The men’s hockey tournament is one of the biggest draws of the Winter Olympics.
Sidney Crosby’s game-winning goal against the United States in Vancouver was one of the most recognizable Olympic moments for Canadians, and this year’s event could be even more competitive.
Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States all are considered top contenders, while Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Slovakia will all be in the mix to medal.
So who will take the gold this time around?
Throughout the tournament, sportsnet.ca will provide power rankings for all 12 participating nations in the men’s hockey event.
1) CANADA – As defending champions, Canada opens up at the top of the power rankings. Coach Mike Babcock is working with the deepest roster of the entire tournament, but questions surround Canada’s goaltending and ability to transfer its game to the big ice. It’s significant that Canada won both of its recent gold medals in North America (Salt Lake City 2002, Vancouver 2010).
2) SWEDEN – Sweden was strongly considered for the No. 1 spot. The team is absolutely loaded on defence with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson headlining the unit, and the country is set between the pipes with the all-world Henrik Lundqvist. He’s got great hair, too. The absence of Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen will hurt the talented forward group.
Sweden lines: Landeskog-Zetterberg-Steen; Sedin-Backstrom-L.Eriksson; Nyquist-Berglund-Alfredsson; Hagelin-Kruger-J.Ericsson #Sochi2014
3) RUSSIA – It’s obvious how motivated the Russians will be to perform in their home country. They have easily the most explosive group of forwards (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, etc.) and an underrated defence corps that can move the puck. The key for Russia will be its ability to play without the puck and how its goaltenders (either Sergei Bobrovsky or Semyon Varlamov) hold up on the big stage.
4) UNITED STATES – The Americans were so close to a gold medal in Vancouver and have a stronger roster this time around. They have great size, speed and toughness up front and dress one of the best goaltending tandems in the tournament with Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller. The squad has arguably upgraded in the coaching department with Pittsburgh bench boss Dan Blysma taking over for former Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
5) FINLAND – The Finnish squad may not have the fire power it once had at forward, but it remains a rock-solid unit with a history of performing in the tournament. The biggest questions are on the back end, where the Finns lack high-end talent and will instead rely on a trio of netminders (Antti Niemi, Tuukka Rask and Kari Lehtonen) that cannot be matched. And, hey, they still have Teemu Selanne.
6) CZECH REPUBLIC – The Czechs may not have Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr in their prime like in Nagano 1998, but they still have a very impressive roster. While it’s not a young group with Jagr, Patrik Elias, Tomas Kaberle, Petr Nedved and Marek Zidlicky on the roster, David Krejci, Elias and Tomas Plekanec lead a sneaky forward group . One thing to pay attention to is goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who surprisingly won’t get the start against Sweden.
7) SLOVAKIA – Slovakia will be in tough in a pool with powerhouses Russia and the United States, but it can make some noise in Sochi. The Slovakians beat the Russians 2-1 in Vancouver and came close to taking Canada to overtime in the semifinals. The Slovaks have a deep enough roster to contend again. Any time you have Zdeno Chara on your team, you have a chance to win. The hulking Slovak is the most valuable shutdown player in the entire world.
8) SWITZERLAND – Jonas Hiller was one of the stars of Vancouver, and he’ll be back leading the Swiss squad between the pipes. Switzerland has a number of capable NHL-level defencemen—Mark Streit, Raphael Diaz and the widely underrated Roman Josi—but will need a major performance from an unheralded group of forwards. The Swiss have just two forwards currently playing in the NHL: Nino Niederreiter and Damien Brunner. And they have their own version of a Bieber, with Matthias.
9) LATVIA – Latvia may have a tough time getting past Sweden, the Czech Republic and Switzerland in Group C, but at least it has defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh, last seen in the NHL in 2007-08. At 41 years old, Ozolinsh is still the most recognizable name on the Latvian roster—outside of coach Ted Nolan.
10) AUSTRIA – Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner headline a group that won’t have an easy road. They are in the same pool as Canada and Finland but have plenty of speed and skill throughout the roster. Vanek is team captain.
11) NORWAY – Norway has only one NHLer in the lineup, Mats Zuccarello, but the group does bring experience to the tournament. The Norwegians are a scrappy bunch that pushed Switzerland to overtime in Vancouver and gave Slovakia a tough effort in a 4-3 loss. Zuccarello and KHLer Patrick Thoresen are expected to fill major roles.
12) SLOVENIA – The Slovenian team begins and ends with Anze Kopitar, the only NHLer on the roster. He will be asked to carry the offence for a team making its first-ever Olympic appearance. Just qualifying was an accomplishment for the developing hockey nation.