When it comes to men’s hockey in the winter Olympics, anyone has a shot at gold. Team Sweden turned the hockey world topsy-turvey when they prevailed to take home the gold medal four years ago at the Turin Olympics while Team Canada, always a favorite for gold, finished in a dismal seventh-place. When the elimination rounds hit, teams better come prepared to play at the highest level every night or else it’s one-and-done before a team packs their bags to take the early flight home. EB already posted his predictions on who will take home medals this year, but here is a more in-depth look at who could surprise and teams to keep an eye out for as the Vancouver games get underway.
The Gold Medal Favorites: Canada and Russia. These two teams are stacked from top to bottom with talent. When Ryan Getzlaf potentially centers your third line behind the likes of Sidney Crosby, who is having a career year, and Joe Thornton, you know you have an almost invincible lineup. Anything besides gold would be a disappointment for this Canadian squad, especially after their abysmal finish in Turin. Similarly, Russia is stacked with firepower in the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin and Evgeni Malkin. Oh, and did I forget to mention that some of those players will have the gifted Pavel Datsyuk feeding them the puck night in and night out? Yikes. It could be a miracle if any defense can stop that type of firing squad. But with both teams the X-factor could be chemistry. In order to be successful, these teams need to check their egos at the door and play like a team.
The Underdogs: Sweden. Defending their gold-medal-winning performance from four years ago certainly won’t be easy, and the Swedes come in as heavy underdogs this year, but that’s the way they like it. With much of the same roster returning, it’s hard to count this team out. What I really like about this team is the healthy mix of offensive players capable of backchecking aggressively and the defenseman able to rush up and contribute on offense. With Henrik Lundquist between the pipes, this team is all-around good. The X-factor here could be Peter Forsberg, who has missed time in recent years nursing a lingering foot injury. He maintains that he is in good health, but it will be interesting to see how he fares against the top athletes in the world.
Don’t Count Out: Finland. This team does surprisingly well in international competition. Bronze in 1994 and 1998 and silver in 2006. Goalie Mikka Kiprusoff has stood on his head at times for the Calgary Flames this season and could easily do so for Finland at the Olympics and lead them into the medal rounds. Not to mention they have a highly touted group of underrated players led by Washington Captials forward Niklas Backstrom, who currently 26 goals and 50 assists this season. And, much like Team Sweden, Team Finland is more than capable of checking their egos at the door to play as a cohesive team. However, the X-factors are numerous for this team. Will Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne pick up the scoring in what will most likely be their last Olympic appearances? And can Olli Jokinen play with 100 percent effort night in and night out? Every second counts, but like I said, this team does well internationally and may surprise some fans.
I’m Not Giving Up On: Team USA. Talk about a rag-tag group of players. But if nothing else, Team USA sports a lineup of guys who know how to work hard. Sure, they may not have the firepower of a team like Russia, but Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Bobby Ryan (pictured) are all capable of finding the back of the net. Ryan Malone and David Backes add toughness as well as scoring depth. Ryan Miller is having a career year in goal and Jonathan Quick has established himself as a number one goaltender as well. Plus, the team now has a rallying point with the recent death of Team USA GM Brian Burke’s son. That extra incentive to work hard for Burke in memory of his son could push this team over the hump and right into the medal rounds.
In the elimination rounds, it’s anyone’s game. A bad bounce either way could spell the difference between the gold medal game and going home early to catch the rest of the tournament from the comfort of your own living room. Every team needs to be ready to compete at 100 percent every time they step on the ice. Gold medals aren’t easy to win, that’s why they only come around once every four years.