Based on everyone's preliminary predictions, the gold medal in men's hockey at the 2014 Sochi Olympics will go to either Canada, the United States, Sweden or the host Russians. But there are other countries that could play the dark-horse role.
When I originally looked to pick my tournament underdog that could surprise some people, I originally was thinking Finland, which may have the best goaltending in Sochi. But there's a new underdog I'm thinking will play spoiler.
Because of their goaltending, Finland is good enough to be in every game. The Finns will have a chance to win. I've got to think it's going to be Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi in net for Finland, but who knows? Kari Lehtonen is also capable. Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Olli Maatta is a guy I can't call a surprise anymore. He's been one of Pittsburgh's best defensemen, and that's saying a lot. In my opinion, Maatta is a guy to watch for Finland.
Because of those injuries, I'll be keeping an eye on Switzerland. The Swiss can upset somebody. They won silver at the World Championships last year and I definitely consider them a potential surprise. If goaltender Jonas Hiller keeps playing the way he has been playing, that could be a nightmare of a matchup for one of the favored four teams. There's no reason to suggest Hiller won't keep playing great. If he plays at that level, they could break some hearts along the way. That would turn the tournament on its ear.
Many people consider the Swiss an anonymous team, but they have some recognizable names on their blue line in Roman Josi, Mark Streit, Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz. Josi was awesome at the Worlds and was named the tournament's top defenseman.
Swiss hockey has come a long way. You have to give the Swiss a lot of credit for how they have been able to build on their history. It's a great place to play. I have a lot of friends playing there, and I played in the Spengler Cup in Davos and it was one of the best hockey experiences of my life. I see how far that program has come on the international stage.
They love speed over there. It's a big part of their game. With Jonas Hiller between the pipes, anything is possible. Reto Berra has also played better of late with the Calgary Flames. That's a team that can be a very difficult matchup if you're not fully on your game.
Don't discount the fact that there are a lot of great Swiss hockey people and a lot of players from Switzerland who played in the NHL and vice versa. There's a lot of great coaching and training there. NHL coaches, including Bob Hartley and Marc Crawford, have coached there and Guy Boucher just took the main job with Bern. They have had a big hand in that development.
Don't forget, the Swiss almost beat Canada in Vancouver. Canada beat Switzerland 3-2 in the preliminary round but needed a goal from Sidney Crosby in the shootout to do it. I think people really underestimate where they've come from and where they're at in hockey. They've come a long way.
As far as teams that may disappoint, I could see the Czechs maybe taking a step back. I don't know if they're going to have the speed that they need on that big ice. They obviously have a lot of great players -- Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, I could go down the list. These guys are amazing players. But speed isn't going to be as much of a factor on this team and it's a big miss not to have Jiri Hudler because he's been great this year.
The Czech Republic has some of the best players; I just don't know if their speed game is going to match up with the U.S., Canada and Russia.
Of course, we'll find out who will surprise and who will disappoint as this incredible tournament goes on.
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