The best international hockey tournament gets underway tomorrow with The Czech Republic facing off against Henrik Lundqvist and Team Sweden (full schedule here). It's shaping up to be quite possibly the best Olympic Hockey Tournament since...well...4 years ago actually.
We all know what happened in Vancouver in 2010, (WHY DIDN'T MILLER CLOSE HIS LEGS), but that's ancient history. This is Russia, bigger ice and uglier uniforms.
So, who's taking part in the tournament this year? Glad I asked, let's take a little closer look shall we?
Overview: The true home team is playing for a lot of things. Pride, a legacy, but most importantly the country's first Olympic gold medal since the Unified Team won gold in 1992. Led by the hottest goal scorer on the face of the planet, Alex Ovechkin and company will be taking a high powered offense up against the world with gold or bust expectations.
Roster: You can find the full roster for the Russian squad here
Strength: Firepower, and lots of it. Alex Ovechkin will be playing on a line centered by Evgeni Malkin with Ilya Kovalchuck (remember him?) on his right. Russia's second line reportedly has Alexander Radulov skating with Pavel Datsyuk (if healthy, which is a big IF right now) and Alexander Semin. This Russian team will be able to score goals. A lot of them.
Weakness: While the Russians have probably the best pure shooters on their top six lines, their defensive depth is pretty thin outside of Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin and their goaltending duo of Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov are capable of putting up solid performances, they're probably the weakest pairing of the gold contending teams.
The United States:
Overview: The reigning silver medalists arrive in Sochi will a much scrutinized roster that many feel does not have the speed and skating ability to keep up with the other powerhouses both up front and on the back end. The Americans will be trying to win their first Olympic gold in almost 34 years and after winning silver (or losing gold) four years ago, anything less than a 3rd place finish would be viewed as a disappointment.
Roster: Here is the full roster that will be sporting the red, white and blue in Russia
Strength: Depth and adaptability. The US squad had a top line in practice of Ryan Kesler-Dustin Brown-Patrick Kane and a second line of Phil Kessel-Joe Pavelski-James Van Riemsdyk with players like Ryan Callahan, David Backes, TJ Oshie, Max Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny all playing bottom six, checking roles. With a coach as good as Dan Bylsma at the helm, this is a forward corps that can go toe to toe with any of the teams in this tournament and shut them down. They also have two of the best pure goal scorers in Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane.
Weakness: If the US is lacking in any area is that aside from Kessel, Kane and Oshie, there aren't many speed guys on this team. Especially on the back end, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin are solid defensemen in the NHL, but on a larger ice surface the lack of mobility in the defense corps could be what dooms the Americans.
Overview: Slovakia surprised everyone in the 2010 tournament by knocking out Sweden, and almost eliminating Canada before eventually falling to the eventual bronze medalists Finland. Don't expect a similar run out of the Slovaks this year, as age and injury have slowed this team down a ton. They'll be a tough out, but they won't be challenging for a medal any time soon.
Roster: The full Slovak roster can be found here
Strength: Zdeno Chara and
Marcel Marian Hossa. An aging team that will miss Marian Gaborik, the Slovakian team is filled with some ok, I guess, players and two supreme talents on the back nine of their careers in The Good Hossa and Chara. Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj are a solid NHL goalie tandem but they're not facing the Winnipeg Jets or Buffalo Sabres for the next two weeks.
Weakness: They're OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLD and their goaltending good to mediocre at best.
Overview: Oh poor Slovenia. They didn't qualify for the 2010 games and are really just Anze Kopitar and bunch of his friends and family (Seriously, Kopitar's father is the coach of the team).
Roster: You can check it out here, but it's really just Anze Kopitar and bunch of dudes.
Weakness: ...Well...is saying "everything" a little too cruel?
Overview: This upstart nation shocked the world four years ago when they beat the vaunted United States of America in overtime off a fluky goal that wouldn't go in 9 times out of 10. This plucky little country is bringing a good mix of offense, defense and goaltedning to Sochi and hopes to do well this time around.
