Everything is ready for the men's hockey tournament of the Sochi Winter Olympics, but who will go home with gold medals is a complete mystery today.
On the biggest stage in the world imaginable, representatives of 12 countries will compete for honor, national pride and four years of glory from February 12 to 23. The roster of players is very diverse, from young and promising alumni of national sports development programs to those who cross sticks on the NHL grounds every day. And for sure, the level of competition in Sochi will be provided by the best of the best.
In a hockey battle, powerful teams of leaders and impassable candidates will converge, who, having gathered their courage and fortitude into a fist, will fight for victory, while using the opponent's shortcomings.
Who will be the strongest? Who will be the weakest? Who will win medals? Who will leave the game?
The Austrians entered the Winter Olympics for the first time since finishing 12th at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. After spending a long time away from big hockey, and all this time trying to break into the inner circle of the elite, the Austrian team finally got a chance to fight with the best squads in the world. Having beaten Germany in the selection process, Austria is now in the spotlight and fans will be watching to see what this country can show.
If Austria gets any chance at the Olympics to play against the biggest teams, they will have to rely on their most experienced players who have been playing the game in the NHL. The most notable of these is Thomas Vanek, who scored 20 or more goals in eight consecutive seasons. Vanek will have a heavy offensive burden on his shoulders, and it is hoped that he will be able to shake off the strong defense of opponents from them.
Standing next to Vanek is his New York Islanders teammate Michael Grabner. Although his performance in the NHL is not as consistent, this hockey player knows how to send the puck into the frame and will help teammates improve their game, as well as enrich the national team. Michael Ruffle and Thomas Peck complete the list of guys with NHL experience.
The obvious obstacle to a good playoff seed is Canada. If it does not have an epic breakdown, this team will be the most difficult in group B. True, for the Austrians, Finland and Norway will also be difficult rivals.
However, Austria can snatch victory from the Norwegians if everything goes well on the ice. With Finland it will be more difficult for her, but she can also be defeated. If the Austrians prevail in two games, they will be in an advantageous position in the preliminary round, where the first game counts the most.
Perhaps the only team with more potential to win the men's ice hockey tournament is host country Russia. Every loss in the international arena is a slap in the face for Canada, where hockey is the national and favorite sport. Having taken the gold medal at the last Olympics, her host Canada, of course, is eager to consolidate her success.
The Canadian team was carefully selected from among the most talented hockey players, but at the same time a very specific goal was set. Players like Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau and Matt Duchene will make up perhaps the strongest offense in the tournament.
But the goal is not just to score goals. According to comments in The Canadian Press, head coach Steve Yzerman needs a harmonious and well-rounded game.
“I really like our team,” he said. “We have a whole bunch of guys in the roster who skate well, own the puck, have a very dangerous offense, but at the same time understand how to play with and without the puck.”
The style of play expected from forwards suggests that the defense will have very solid help and support. The blue line, made up of the best defenders Canada has to offer, will be rock solid and just as solid.
Add to this the ability of defenders to actively engage in attack, and it becomes clear that the hockey team of Canada is a formidable opponent.
Although Roberto Luongo took a medal from the Olympics in 2010, showing a stellar goal game, now, due to injuries and low playing performance, his role in the team may go down. Carey Price isn't much better as his Montreal Canadiens team is facing some serious setbacks.
This must be watched, for the gate is the weakest link in the gleaming Canadian armour.
But Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche has a different opinion.
“I don't see any big flaws,” he said. - The only drawback I know of is that we do not play on big ice all year round, and therefore there are certain difficulties. But we have a damn strong team. So we are counting on gold, otherwise it is a complete failure.”
The national team of the Czech Republic consists of treacherous and cunning veterans, as well as young legionnaires, representing an extremely diverse composition for the games of the Olympics. Although many, including Tom Thompson of The Hockey News, think that hockey is in decline in this country, the Czech Republic is able to put on a decent push and make the world's hockey elite reckon with itself.
