Just about every Olympic hockey tournament has an underdog team that ends up medaling unexpectedly. 2010 in Vancouver had two: USA and Finland, neither of which was considered an odds-on favorite headed into the games.
This year may well be an exception. With the 2014 games in Sochi underway, four powerhouses–USA, Sweden, Canada, and the host Russians–have legitimate medal aspirations, while the other eight will just have to be content that they have running water and working toilets.
Finland–probably the most successful nation to never win Gold–was dealt a serious blow in losing their top two centers, Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, right before the games, and even with an embarrassment of riches in net, probably won't be able to overcome their lack of offense. The Finn's first line consists of an 18-year old (Aleksander Barkov), a 21-year old (Mikael Granlund), and a guy old enough to be both of their fathers, 43-year old legend Teemu Selanne, the formerly flying Finn who has obviously and understandably lost a step or two over the years. Their youth on the top line bodes well for the future, but unless Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, or Antti Niemi get otherworldly hot, it won't be enough to medal.
The Czechs, and their roster of AARP card eligible players, likely won't be good enough to crash the podium either. Trades of course aren't allowed in the Olympics, but if they were and Finland bowed out early, these guys would be first in line to acquire Selanne as a rental. Between their age, a mysterious selection process that saw the exclusion of Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata, and Jan Hedja, and a coach who seems dead set on mismanaging his team into a nosedive (scratching Ondrej Pavelec in game one, and underutilizing much of his best NHL talent), the Czech's tournament is shaping up to be little more than the incomparable Jaromir Jagr's international farewell tour–provided he doesn't really intend to play until he's 50.
As for the rest, Slovakia is playing without Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky, and Michal Handzus–he of 13 goals in his last 147 NHL games–is their top line center. Enough said. Switzerland could maybe make a run at bronze if Jonas Hiller channels his inner Jacques Plante. Everyone else? Thanks for showing up.
Onto the medal predictions.
Bronze: Team USA
Quick, someone have me arrested for being unpatriotic. In reality though, the US even taking bronze, while somewhat disappointing, would be historic. Since the Olympics began using NHLers in 1998, no North American team (that means US and Canada), has medaled in a games hosted outside of their home continent. Maybe it's a case of playing in a foreign land, the issue of competing on the unfamiliar International ice rearing its head, or needing home ice advantage to spur them on to victory. Most likely, it's some combination of all three. The Americans are poised to buck the trend this year, with outstanding goaltending and tremendous team speed serving as the two catalysts. If they are to go further, head coach Dan Bylsma may need to tweak his lineup a bit–the Americans current top line of David Backes, Zach Parise, and Ryan Callahan certainly isn't lacking in grit, but it is in skill when compared to the teams they'll be facing.
They undoubtedly lead the tournament in blonde hair and blue eyes, but they may lack the fire power to win gold. The Swedes were dealt a blow when number one center Henrik Sedin was ruled out of the tournament, and the loss of Johan Franzen doesn't help either. They're still deep, still have Henrik Lundqvist, and can drive opponents mad with their possession of the puck, but their most explosive offensive weapon is a defenseman–Erik Karlsson–which isn't necessarily a good thing. Karlsson is outstanding, and may end up being the MVP of the entire tournament, but the likes of Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, and Daniel Alfredsson are all getting a little long in the tooth, and the Swedes will come up a little short because of it.
Good thing Joe McCarthy isn't around anymore.
Why Russia? Because if not this year, it could be a long time before they have a shot at the gold again. Consider this: in four years, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk will all be in their thirties, and a then 39-year old Pavel Datsyuk will either be gone altogether or playing in a diminished role. The Russians have their flaws–most notably, a lack of quality D, but their top-two lines are virtually unparalleled, and the drop off after their top-6 forwards isn't as egregious as it's been portrayed–just take a look at the goal Valeri Nichuskin scored today. Yes, there's pressure that comes with being the host team, but home ice has historically been more an advantage than determent, as the 2010 and 2002 all-North American finals showed. Plus, goaltending, a weakness of late for Russia, is suddenly a strength, with reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and Vezina candidate Semyon Varlamov in net. They're not a perfect team, but they'll ride the wave of emotion and nationalistic pride to gold.
Which means, no medal for Canada. What?! But they're the most talented team in the tournament!
Ask yourself though: Is that ever not the case? The Canadians are typically a boom or bust team in these tournaments–either getting hot and winning the whole thing, or bowing out shockingly early. They'll bust this time around.
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