Roster: The exact opposite of Slovenia's roster. It's kinda good (swap Steven Stamkos with Martin St. Louis)
Strength: So...where to start? Many people have constructed very strong rosters off of the players Team Canada snubbed. John Tavares is being used as a 4th line center. Rick Nash is probably the 5th or 6th best forward on the roster. What I'm trying to say is that this team is slightly unfair. They also have the best tactical coach (in my opinion) in hockey in Mike Babcock.
Weakness: Is the fact that anything can happen is a single-elimination tournament that is heavily weighed by luck a weakness?
Overview: After winning bronze in 2010, Finland is gearing up for a gold rush this year by bringing the strongest goaltending corps and a solid mix of offense and defense to Sochi and could be a definite player going into the medal round.
Roster: Full roster is right over here
Strength: Like I said above, the Fins have the best goaltending and a solid mix of veteran players like Teemu Selanne and youngsters like Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granland that could challenge a few of the big boys and give them a good scare and their goaltending duo of Tuukka Rask and Kari Lehtonen should be enough to win a game or two.
Weakness: There really isn't a glaring weakness, but there really isn't a glaring strength here. The Fins will have a good, strong team with no real stand out player up front or on defense
Overview: Cool names, land of Hobbit Wizards, bad hockey team
Roster: Mats Zuccarello. That's it, really.
Weakness: Offense, defense, goaltening...anything that isn't Mats Zuccarello
Overview: Austria is...well...Austria. A team that has a nice few players in Thomas Vanek and Michael "Breakaway A Game" Grabner, but overall doesn't really have much to to compete with the big medal contenders.
Roster: Full roster can be found right here
Strength: Like I said above, Vanek and Grabner are the few recognizable names and could help Austria make some games interesting but that's about it
Weakness: Uh...well...they're gonna give up a lot of goals and not really score a lot of them to compensate.
Overview: After a mildly disappointing finish in 2010, the Swedes restocked and is bringing probably the most balanced line up to Sochi looking for gold.
Roster: You can see who will be sporting the Tre Kroner here
Strength: Depth, two-way play, handsomeness. The Swedes have a full package of speed, skill and defensive reliability on their roster and are backstopped by a guy I think we're all familiar with in Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedes will be a tough customer for any and all challengers.
Weakness: If anything the Swedes don't have the one real standout player that could change a game up front, but they will be a well oiled machine over the next two weeks and will be a very strong team
Overview: The Czechs are bringing an interesting mix of players to The Games, and should be an interesting team to watch if they get some goaltending.
Roster: Here ya go
Strength: Jaromir Jagr and Patrick Elias have been pretty damn good this year for the Devils and should lead this crop of solid 2nd line forwards and middle pair d-men to respectability, but don't look for them to get close to the podium
Weakness: Goaltending. 1998 Dominic Hasek ain't flying into Sochi tomorrow which means the Czechs are stuck with the NHL's worst starting goaltender to try and fend off a bunch of all star teams. So yeah...good luck with that.
Overview: Sandis Ozolins! Zemgus Girgensons! Kaspars Daugavins! Catch the fever!
Strength: Yeah, I got nothing
Weakness: Sandis Ozolins is playing for the Latvian national team...I think that qualifies.
Overview: Those chocolate making, universal knife crafting, neutrality loving Swiss also have a hockey team. How wacky is that?!
Roster: There's actually a couple of really good players on the roster, that you can see here
Strength: Jonas Hiller can steal the odd game here or there and the Swiss actually have a couple of solid defensemen on the roster in Mark Streit and Yannick Weber while up front Nino Niederreiter and Damien Brunner will be tasked with picking up the goals.
Weakness: There really isn't that much here to be a true contender, but Jonas Hiller makes anything possible in a short tourney.
Well, there you have it. A pretty well thought out preview of the 2014 Men's Ice Hockey Tournament and now for my totally shot in the dark prediction:
Do NOT put money on any of that