There are many veterans with experience and leadership qualities in the list of the Czech national team. Battle-hardened players include 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr and 40-year-old former NHL player Petr Nedved. They and other experienced hockey players have something to convey to their teammates who have traveled less around the world. Combined with the talent of Tomasz Plekanec, Aleš Gemski, Patrik Eliash and David Krejča, their wisdom could be valuable enough to surprise many teams.
When asked about his thoughts on the national team, Czech defender Jan Geyda of the Colorado Avalanche agreed that there would be surprises.
“In general, the line of attack is strong,” he said. “The attacking power of the team is huge.”
Ondřej Pavelets, the only goaltender currently playing in the NHL, is expected to start. True, the success of Pavelets this season is not so brilliant as to move forward in the goalkeeping squad. In January, his hit-to-miss ratio is 6 to 5. On the eve of the Olympics, Pavelets's reliability coefficient is 2.90, and the percentage of reflection of shots is 89.4.
Such performance does not compare well with the other two goaltenders who are doing better season in the KHL. And so there is a big question about the candidate for a place at the gate.
This aspect concerns the organization, not the players. When the list of the Olympic team was announced, several important players were left behind, including NHL forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata, as well as defensemen Roman Polak and Jan Geyda.
Since it was decided to include players from the national team instead of foreign players in the Olympic team, it is simply impossible to say now how the Czech squad will look when the competition begins.
Finland showed fantastic results at the 2010 Olympics, winning the bronze medal after beating the Slovaks. This team uses the experience of veterans, has an excellent goalkeeping line and a powerful attack, and therefore may well surprise the 2014 Olympics.
Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen, Tuukka Rask. Any of these players can enter the starting line-up, leading the Finnish national team to the promised land. Despite the January ups and downs, Rusk has been fantastic with the Boston Bruins, who have become one of the dominant teams in the Eastern Conference. He has a great chance to defend the national team in the opening matches in Sochi.
Antti Niemi started 2014 with the San Jose Sharks with a 7-3 record and could well play in a couple of games with a solid record. If something goes wrong for Rusk, this 30-year-old Stanley Cup winner could well replace him with a solid performance.
In addition to three outstanding goalkeepers, the Finnish national team has several strikers who can punch gaping holes in the scoreboard. Valtteri Filppula, Jussi and Olli Jokinen, as well as Teemu Selanne have proven their ability as sharpshooters and could well challenge the opposing defense.
Throw in young scorers Alexander Barkov and Mikael Granlund, and the Finnish national team will be complete.
In the game with the Finns, the most room for development of success is in the defensive line. Apart from Olli Määttä and Kimmo Timmonen, the defense of the Finnish national team is rather mediocre, to say the least. Former NHL player Ossi Väänänen makes up half of the second mediocre deuce, while the rest of the defenders leave much to be desired.
Yes, the goal is well defended, but a goalkeeper is good when he has solid support from the defense. But the Finnish national team will have to look for some ways to compensate for the shortcomings of the blue line.
The Latvian team at the 2014 Winter Olympics will probably have to put in the most effort. She didn't win a single game in Vancouver, and this year she will have to assert herself again in games with strong men. The blue line is guarded by experienced champion and Stanley Cup winner Sandis Ozoliņš, but Latvians still have a lot to learn on the world hockey scene.
The element of surprise
The surprise factor is the most important advantage that Latvians can show in Russia. No one expects serious resistance from them, and this makes the Latvian national team dangerous. Low hopes give the team the freedom to focus on what they do best. And this sometimes leads to victory. In 2010, some countries were able, thanks to the surprise factor, to upset strong teams, and Latvia set its sights on this. The Olympics will be an opportunity for her to test her strength at the international level.
Team Latvia is led by Ted Nolan, who currently has the task of saving the Buffalo Sabres' season. Nolan has been leading the Latvian squad for several years and definitely feels in what direction his team is going. Along the way, this man has experienced the vicissitudes of fate more than once, but he may well use his experience as a professional hockey player to create a competitive team.
