The men’s portion of the Sochi ice hockey tournament begins Wednesday morning and for many, it could not come soon enough. It is a magical time of year for hockey fans, where the rivalries of a playoff race are put aside for national pride. For non-hockey fans, it is a chance to get introduced to the greatest game on ice, as the hockey played in the Winter Olympics is some of the best the average person will see. This year, especially, the gold medal will be up for grabs as there are strengths and weaknesses on every national roster in the Sochi Winter Olympic games.
If anyone could be considered the favorite coming into the tournament, it would be Team Canada. From top to bottom, their roster is stacked with NHL All-Stars, Stanley Cup champions, and various award winners. Captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, will also captain Team Canada as the nation attempts to repeat their success from the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games. Crosby scored the game-winning, and gold-medal-winning, goal for Canada in overtime during those games and it is an experience he hopes to repeat in Sochi. If Team Canada had one weakness, it would be their goaltending. Backstopped by Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, and Mike Smith, the three goaltenders are extremely solid players in their own right, but questions have arisen about their ability to perform in big games.
Team Sweden is also expected to be in competition for a gold medal. With stars like Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson and Team Sweden’s captain, Henrik Zetterberg, dotting the roster, their performance in the tournament should go a long way in solidifying their spot as a national power in the sport of hockey. How far they go in Sochi will depend on their goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist was the goaltender in net when Team Sweden won the gold in the 2006 Winter Olympics and recently won the Vezina trophy as the National Hockey League’s best goaltender. Team Sweden’s weakness would be their depth. Their top forward lines and defensive pairs are strong, but if their third or fourth line get caught too long on the ice, it could spell trouble for Sweden’s medal hopes.
Expectations are high for the Russian national team, hoping to be the second nation in a row to win gold in their home country. If there was one word that could describe Team Russia, it would be dangerous. With the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, and Alexander Ovechkin, the team can score goals and score them often. All three players have lethal wristshots that have burned many a goaltender over the years and Team Russia’s hope is that they can do it again in Sochi. Russia’s defense might be an issue as the tournament progresses, not nearly as strong as some of the other nations in play.
The United States used this year to make some changes to their roster, leaving off previous locks and giving some younger players their first chance at Olympic gold. While lacking the amount of star players on the level of Team Sweden or Team Canada, the US group boasts a lot of hardworking, hard-checking forwards, like Ryan Callahan and David Backes, that will be sure to give opposing teams more than they can handle. Their defensive blueline is inexperienced, but fast, an asset that should help cover any weakness on the big ice surface. Who will start in goal for the United States has been a point of debate for weeks, but with Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick, no decision is the wrong one.
Finally, the darkhorse of the tournament would be Team Finland. Team Finland has the benefit of using many repeat players from previous Olympics, like Mikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu and Teemu Selanne. Selanne is making his sixth appearance in the Winter Olympic games. That experience and knowledge of their teammates could lead the Finnish players and their nation to surprising medal round, as what happened in the 2006 Winter Olympics at Turin, Italy. They had to settle for silver then, but they know that in the Sochi Winter Olympics, the gold medal is up for grabs.
By Jonathan Gardner
The Detroit News