Who Takes Gold in Sochi?
With the worlds elite preparing to face-off on Wednesday, the men’s hockey tournament may be one of the most anticipated events of the entire Sochi games.
In Vancouver, Team Canada were strong favourites on home ice; and they duly delivered, topping the US in an epic final which has gone down as one of the greatest games in the history of the sport.
It’s no different for Team Russia this time around, as the hosts carry the hopes of an entire nation on their shoulders.
Can Pavel Datsyuk and the high powered Russian offence topple the defending champions? Or will Team USA capture their first gold since the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’?
Here we look at the contenders, and a few of those who are backing them:
Home ice advantage, combined with a high powered offence, seems to have made Team Russia favourites for a large number of people.
It’s easy to understand how a forward unit containing Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk could put the Russian’s on the path to glory. Add in Dallas’ break out star Valeri Nichushkin, Alexander Semin and CSKA Moscow winger Alexander Radulov and the hosts are almost spoilt for choice up front.
Slava Voinov and Andrei Markov ensure the Russians also have plenty of offensive power from the blue line, whilst between the pipes Semyon Varlamov is having his best NHL season to date and Dynamo Moscow stopper Alexander Yeryomenko helped secure consecutive Gagarin Cups for his club.
The arguments against Russian success are little different to past tournaments however; with question marks over how good they’ll be in their own end as well as their ability to perform under the intense pressure of playing in front of their own fans.
Bob Ballard, who is working with the Olympic Broadcast Service in Sochi, described them as ‘stone cold favourites’ on the Sochi 2014 Preview episode of the One Puck Short Podcast, with The Hockey House editor Steven Ellis also throwing his weight behind the hosts, as has Stu Coles, Deputy Editor of the Coventry Blaze’s ‘On Fire’ magazine.
The Defending Champions
There is little doubt Canada had the greatest pool of talent from which to choose their roster – with the potential to a ice a second team that could probably take a serious run at gold as well!
Led by the best player in the world, the argument for Canadian success is easily made. Whether you look to Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf or John Tavares – Canada should have no trouble finding the net. Their blue line is equally loaded with talent, including Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber; all veterans of the nations 2010 success.
Whilst there is some debate over who will start in net, both Roberto Luongo and Carey Price should be able to provide the top tier talent necessary to succeed in a short tournament.
The doubts surrounding Canada’s quest for consecutive gold medals come largely from their previous difficulty playing outside of North America. Success in Vancouver and Salt Lake City sandwiched disappointment in Turin.
The Triple Crown
2006 winners Sweden were my pick to win gold in Sochi; and it seems to be something of a controversial choice.
The Swedes had a highly talented, but slightly fragile roster. Unfortunately the latter point may prove to be their undoing, with Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen already out through injury.
They still have experienced campaigners like Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson and Daniel Sedin on board though, supported by young bucks such as Colorado Captain Gabriel Landeskog and a resurgent Nicklas Backstrom.
Their blue line is also one of the most talented at the tournament, with former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, Nicklas Kronwall and Coyotes star Oliver Ekman-Larsson in front of superstar stopper Henrik Lundqvist.
The loss of Sedin, combined with perhaps a less talented roster overall than the likes of Canada, Russia and the US, means most see the Swedes as the most likely winner of the bronze medal, rather than gold, with only my former Coach Richard Wheatley joining me in Team Sweden’s camp.
The Stars and Stripes
There has been a surprising lack of support for America’s chances of taking home the gold medal.
It’s hard to argue with the idea that someone like Ryan Miller could carry the US to the final again; whilst the strength in depth Team USA appears to have has been underrated by many.
With stars like Zach Parise, David Backes and Patrick Kane they should be able tolight the lamp, whilst the likes of Ryan Callahan, Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh ensure the US remain strong in their own end.
The knock against Team USA has been their speed – or lack their of – and what that might mean on the larger Olympic sized ice they will play on in Sochi.
The Dark Horses
Long shots maybe, but in a short tournament like the Olympics strange things can happen – meaning Finland and Switzerland can’t be counted out of medal contention.
The Finns took a serious hit when Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filpulla were ruled out through injury, but with an embarrassment of riches between the pipes it only takes a hot streak from Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen or Tuukka Rask to propel the Finns in to medal contention.
The Swiss on the other hand are a rising power in the hockey world, and took home the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships. If veteran netminder Jonas Hiller performs well, the Swiss have enough skill on their roster to put themselves in the frame; especially when you consider the experience their domestic players have on Olympic size ice surfaces courtesy of their time in the NLA.
You can find a full list of all teams rosters at The Hockey House here