At the last Olympiad, the Latvians managed to score only six goals in five games. At the World Championships, their results were only slightly better - there the team of this Baltic country scored an average of two goals per game. They won only two out of seven games. If Latvia doesn't find a way to score more points than its rivals (and for this it needs to learn how to shoot NHL-caliber goaltenders), then there will be no hope for a medal.
The teams Latvia will need to beat this year are essentially NHL dream teams combined with big talent from the world's best leagues. The Latvian team has several retired NHL players, as well as a small number of players who play in the KHL, and NHL player Zemgus Girgensons from the Buffalo Sabres. The difference in the level of players will work against Latvia throughout the Olympiad.
Norway is an average player who had no luck with the group in the last tournament. This time, the Norwegian team's preliminary round group is quite tough, with the exception of Canada, and this Scandinavian team will try to avoid the failure of 2010, when they did not pass the group selection stage.
The most famous player from the national team, Mats Zukarello, was given the task of leading the Norwegian attack. With six goals for the New York Rangers and five assists in 15 games in January, Zucarello will be an important player in the success of the Norwegian team.
Having a wealth of experience in international competitions, Zucarello is no stranger to this kind of tournament, and he has performed difficult tasks more than once. The experience of this hockey player will be very valuable for the national team.
Despite the presence of two guys with NHL experience in the team (Ole-Christian Tollefsen and Jonas Holos), defense is the weak link in the Norwegian team. Canada and Finland will use all their firepower in the games, and it will be absolutely necessary to contain their onslaught in order to advance and not be eliminated after the preliminary round.
It looks like Lars Heugen will be the starter as he has the most experience in the professional game. Heugen has had a tough season in the KHL, although he plays for league top team Dynamo Minsk. And at the top international level, he will have to play much better if he wants his team to compete with others.
Lars Walden and Steffen Seber could replace Heugen. Each of them can come into play as an unknown quantity and succeed.
In 2010, it seemed that the Russians were one of the main contenders for the Olympic victory. While aiming for gold, Russia nevertheless stumbled early in the tournament, losing in overtime to Slovakia. She then lost 7-3 to the Canadians in the quarterfinals and was eliminated from further competition. Playing on home ice in 2014, the Russian team will try to take advantage of the home walls and redeem themselves for the 2010 Olympics on the way to gold medals.
Goal defense is a common theme for many teams this season and will be a mainstay for the Russians. Since both Semyon Varlamov and Sergey Bobrovsky have been playing exemplary since the beginning of the year, either of them can start in the starting lineup, leading Russia through the entire tournament.
In January, Varlamov's goal stat was 10-1-1, with a mediocre safety margin of 2.92, but a decent save percentage of 91.7. Largely thanks to him, the Colorado Avalanche rose in the table. A big plus for him was the change in the style of play and improved motor skills. Bobrovsky started the year 8-2, managed a 2.25 safety factor, and has a 92.5 save percentage for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Attack has always been one of the main virtues of Russians. This country for many years occupied a dominant position in world hockey, almost becoming the gold standard of the world level. Players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Valery Nichushkin, Nikolai Kulemin and Alexander Ovechkin will dominate the sports news of the Olympics, threatening opponents and scoring a lot of goals.
“These guys, they know how to score,” Varlamov said. “We have very skilled players on the team.”
Burden of responsibility
Russians take advantage of the fact that they have to play at home, in front of friends, relatives and so on. But despite this, the advantage of native ice will also go to their detriment. The burden of responsibility and pressure will be colossal, and the task of winning will stand before them as ironically as it stands before the Canadians and, perhaps, before the US team. Russian hockey players will not want to disappoint the fans in Sochi, because all the failures, miscalculations and wrong decisions will be closely watched by thousands of eyes and the media.
To have a chance at winning medals, the Russian team will need to switch off from all this, focusing only on the good.
The Russians are full of superstars, but the benches between them are starting to empty. The difference in composition is of concern. If the opposition locks out the top players on the team thanks to clever defensive plans, will there be enough talent on the Russian team to step in for them and play like a champion?
