CZECH REPUBLIC vs. SWEDEN
When: Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET (USA)
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome
What's at stake: The Czech Republic and Sweden begin play in the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with different expectations. The Czechs are a veteran group with two players (Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr) over the age of 40 and four (Marek Zidlicky, Michal Rozsival, Tomas Kaberle and Patrik Elias) 35 and up, and are motivated to avenge early exits from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the World Championship last year.
"Really, it's going to be very close," Elias told The Associated Press. "You can't predict you're going to beat any one team, so you go into the tournament thinking you can beat anyone."
Sweden returns loaded for a deep run after losing to Slovakia in the quarterfinals four years ago that left it without a medal for the third time in four Olympics. However, the last time the games were played on international ice (Turin, 2006) the Swedes won a gold medal. Expectations are ripe in '14, but key players Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen are missing due to injury.
Czech Republic: Experience is aplenty for the Czechs, especially on a blue line anchored by Zidlicky, Zbyenk Michalek and Rozsival. Despite their advanced ages, Jagr leads the New Jersey Devils in scoring (17 goals, 32 assists, 49 points) and Nedved has 43 points in 44 games with the Liberec White Tigers in the Czech league (18 goals, 25 assists), and will be keys for a team that won bronze in 2006 on the larger ice.
Like most teams in the tournament, the Czechs will go as far as their goaltending allows. Likely starter Ondrej Pavelec has been inconsistent for the Winnipeg Jets, but won a gold for the Czechs at the 2010 World Championship and bronze the following year.
Sweden: A chic choice to win gold, Sweden is led by Henrik Lundqvist, who with another gold medal will stake his claim as the best goalie in the world. Four years ago, Lundqvist had a 1.34 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in three games. This season with the New York Rangers, he shook off early-season struggles to post five straight wins, seven of eight and 10 of 12 entering the Olympic break.
"You've been thinking about it for months, but now you can really start to mentally prepare for what is ahead," Lundqvist told BlueshirtsUnited.com prior to arriving in Sochi. "It's going to be a great challenge and a great experience. I really look forward to going over there and competing."
The Swedes are loaded on defense (Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alexander Edler and Jonathan Ericsson), but despite their share of firepower (Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Steen), time will tell if the absences of Henrik Sedin and Franzen will ultimately derail the Swedes' cause.
What's next: Group C play continues Friday for each team. The Czechs play Latavia, a team not expected to do much, but well-coached with Buffalo Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan behind the bench and promising Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Kristers Gudlevskis in goal. Sweden faces Switzerland, which is capable of pulling off a big surprise or two with NHL players Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks) in goal, Roman Josi (Nashville Predators) and Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers) on defense, and Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota Wild) and Damian Brunner (Devils) up front.