Olympic Hockey Favorites Ready for the Puck to Drop
The NHL players have now recovered from the long trip to Sochi and the mens' Olympic hockey tournament is about to begin.
There are four or five clear-cut favorites with legitimate hopes of winning the coveted gold this year.
Russia has the most pressure on them, and they've acknowledged it. So has President Vladimir Putin. So has the Russian press. The consensus is that this is the key medal for the country where hockey is king. Alex Ovechkin, Evegni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk & Co can provide more than enough firepower:
But the Russian defense is suspect. Goaltender Sergei Bovrovsky has got to be at the top of his game for the hosts to have any chance at any medal.
Canada has incredible depth. The defending champs are led by captain Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Shea Weber, and Rick Nash. Canada's goalies are also key, as either Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, or Mike Smith will get the nod. From every aspect of the game, this team is a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Goalie is a big question for the United States, but in a good way. Ryan Miller was great four years ago and has seen his share of rubber behind a horrible Buffalo defense; he's not only proven at the international level and his situation with the Sabres has kept him battle-tested. Jonathan Quick may not be the goalie he was two years ago when the Kings won the Cup, but he seems to have returned to stellar form in the last six weeks. Jimmy Howard has been injured on and off this year, but looks like he's risen to the occasion, too, with his recent play for the Red Wings. Key offensive contributors for the USA will be Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, Patrick Kane, and James van Riemsdyk.
Sweden is tabbed by many to be best built for the big ice dimensions of Olympic hockey. The surface is 15 feet wider, and with its contingent of world-class defensemen such as Niklas Kronwall, Erik Karlsson, and Niklas Hjalmarsson second-nature familiar with playing big-ice angles, the Tre Kronor should limit the scoring chances goalie Henrik Lundquist will face. And as one of the top netminders in the game, King Henrik will keep the 2006 Turin titlists in every contest. The Swedes can score, even without Henrik Sedin, who is out with a rib injury. His brother Daniel is playing along with Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Bäckstrom, as the first of three versatile lines who simply lock and load from a national system that has trained its players in a uniform -- and successful -- way. No international team can come together at short notice and mesh like Sweden.
Finland is mentioned because of their strong goaltending. Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi, and Tuukka Rask can match anyone between the pipes but the Finns may not have the scoring to keep up. Their lasting memory may be more along the lines of this being Teemu Selanne's swan song on the Olympic stage.
And the Czechs' question may well be if ageless Jaromir Jagr will ever have a swan song. They're here, they're solid, and they're pesky, but depth is an issue; when the roster includes a player -- NHL vet Petr Nedvěd -- older than Jagr, it's telling. That will no doubt relegate the Czech Republic's role to that of a spoiler in this tournament.
The thematic sub-currents are rich. Can Russia overcome its early exit from 2010 and live up to the intensity of a host nation's expectations of anything less than gold being a failure? Can Sweden's impressive machinelike precision make a run to gold as it did in 2006? Will the United States get revenge for its bitter loss in the gold medal game four years ago, or will Canada march to another title?
The game times are crazy, many with 7am est starts, but if you're up , tune in to see a cornucopia of über-focused, emotional hockey.