Everyone will ask this question from the beginning to the end of the games.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, the Slovak team made it all the way to the bronze medal game, but fell to Finland. But this does not mean that those games were unsuccessful for the team. Success against Russia in the preliminary round and against Sweden in the quarter-final proved that Slovakia is capable of competing with the best of the best. You can be sure that the Slovak team will want to prove it again in Sochi.
Slovakia has more talent in the NHL than many think. Louis goaltender Yaroslav Galak has had a solid season with the Saints and is guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup. In January, he was 6-2 on goals, had a 1.92 safety factor and a 93.8 save percentage. That's nine games.
Montreal Canadiens' back-up goaltender Peter Buday will be Galak's backbone and get a chance to shine when Galak rests if necessary.
Slovakia boasts several talented strikers, including Marian Gossa, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Kopecky, Michal Handzus and Marianne Gaborik (if he is healthy). With the support of defenders such as Zdeno Hara, Andrej Messaros and Andrej Sekera, the attack will have the opportunity to repeatedly hit the opponent's goal.
Given the group and game schedule, the composition of the Slovak team will be the most important factor in determining their outcome. Yes, there are skillful players in the team, there are excellent scorers, but the difference between superstars and average NHL players is very noticeable and will not be slow to affect, especially in the preliminary stage.
Being placed in the same group as the US and Russia, Slovakia will have to overcome their shortcomings to the max in order to advance to the playoffs. The Slovak national team needs to show the well-coordinated game of its best hockey players in order to win important matches for it.
Slovenia at the 2014 Winter Olympics, together with Latvia and Austria, will act as a weakling. But at the same time, the team will get the opportunity to see how it looks in the confrontation with the best teams in the world, and it will show the world itself how hockey develops in Slovenia.
The element of surprise
Slovenia will bring the element of surprise to Sochi as it has never competed in Olympic hockey before. Having come last at the World Championships in 2013, this team nevertheless received a ticket to Russia for the Olympic Games. And she will certainly use her relatively unknown composition and tactics of the game, so as not to concede to the leaders.
An opportunity to learn
At the Olympics, the Slovenian team will gain invaluable experience and will be able to use it to develop hockey in the country. The chance to shoot at the goal, which is Ryan Miller and Semyon Varlamov, as well as compete with Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Alexander Ovechkin will give these hockey players a good head start for the future.
Slovenia will definitely learn a lot during the tournament, but it has probably the toughest group. The first hockey Olympic team in the country will have to fight with Slovakia, Russia and the USA. This will be a very heavy load for her throughout the games.
Slovenia will have to play with superteams, which are almost completely staffed by players from the NHL, which is the elite hockey league. In order to break through their defenses and secure a favorable position in the preliminary round, this team will have to take points from the most deserving and revered teams.
As in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the Swedish team set their sights on a serious result. The Swedish team has always been a strong contender, and last summer they managed to win gold at a weaker World Cup. And since then, she has only improved her roster, recruiting additional talent from the NHL.
The Swedes coming to the Olympics in Sochi will not hold fire and striking power. Five internationals (Niklas Backstrom, Alexander Steen, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and Gabriel Landeskog) have 40 points or more in the NHL, and it will not be easy to resist such an onslaught.
The Swedes intend to start their frontal offensives from many lines, and the enemy's attacks are going to be nipped in the bud, not letting him into their zone. If Sweden manages to pick up a couple of quick wins early on, then we can't even tell how many teams it will knock out of the saddle in the race for medals.
Henrik Lundqvist returns to Olympic hockey in top form. In January, he was 8-3-1 and is looking to get better results than in 2010. In the first two games in Vancouver, Lundqvist kept his net open and is perfectly capable of securing a victory for the Swedes when needed.
Jonas Enroth will be Henrik's substitute for the games. If necessary, this goalkeeper can play very well.
“I think this tournament needs a colossal goalkeeper. You need a top-notch goaltender,” Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said of his team. “And we have Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best players in the league.”
The Swedes intended to achieve high results in 2010, but because of the defeat against Slovakia, they had to go home early. Although they took gold at the World Championships last summer, the stigma of the 2010 Olympic failure will remain on the Swedish national team and in Sochi. This team will have to fight with their own complexes to find hope for a medal.
