As we get ready for the start of the Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament when Sweden and the Czech Republic face off in Sochi on Wednesday, I imagine everyone just wants to know one thing after sifting through all of the analysis: Who is going to win?
Well, I can't guarantee I know the answers to that, but I have a pretty good idea. So with no further introduction, here is how I see things shaking out at the 2014 Sochi Olympics:
GROUP A (Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, United States)
It seems pretty clear to me that this is the toughest group of the three. Obviously the U.S. and Russia are heavyweights with thoughts of a gold medal, but Slovakia is a very good team as well. This is a team that made it all the way to the bronze medal game at Vancouver in 2010 and they're probably the third-best team in the group.
Personally, I think the Americans are the team that will win this group. I like this team a lot. I like their goaltending, which is one area the U.S. has a decided advantage over Russia and maybe even Canada if we're looking ahead to the knockout stages. I like their forward group, which is built for the big ice surface and where everyone can skate, and the U.S.'s defense may be young, but it's very mobile and very quick. The Russians, too, are strong, but they just don't look to be as strong on paper to me as the U.S., and they also have the competing issues to deal with of trying to mesh several players from the NHL and the KHL as well as playing under an extreme amount of pressure as the host nation.
As for Slovenia, they do have Anze Kopitar who is a bona fide star, but I don't think one forward can make a difference quite like a goalie, and Slovenia will be facing 50 shots per game and forcing its goalies to stand on their heads. Lower-seeded countries beat the big boys once in a while, but in this case, I think Slovenia, despite the singular talent of Kopitar, is out of its depth.
1. United States
GROUP B (Austria, Canada, Finland, Norway)
There's no doubt that Canada got the best draw of the gold medal contenders. Norway has a few good players and Austria has some scoring, but the Canadians bring arguably the best roster in the tournament and should have a smooth ride through the group stage.
Finland is a very interesting team and they could give Canada fits when the teams play. Finland is incredibly disciplined, it thrives on taking advantage of turnovers and the Finns boast probably the best group of goalies in the tournament. Canada will have to be prepared for a tight game against the Finns knowing it is likely to be a 2-1 or 1-0 game, but I still expect Canada to have the easiest early road of the gold medal contenders. One thing to watch is that Canada and Finland play each other in their final group-stage game. Both teams should be 2-0 going into that game and a bye may very well be at stake, so even with both teams likely assured of advancing to the next round, I would expect that to be an intense game for either team.
Those two teams are certainly the two best in the group objectively. Norway and Austria will both play hard, but I would expect them not to forecheck much and look to plug up the neutral zone so they can keep the game close. It won't be enough. In my eyes Canada is clearly the class of the group.
GROUP C (Czech Republic, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland)
This group is interesting because while Sweden would appear to be the best team there, the Swiss have a great formula in place. They go in, they know who they are and what has to happen for them to have a chance of winning, and they've beaten the big boys before so they're not in awe. Of all the second-tier teams in this tournament I would consider Switzerland to be the scariest, not just because of their history, but because they'll have Jonas Hiller in net, a man who is playing very well this season, and particularly of late. The Swiss know what it takes to win, and I guarantee you nobody will be taking them lightly in this group.
That said, Sweden and the Czech Republic are still the teams to beat in my mind, but they have an interesting wrinkle in that they face each other to start the tournament. This will have a big impact, because whichever team loses will be behind the eight-ball and could spend the rest of the group stage in a must-win situation. I don't think the Czechs or the Swedes will have a problem with the next two games, but you still want to avoid that situation.
It's also important to remember that while the Swedes look like one of the most complete teams in the tournament, the Czechs are something of a mystery. Like Russia, they'll be trying to bring a group together in a short time from all over Europe, and their best players are older. It's entirely possible the Czech Republic's best offensive players coming into this tournament are Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias. Because of that, we don't really know how good the Czechs will be, and they're certainly capable of playing well. Still I think this is Sweden's bracket to lose, and I think they're the best team by quite a bit.
2. Czech Republic
Fourth place: Russia
I think the Russians will make the medal round, but I expect them to finish fourth. I love their lineup, they've got a lot of great players in place, but I think the pressure they're facing and the two leagues amalgamating to form one team in such a quick time will be a factor.
Bronze: United States
I think the Americans will have a good tournament. I like their goaltending and they're a lot like Canada in how they've changed their thinking and built their team for the big ice. You can see that by the guys that were added to this team, guys like defenseman Cam Fowler, who is a good, mobile skater. I like this team and I think it finds its way to the bronze medal.
I know Sweden has some injuries and Johan Franzen isn't playing, but they've got a great style of play, goalie Henrik Lundqvist is playing very well, the defense is solid, they're a big, mobile group and the Swedes get up for the Olympics. They love this tournament. I think it's also important to remember this may be the last year this group plays together. We don't know how much longer guys like Henrik Zetterberg or Daniel Alfredsson are going to play. This team is talented, but it's definitely up in age and we may see a different looking team in 2018. This could be their last hurrah.
I just think Canada is the best team in this tournament and that the Canadians have learned their lessons from past losses on the big ice surface. This roster reflects that and I also like how Carey Price is playing right now. I think they've built a good team for this tournament and if the goaltending is as good as its competition -- it doesn't have to be better -- I can't see them being beat. For me, with the way Price is playing right now, I think that'll be enough for Canada to bring home a second consecutive gold.