It's been 3 days since we've seen a professional hockey game and if you're like me, you are losing your mind at this point. Well tomorrow is the day that one of the best tournaments in the game begins. We decided to run through some of the contenders one-by-one.
We'll begin with defending gold medal winners, Team Canada. Their depth is so ridiculous that we are pretty sure that you could put together a gold medal team out of the Canadian players who DIDN'T make the team! Ah, but let's focus on the guys that will be in Sochi.
When Matt Duchene and Marty St. Louis are your, um "extra forwards," you are in pretty darn good shape. No team can truly cover the loss of an injured Steven Stamkos, but if any team in Sochi can minimize the impact, Canada can. This is an extremely well-rounded forward group with high level talent across the board, led by captain Sidney Crosby. Combine that with some of the best two-way forwards in the world like Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews and then throw in Rick Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, Jamie Benn – and you've got some of the most talented grit you'll find anywhere. That's not even mentioning some of the best shooters around in Patrick Sharp, Corey Perry and Jeff Carter. Not bad, eh? With 7 of 14 returning from the 2010 games, plus a handful of NHL teammate pairs playing together, the acclimation period should be short.
On the point, they are led by Shea Weber and are arguably the most solid from top to bottom, with a lot of speed and a lot more power. The biggest question mark comes in goal. The frontrunners to start are Roberto Luongo and Carey Price, both with well-documented struggles in pressure situations. Price has the edge this season based on their NHL stats and play, but Luongo did backstop Canada to the 2010 gold medal.
To say there was controversy about some of the player choices would be an understatement, as star players like Bobby Ryan and Kyle Okposo will be watching from home. The defending Silver Medalists who lost in OT of the final game in 2010 made some interesting decisions going into Sochi, electing for a bit more brute force and grit instead of building a speed first, skill team.
Not to say the US lacks skill players. Names like Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and Zach Parise come to mind when talking about some of the best talents in the tournament. But it feels to me like many of the US forwards would choose to go through, rather than around the opposing defenseman. On the larger Olympic ice sheet, we have to question whether that type of game can really win out. The United States D core looks solid. Comprised of a good mix of veteran presence who can really bring the boom, like Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik, as well as some young, quick puck movers like Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk.
The biggest advantage for the USA comes in the crease. Although none may be considered the best tendy in the games, all are in the conversation, giving the US arguably the strongest, most stable goaltending trio from top-to-bottom. Jonathan Quick, who in recent years has solidified himself as one of the NHL's top goalies; Ryan Miller, the tournament's reigning MVP and Jimmy Howard the backstop for perennial playoff contender Detroit. Our feeling is the round robin will see all 3 goalies get a shot, with coach Dan Bylsma riding the hot hand through the knockout rounds.
Another potential contender for this year's Olympic hockey is host Team Russia. Russians will be proud to know they have already one the gold medal for team with the most 'Alex's' coming in with a staggering eight of them – that's gotta be a coach's nightmare.
Long known as a highly skilled team, this iteration will be no different. Led by captain Pavel Datsyuk, arguably the best offensive and defensive forward on the planet. Datsyuk's Olympics looked to be in jeopardy due to injury, but he's now practicing with the team in Sochi, so it seems unlikely he will sit out. Add to that Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Vlad Tarasenko and Evgeni Malkin and you have a pretty explosive offense with those players alone. Oh yeah, did you forget about former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk? He'll be back on the world's hockey radar for the first time since 'retiring' from the league and opting to play in the KHL. For being a quick, skilled team up front, they sure can play physical on the back end. Guy's like Slava Voynov, Alexei Yemelin and Fedor Tyutin can certainly throw the body and bring some edge to Russia's game.
Russia's goaltending is nothing to scoff at, but the play of its two NHL tenders has been far from impressive this season. Both Semyon Varlomov and Sergei Bobrovsky have spent the season hovering around a 2.50 GAA and 0.920 save percentage, not bad but not great. Each, however, are capable of stealing the tournament.
Henrik Lundquist. Is that enough of an analysis? Guy lives for international competition, remember when he came out of relative obscurity, being an NHL rookie, went 5-1 and led Sweden to Gold in 2006?
Sweden enters the tournament as one of the favorites. They join Team USA and Team Canada as the only squads comprised completely of NHL players. The always smooth-skating Swedish team is led upfront by Henrik Zetterberg, Alex Steen, Gabe Landeskog and Daniel Sedin. Tons of speed and even more skill. A pretty versatile defense core splitting between guys like Niklas Kronwall who can absolutely lay guys out, then on the other end of the spectrum there's Erik Karlsson; one of the elite offensive defenseman in the world.
In net, back to my original argument... Henrik Lundquist
Finland isn't a highly touted team coming into the games, but they are definitely what we'd consider a dark horse team who, at the very least has the potential to knock around the standings a bit and is one of the most consistent medaling teams in the history of the games.
Led by Olli Jokinen, Jussi Jokinen and Teemu Selanne (playing in his record tying 6th Olympic games), there is no question that Finland has some talent upfront, but not as impressive a roster as some other nations. On the blue line, veteran Kimmo Timonen is the leader, along with Sami Salo and Pens impressive youngster Olli Maatta adding stability.
In goal, Finland is another team in the conversation for the best top to bottom goaltending trio. All three having proven themselves in the NHL, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi and Tuukka Rask will be formidable in the Finnish crease. Rask looks to be the leader out of the gate to start, although he has had some tough games for the Bruins in the last few weeks. With Niemi having won a Stanley cup in Chicago and Rask having led the Bruins to the cup finals last season, both have built a reputation for stepping up in pressure situations.
My bold predictions:
Gold Medal Game:
Sweden 5 vs Canada 3
Bronze Medal Game:
USA 4 vs Russia 1
How about you? What do you think? Settle in, it's gonna be a fun ride.....