While some people bemoan the fact that Olympic Hockey is no longer the amateur showcase it once was, it’s difficult to argue that this isn’t the greatest hockey tournament in the world. The men’s Olympic hockey tournament opens on Wednesday and the old cliché “it’s anyone’s tournament to win” does not necessarily apply. Let’s take a quick look at the top medal contenders.
Finland is known for three things: saunas, Nokia and excessive drinking. But they’re also known for producing some of the best goaltenders in the world – Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins), Antti Neimi (San Jose Sharks) and Kari Lehtonen (Dallas Stars). On the larger Olympic ice surface, quality scoring chances can be limited and a hot goaltender can win games for their country.
The Czechs are a far cry from the powerhouse they were back in Nagano in 1998. They have two over forty players on their roster – Jaromir Jagr (New Jersey Devils) and Petr Nedved (I didn’t know he was still playing). If they could merge back with Slovakia for the next two weeks, they might have a chance in this tournament. But for the Czechs to medal, I think one of the top teams would need to become seriously ill on bad face water or collectively fall through one of Sochi’s open manholes.
Russia still manages to produce the most talented and skilled players in the world with the likes of Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Pavel Datysuk (Detroit Red Wings) and Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals). But the Russians have been a less motivated team since the days of the Red Army Team. Probably because the Red Army players were essentially soldiers and today’s Russian players are millionaires. The Russian team has two major weak spots; goaltending and the fact that 10 roster spots are taken by KHL players, the Russian professional league, whom many in Russia feel is equivalent to the NHL (insert sarcastic laugh here).
It’s always hard to miss Sweden at an international tournament, they are the guys in the IKEA jerseys and based on photos of Sochi accommodations, they should feel right at home. Everyone keeps talking about Canada and the U.S., but Sweden has quietly put together a powerhouse team. Granted, they will be missing one of the Sedin twins, but when Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings) is on your 3rd line, you have some serious depth. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer the Swedish Bikini team any day of the week, but I imagine they are busy somewhere rescuing men drinking Old Milwaukee Beer.
In 2010, the U.S. gave Team Canada everything they had in an exhilarating OT final resulting in the Silver medal for Team U.S.A. They are returning many of the same players this year but have made some upgrades, especially on defense. What they lack in marquee names on their roster is made up for by a little man complex when it comes to our neighbors to the north. As special as the Miracle on Ice and the 1996 World Cup was, I’m sure the U.S. players feel the pressure to leave their own mark on U.S. Hockey lore.
It’s no secret who the Goliath is in this tournament and it goes by the name, Team Canada. Many of the players left off Team Canada’s roster would be starters for most other countries in this tournament. In 2010, Team Canada succeeded in taking NHL superstars and putting them in unfamiliar roles as 3rd line checkers and 4th line support players. In 2010, on home soil, the pressure to win Gold was intense. Will Team Canada be as motivated so far from home? Anything less than a Gold medal is still considered failure for this team and that should keep players from staying out too late in the Olympic village chasing those minxes from the Norwegian Biathlon team.[Images via via via] [related-posts]