Since the summer championship, 12 new players have joined the national team, which fundamentally changes the alignment on the eve of the Olympics, where the challenges will be more serious. The national team will include guys from the NHL, from different clubs with different styles of play. The challenge will be to adapt them to the strategy that the coaching staff has developed in a short period of time. In the preliminary round, the Swedes will have to show an acceptable level of play in order to continue to fight to the end.
The Swiss team at the games in Sochi should be watched closely. Surprising everyone last summer, she took the World Championship by storm, winning every game except the title match. Having knocked out the Czech Republic and the USA on the way to the silver medal, the Swiss intend to do the same in Russia.
Goalkeepers are a critical component of any and every team participating in the 2014 Olympics. Goalkeeper defense is the element that brings the Swiss such great success. Jonas Hiller is the most important piece of the Swiss national team puzzle. With the best team in the NHL, Hiller has become a force to be reckoned with in North America. This 31-year-old impenetrable stone wall in January showed a scoring record of 6-3, and with him Hiller will go to Sochi. Throw in NHL goaltender Reto Berra and it's clear that the Swiss have one of the best goalkeeping situations in the Olympics. Berra went 4-0 at the 2013 World Championships, conceding just four goals there. Despite a rocky start in the NHL, 27-year-old Berra has a lot to offer his national team in Hiller's shoes.
Since the 2013 World Cup, there have been relatively few changes in the Swiss squad. This means that the basis of the ice squad is safe and sound, and is ready to move forward powerfully. Switzerland is often overlooked, but this team after the face-off in Sochi will require close attention of the leading teams.
Each team tries to come to the Olympics with the best goalkeeper they can find. But the ability to score goals is considered the second most important characteristic of any team applying for Olympic medals in Sochi. The Swiss national team in the attack line is full of local foreign players. While other teams load their roster with as many NHL players as possible, Switzerland is counting on the ability of its players to adapt to the conditions of the game and build up the pace.
Until this team proves its strategy, its forwards will be considered the weakest link in the team.
The US team played flawlessly at the 2010 Olympics, defeating all opponents until extra time in the battle for gold. After losing in the final overtime, the best team throughout the tournament felt silver was a failure, not a success. In Sochi, the United States will try to take revenge, hoping to take home gold for the first time since the “miracle on ice” in 1980.
Like Team Canada, the US team is made up entirely of NHL players. The Americans, who have combined their efforts and the playing styles of the clubs for the victory of the country, will have to overcome a strong line of goalkeeper defense - especially the Russian one, and if they want to win medals, they must do this from the very beginning, and very persistently and consistently.
Guys like Joe Pavelski, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick Kane, Paul Stasny and T. J. Oshi will definitely help in this regard. The game plan calls for the forwards to score early and often, with the defense covering the rear.
If the US wants to advance past the preliminary stage, the US defenders will need to be as powerful on the ice as they look on paper. There are a lot of guys who will be on the court a lot of the time, including Ryan Suter (he should get used to it by now) if they want to keep the puck behind their blue line.
The US goaltending situation is either a strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it. The USA boasts such names as Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick, and you would think that everything is in order with the team here.
But it's not yet clear what results they'll show in the box, as both Quick and Howard have had injuries this season and Miller is playing for arguably the worst team in the NHL. Such an unfavorable environment can benefit goalkeepers, who will be motivated and inspired. But it can also give the exact opposite result, forcing goalkeepers to break down at the very beginning.
One look at Scott Burnside's fantastic opus on ESPN is enough to tell you there won't be a shortage of drama around the US national team in February. His coverage of the American Hockey selection process prompted immediate reactions from players, media representatives, and US Hockey Federation officials immediately after the story was released.
There was talk about the level of skill of the players, retellings began about how decisions were made, unflattering statements were heard. The US team began to apologize before they even stepped on the ice. This circus in the media will continue in Russia, and it will greatly distract from sporting events.
Source: Ryan Boulding Bleacher Report inosmi.ru