Most eyes will be on Canada and the United States at the Olympic hockey tournament next month in Sochi, and for good reason. The teams won gold and silver, respectively, in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and have rosters loaded with some of the NHL’s elite players.
Canada has plenty of talent, especially at the forward position. Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), who scored the gold-medal winner in 2010 against the Americans, leads the team’s high-profile scorers. The two-time Stanley Cup winner will be joined up front by Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks), as well as other high-profile scorers like Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins), Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars) and Chris Kunitz (Pittsburgh Penguins), among others.
Canada is in a weak Group B, along with Austria, Finland and Norway, and is expected to win each of its games in the opening round.
Meanwhile, the U.S. team will have an almost entirely remade defense from Vancouver, but will feature lots of familiar faces among forwards and in goal. In net, Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) and Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings), both considered two of the best goalies in the world, are expected to compete for the starting spot. The American roster also has plenty of scorers, including Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) as well as Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks), among others. Defensively, only Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild) return from the 2010 team, as the selection committee went with a younger, more mobile group on defense.
But while those teams are considered the favorites to return to the gold medal game, several other countries are capable of knocking either of them off.
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The biggest threat to stop a gold-medal rematch of the Vancouver Olympics is Russia, which is led by Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals.) Russia will play the U.S. on Feb. 15 in a Group A matchup that could be crucial in determining the possible medal-round matches. Along with playing on home ice, Russia has an extremely talented roster, including players like captain Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs.) After a disappointing finish at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, in which Russia was eliminated in the quarterfinals, Ovechkin said the team certainly will feel pressure to win on home ice, but he also expects that to be one of the team's strengths.
“Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world,” Ovechkin said to ESPN. “And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic Games; especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia, it's unbelievable and it's going to be a great thing. That's what I mean it's a strength. I don't think somebody going to (think) their mission is done to be just on Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win gold medal.”
Another tough Group A opponent for the Americans will be Slovakia. The teams open up competition against each other Feb. 13. Slovakia is led by defenseman Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins), and is looking to players such as Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus (Chicago Blackhawks) and Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis Blues) to improve off its fourth place finish in Vancouver, its highest finish in Olympic hockey history.
In Group C, Sweden is considered the favorite, and will look to recapture the success it had en route to winning the gold medal in the 2006 Torino Games. The team is led by 2012 Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist, (New York Rangers). NHL forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson (Detroit Red Wings) as well as Daniel and Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), will join Lundqvist in Sochi.
The Swedes toughest competition in the group stage will be Switzerland and Czech Republic. Eight NHL players are on Switzerland’s roster, including goaltender Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks) and defenseman Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers).
Meanwhile, Jerome Jagr (New Jersey Devils), who is playing in his fifth Olympics, leads the Czechs. Tomas Plekanec (Montreal Canadians) will be the captain, while the team will also feature Patrik Elias (New Jersey Devils), David Krejci (Boston Bruins) and Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers).
The format will be the same as the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, with the group winners, as well as the second-place team with the best record, advancing to the quarter-finals, while the remaining eight teams will have to play a qualification game to get into the quarter-finals.