The Winter Olympics were officially opened on Friday and starting Monday the NHL takes a backseat to the biggest hockey tournament in the world. With that in mind we’ll preview that tournament and let you know who the medal contenders are and of course give a prediction.
The tournament consists of 12 teams split into three groups of four as follows:
Group A – Canada; United States; Switzerland; Norway
Group B – Russia; Czech Republic; Slovakia; Latvia
Group C – Sweden; Finland; Belarus; Germany
Each team in a given group plays the other teams once in a round-robin after which the top team from each group plus the fourth best team remaining are given byes into the quarter-finals while the remainder of the teams play a preliminary playoff round to determine who will play those four top teams. Conventional wisdom says that only six of these teams has any real shot at the podium namely Canada, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Russia, and the United States (perhaps Finland can slip in their too but it’s unlikely). In a tournament like this where every team qualifies for the elimination round it only takes one good game from a “lesser” team to upset the balance which is part of what makes this such an exciting event. With that said we’ll focus on the six, possibly seven, teams who are likely to be in serious medal contention starting with the hosting Canadians.
Considered by many to be the favorites to win the gold in Vancouver the Canadians have an incredibly talented roster (see http://proicehockey.about.com/od/olympichockey/a/2010-canada-roster.htm for full roster) and will be sound in every facet of the game. With a team this strong there is really no meaningful technical analysis that can be done to assess how they will finish. For Canada their biggest issues will be staying healthy and more importantly handling the pressure from the home crowd and media because they will be fully expected to win the gold medal with anything less being considered a failure. I think Canada’s greatest advantage will be their biggest downfall in that the crowd will be with them and that’s always helpful but if things do not go exactly as planned the pressure is going to mount big time and likely lead to Canada cracking under the pressure. It’s not so much because the players can’t handle the expectations as much as the pressure will cause them to play cautiously at times and the Russians (who I think will win the gold) will not have the same pressure on them so they can play loosely and seize the moments Canada plays tight resulting in disappointment for the whole country as they take the silver medal.
As for Russia they too have such a great roster together that technically there is little to speak of but there are some weaknesses for Russia. First off the biggest head-scratcher for them is that they have so many KHL players on their roster who were chosen over some NHL guys who could have (and perhaps should have) been on the team. Not only will these guys have a tough time adjusting to the North American ice size and style of play but in the opinion of most simply are not as talented as their NHL counterparts. Despite possibly diluting their talent pool the Russians still have a ton of fire power on their s squad (see http://www.2010tracker.com/2009/12/25/russia-announces-olympic-mens-hockey-team-roster/ for full roster) which can certainly outscore anyone at even strength but also results in them having an incredibly good power play unit. Teams will have to be concerned with every penalty they take because the Russians are likely to make you pay for almost any power play opportunity given to them. Their goal scoring prowess along with some great play in net will likely lead Russia to the Gold medal in this tournament. (It also doesn’t hurt that they have won two World Championships in a row).
The remainder of the top six are likely only going to be in contention for the Bronze medal (as long as the match-ups work out so that Russia and Canada end up meeting in the final).
Starting with team Sweden; although the Swedes are the defending Olympic champions their team looks good on paper but is an aged group of players and it is unlikely they will be able to keep pace with Canada or Russia but those teams aside the Swedes can make some hey against everyone else and that is why they are my favorite to take the Bronze.
Perhaps on the opposite end of the spectrum is team USA who has a very talented team but are very young (see http://proicehockey.about.com/od/olympichockey/a/2010-usa-roster.htm for full roster). It is unlikely that a team so lacking in experience can make a serious challenge for Silver or Gold but the strength of the rest of the field puts them squarely in the middle of the race for the Bronze medal. All team USA needs is to have their guys play reasonably well and have Ryan Miller steal a couple of games for them in the medal round to have a legitimate shot at the Bronze medal. Although the Bronze medal would be great for the Americans a fourth or fifth place finish would be quite an accomplishment for this upstart squad.
The Czech Republic has a very formidable roster assembled with a number of NHL players led by former NHLer and current KHL all-star Jaromir Jagr (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/123948-2010-olympic-hockey-outlook-team-czech-republic for full roster). With the nice mix of young and veteran players the Czech Republic have to be considered co-favorites along with Sweden to grab the Bronze medal. The reason they are unlikely to make a push for the Gold is because they have a solid roster but no one really stands out on their team. Tomas Vokoun is probably their biggest star and while a goaltender can steal a game or two for you it would take that along with a star or two to carry the team any further than that and the Czechs simply do not have that.
The Slovakian team also has a fairly solid line-up just a step below the Czechs (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/126346-2010-olympic-hockey-outlook-team-slovakia for full roster). And much like the Czechs the Slovakian squad lacks in big stars which hurts their chances to even compete for the Bronze medal. Their roster top to bottom is very solid but it’s pretty underwhelming with Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa being their best players but Chara is a defensemen and Hossa is certainly not the player today he was even three years ago. So while a Bronze medal is a reasonable goal for this team they will likely not even be able to get that far and should probably be ready to accept a preliminary round win and that’s about it.
Those are my predictions but in such a short tournament just about anything can happen so it will be very exciting no matter what. Enjoy the games everybody, we’ll see you next time.