We're just two days away from the start of men's ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and with NHL players once again participating, it's sure to be not just an entertaining tournament but an intense one that features the best players in the world skating for national pride.
Few things can match the excitement of the Winter Olympics, and if you doubt that just ask any American who watched the Miracle on Ice in 1980 or any Canadian how they felt four years ago in Vancouver. I'll give my preview of who I think will win each group and who will take home the gold Tuesday, but there are several interesting topics that I'll be keeping an eye on throughout the tournament:
CANADA CHANGES ITS THINKING
Joe Thornton was leading the NHL in assists earlier this season and is No. 2 in the League right now. He's not playing in Sochi. James Neal is a big, physical power forward and he didn't make Canada's team. Claude Giroux didn't either. This is a sign that Hockey Canada has really changed how it makes the team. Canada has changed its thinking looking at the big ice surface and there's no doubt about it. Brent Seabrook, who was on the team four years ago, didn't make the team and he's one of the best defensemen in the NHL. This lineup definitely moves away from the more physical, grinding style Canada employed four years ago in Vancouver. If Canada was playing in Canada again you'd have those power forwards and those big, physical defensemen in the lineup. But with the international ice you don't see that now. Canada has learned in the past from its struggles on a big ice surface and that's why this team is built the way it is.
INTERNATIONAL ICE CREATES A DIFFERENT GAME
There are reasons Canada had to adapt, of course, and the Americans have done the same with their roster. It's because we'll be seeing a completely different style of hockey. There won't be any fighting of course and there won't be much hitting. In the European game, with the big ice surface, if you hit someone you basically get pulled out of position and leave the ice open for your opponent to get 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 chances. People will see that there won't be much physical play so teams can avoid this. There won't be much grinding, there won't be defensemen smashing people into the boards in the corners. You can't run behind the net to get a guy because there's too much room and they'll make you pay. On this ice you have to be able to skate and you have to be a smart player. You can't go looking for that big, open-ice hit because you just don't have time to get back into position.
PRESSURE ON RUSSIA
This team basically is under the microscope in the same way Canada was in Vancouver. Nothing but a gold medal will suffice. Alex Ovechkin already has come out and said this is the biggest tournament of his life. He wants to win gold more than anything. You can handle pressure in two ways. Either it makes you stronger or you fold under it. I try to imagine more pressure on a team than Canada faced four years ago and it's tough to do, but this might be it. If Canada hadn't won gold it would have been a disastrous Olympics. And for Russia this is no different. It doesn't matter if figure skaters, bobsledders or skiers win. This is a coming-out party for the new Russia. And much like in Canada, hockey is their sport. There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on the Russian players and if they don't win gold it will be just as, if not more, disastrous than it would have been for Canada in 2010.
MESHING TWO LEAGUES
Most of the top-tier teams in this tournament consist mostly, if not completely, of NHL players. Russia, though, is almost half NHL players and half KHL players. This makes the Russians a bit of an experiment because these leagues have totally different styles. You've got the discipline of the NHL, a group that hasn't played on the big ice surface much in the last few seasons, and you've got a group that plays on nothing but the big ice surface and hasn't been in a league that is nearly as disciplined. The KHL is much more wide open, not nearly as physical and not nearly as structured as the NHL. These two groups will have to come together and they'll have to do it in a very short period of time. Russia only will have three, maybe four games to gel. It won't have five or six games to bring everyone together and it will be interesting to see how that group meshes and how the coaches manage it. Will they make lines of NHL players and lines of KHL players? Will they mix and match? Will five-man units all come from the same league? There are a lot of ways to build this team, and the Russian coaching staff only will have a short amount of time to do all that experimenting.
FINLAND IS MY DARK HORSE, BUT SLOVAKIA CAN MAKE A RUN, TOO
It's hard to consider Finland a dark horse when it's been a fixture in international hockey for so long, but I just don't think the roster matches up on paper with Canada, the United States, Russia or Sweden. That said, they've got maybe the best goaltending in the tournament and goaltending can nullify everything else. This team is very solid, they give you nothing and players are so well-schooled on both sides of the puck that not only will you not score much on the Finns, but they're very good at capitalizing when you make a mistake. You can't cheat; you've got to keep the puck out of your zone and you have to play a good game.
That said, don't be surprised if Slovakia makes another deep run like it did in 2010. When you look at Slovakia's lineup, that's as close to the big boys as you can get. You've got Zdeno Chara, you've got Marian Hossa and you've got Jaroslav Halak, who has shown more than once that he can get hot in a short tournament. I think this is the second-tier team that has a chance of doing some real damage because of the number of NHL players it has. We're not far from Slovakia becoming a power. They're getting more and more young players going to the NHL. And while I think currently they're still just below that first tier, they aren't far off and this very well could be their coming-out party on the international stage if they get another.