after a disastrous showing in Vancouver. While goaltending and defense show as potential weak spots on the roster, the firepower they boast at forward makes them an immediate contender regardless of who is in net. Should Semyon Varlamov maintain a consistent level of play, he could easily elevate the Russians to the top team in the tournament.
Both the Americans and Russians will need to be aware of the Slovakians in pool play. The Slovaks made a strong run to the bronze medal game and a fourth place finish in Vancouver on the back of a veteran lineup. While some of the old guard has moved on, a number of their young stars have come into their own at the NHL level. They will not only prove to be a tough team to defeat but certainly a squad which will make noise in the quarterfinals.
Slovenia is brand new to the Olympic tournament and boasts just one NHL talent; Anze Kopitar. While Kopitar is truly a world-class talent, he will need a ton of help to lift the Slovenians to victories in Sochi. While I doubt that they escape pool play with a victory, their appearance alone in the tournament is a major victory for their national program.
Outlook: The group winner will likely come down to the US and Russia although I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the Slovaks steal at least one point from one of those two squads in preliminary play. Preliminary Standings: Russia (2-1-0-0), United States (2-0-0-1), Slovakia (1-0-1-1), Slovenia (0-0-0-3). Records are listed in order of Win-OT Win-OT Loss-Loss. Three points are awarded for a regulation win, two for an OT win and 1 point for an OT loss.
The Canadians earned an easy berth in their pool considering some of the veteran talent that the Finns will have at this year’s tournament. The Canadians are an all-star team. There is no other way to describe the wealth of talent they’ll bring to Sochi. While goaltending was expected to be a question mark for the tournament, one of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo or Mike Smith will be able to carry the load for the stacked roster in front of them.
Goaltending is the precise strength for the Finnish national team as each of their three goaltenders would start for just about every country in this year’s Olympic Games aside from, perhaps the Swedes or Americans. Tuukka Rask is likely the starter but Antti Niemi and Kari Kehtonen are equally capable of stealing a game on a nightly basis. There are some impressive, young talents on this roster that is still anchored by the old guard entering the tournament. If they get hot, they’ll be very difficult to beat.
While Norway was thoroughly dominated in what turned out to be the strongest pool in the 2010 games (Canada, US and Switzerland), they enter the 2014 games with a stronger international resume and the experience of having played in an Olympic tournament just four years earlier. While they’ll surely see little success against the Canadians or Finns, I can see them stealing a preliminary round win over Austria before facing another superior opponent in the quarters.
Austria, like Slovenia, is a new kid on the block. The presence of NHL players on the roster could give them a slight edge over the Norwegians in terms of depth. That NHL talent might just put them over the edge when it comes to their showdown with Norway. But with a pair of teams with very few players in North American leagues, it’s hard to pinpoint where each will end up.
Outlook: This should be cut and dry. The Canadians will likely seize the first seed in the quarters while neither Austria or Norway will threaten Finland. The real key is if the Finns will get help elsewhere to snag the fourth first-round bye. Preliminary Standings: Canada (3-0-0-0), Finland (2-0-0-1), Norway (0-1-0-2), Austria (0-0-1-2)
This is an interesting group as the Swedes will certainly enter the tournament as the prohibitive favorite amongst their three opponents. Sweden’s roster is an impressive collection of two-way talent with a ton of depth in the middle of the ice. Henrik Lundqvist will carry the load in the crease and I expect the Swedes to present a serious challenge for gold.
A few interesting roster choices makes the Czech Republic a borderline group. While there are plenty of NHL names on the roster, they are bringing quite a bit of age along with them, notably, Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr. While Jagr has proven to be an ageless wonder, some of the other roster choices perplexed those in the hockey community. The Czechs will live and die with Ondrej Pavelec which, depending on your opinion of him, could be a precarious way to go about the tournament.
I expect the Swiss squad to surprise people this year. Jonas Hiller is beyond dialed in at this point and they have seemingly progressed each and every year on the international stage. While they won’t likely pull any Belarussian surprises on the Swedes, I can definitely see them upsetting the Czech’s on their way to the elimination round. If Hiller isn’t at his best the Swiss will struggle. But if he continues the play he’s displayed this season, I’d expect them to grab a few wins.
The Latvians wind up in a very challenging group and their path through the preliminaries may only be topped by the Slovenians. While fans in Buffalo will certainly be excited to see Ted Nolan behind the bench and Zemgus Girgensons on the ice, I doubt that the Latvian’s compete level will do enough to get them a win in the opening round.
Outlook: Sweden takes this group running away with the Swiss stealing a win off the Czech’s and slotting in the second spot in the group. The Latvians will likely be fourth with the Czech’s in third somewhat by default. Preliminary Standings: Sweden (3-0-0-0), Switzerland (2-0-0-1), Czech Republic (1-0-0-2), Latvia (0-0-0-3)
Elimination & Medal Round
Based on my loose prognostications I have the Canadians, Russians, Swedes and Finns advancing with a first round bye, although the US and maybe even Switzerland could be in the conversation for a bye depending on their goal differential. Where I think a curveball might be thrown is in the path to the medal round.
While the Canadians and Swedes will certainly advance to the medal round games, I could see the Russians or Finns upset along the way. I am hopeful that the Americans will be one of the four teams playing for a medal with Switzerland being my surprise pick to advance to the final four. From there I expect the depth of the participating teams to win out with the Canadians defeating Sweden for gold in 2014.
Bronze: United States