Today, the men’s hockey portion of the 22nd Winter Olympic games gets underway.
Twelve teams make up the field in this year’s Olympiad and at least six of them have a real chance at claiming gold.
This morning we explain why Sweden, Switzerland and Finland have a chance at winning international glory, and later today ,we’ll round out the “top-six” preview with a look at Russia, Canada and the United States.
Sweden: The Swedes won gold in 2006, backstopped by New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundquist. Four other players from that championship team return this year, three of which are members of the Detroit Red Wings. Team Sweden boasts perhaps the best blend of young talent and veteran skill in the tournament and are certainly the favorite to win Group C (Czech Republic, Switzerland, Sweden and Latvia).
Why they’ll win: If you’re a subscriber to the “defense wins championships” methodology, Team Sweden is the squad for you. Two of the top young blueliners in the NHL are on Sweden’s roster: Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The pair should represent one of the fastest and most offensively talented defensive pairs in the games. Plus, having veterans like Nick Kronwall, Alex Edler, and Niklas Hjalmarsson to shutdown the opposition isn’t too shabby either. Don’t think this is a squad that will only win games 1-0, though. A speedy forward group made up of Henrik Zetterberg, Gabriel Landeskog and Daniel Sedin (yes, only one Sedin twin this Oympics, due to Henrik’s injury), will give Sweden plenty of opportunities to light the lamp. In the end, one of the better collection of skaters in Sochi combined with strong play from Lundquist (who admittedly is only having an average season in New York) should be more than enough to bring gold back to Sweden.
Finland: Bronze was claimed by the Finnish squad in the 2010 Vancouver games, but this year’s version of the team looks quite a bit different. The Finns might be the biggest wild card in the probable top six teams. In the one area they excel in–they’re clearly the best–but in the other two, there’s a lot to be desired.
Why they’ll win: As we hinted at earlier, Finland is No. 1 in one area, and that’s in net. Top NHL Goaltenders Tuuka Rask, Antii Niemi and Kari Lehtonen are all on Finland’s roster (and just think if they’d had Pekka Rinne too?). If Rask (who should get the lion’s share of the work) plays like he’s capable of, Team Finland should be able to steal some games against the world’s top teams. Injuries to Mikko Koivu and Valteri Filppula cause the country’s forward group to be less potent than it could be, but the veteran leadership of defensemen Kimmo Timonen (former Nashville Predators captain) and Sami Salo may help to cure some of these woes. If red-hot play from the net out can belong to the Finns, they should have a good opportunity to upgrade on the type of medal they took home last time.
Switzerland: Hopes are pretty high for the Swiss entering the Olympiad, despite the fact that they haven’t claimed an Olympic medal in men’s hockey in recent memory. Sixty-six percent of the Predators represented in Sochi are on this country’s roster with defenseman Roman Josi on the blue line and Simon Moser in the forward corps.
Why they’ll win: Admittedly, this one is a little harder to argue. If the Swiss do in fact claim gold this year, it would represent one of the larger upsets in men’s hockey in years (no disrespect to the miracle on ice, of course). The lack of superstars on Team Switzerland may give them the element of surprise in a few of their games, however, and in tournament play: where you only have to beat a team once to advance–anything can happen. Often in hockey, consistency can breed success and the Swiss boast a lot of hard-nosed, yet skilled forwards (if not many NHL players) that can get the job done. If the successful season he’s having in Anaheim can carry over for netminder Jonas Hiller along with production from all four lines, the Swiss might just surprise us all in Sochi.
Switzerland and Sweden will both be in action later today as they play Latvia and the Czech Republic respectively at 11:00 a.m. (CST).