Olympic Hockey Predictions
The men’s Olympic hockey event starts tomorrow, so here’s my prediction of the group stage and a short summary of the teams.
Hosts Russia has a wealth of talent among the forwards with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk leading the way. Andrei Markov will head up the the defence along with Nikita Nikitin whilst Colarorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov should be the 1st choice in net. Looking at the Russian squad and the advantage of home ice I believe they will win the group with USA in 2nd, Slovakia in 3rd and Slovenia at the bottom.
Team USA have a well-balanced team, but I’m a bit concerned that Dustin Brown and Ryan Kesler are going to hold Patrick Kane back a bit. Both Brown and Kesler have been struggling this season whereas Kane has been on fire. Hopefully the duo can step up their game so that Kane is given room to shine. Ryan Sutter is one of the best defenceman in the world and he will log a lot of minutes, something that he’s used to doing for the Minnesota Wild (29:49 TOI/game). Ryan Miller has been putting up good numbers despite playing for the weakest team in the NHL and it feels like he’s earned the starting job in net.
Slovakia will look to the Hossa brothers to bring them success up front, and at the back giant defenceman Zdeno Chara is the heart and soul of the Slovak defence. Jaroslav Halak is the number one goalie, with Peter Budaj backing him up. The Slovak team looks a bit weak on paper and it doesn’t help that your two biggest stars (Marain Hossa and Zdeno Chara) are 35 and 36 years old respectively. Big loss for the Slovaks when Marian Gaborik had to decline due to injury.
Slovenia have only one superstar on the team and that’s Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. Even though the Kings have been struggling lately, Kopitar has been in good form and will try to lead Slovenia to an upset in Group A. Former Detroit Red Wings forward Jan Mursak is another player to keep an extra eye on for the Slovenians.
When you look at Canada’s roster for the games in Sochi, you got to pick them as one of the favorites to win the tournament. Even with Steven Stamkos out, the Canadians have an impressive team and it’s says a lot when Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban is your 7th defenceman. Up front Sydney Crosby will form a line with fellow Penguin Chris Kunitz and Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings. Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks will lead the defence together with Shea Weber, a first pairing that no other nation can compare to except the Swedes. Carey Price has been stellar in net for the Montreal Canadiens and should be the number one going into the tournament. If he falters, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith will be more than ready to jump in.
Finland has suffered some tough injuries, with Mikko Kouivo and Valtteri Filppula getting injured shortly before the games. Saku Kouvio already declined to participate in Sochi, so the lions from the North will have to rely on 43-year old Teemu Selänne to champion the team. Selänne will be on a line with Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund, two guys whose combined age is 39 (Barkov 18, Granlund 21). On defence the Finns are relying on two other veterans to lead the way in Kimmo Timonen (38) and Sami Salo (39). However, Finland definitely has the strongest goalie lineup in the tournament with Tukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi all competing for the starting job.
Norway only has one NHL player in the squad, but Mats Zucarello leads the New York Rangers in points so far the season with 43p (15+28). SKA St. Petersburg forward Patrick Thoresen is a player that can light up the scoreboard and look for Frölunda Indians players Mathis Olimb and Mats Rosseli Olsen to help out up front. In net Lars Haugen will be the undisputed number one. The Dinamo Minsk goaltender will need a lot of help from former NHL players like Jonas Holös and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.
Thomas Vanek and Michal Grabner are the two guys that most people would recognize on Austria’s squad. The New York Islanders’ forwards will be carrying a heavy burden as most of the Austrian team are made up by players from the Austrian league. Michael Raffl (Philadelphia Flyers) is the only other NHL player on the team. It’s a tossup between Norway and Austria for the 3rd spot in the group, but I think that Austria will fall short. Look for the game between Norway and Austria to decide which teams takes the 3rd spot in Group B.
Along with the Russians and Candians, team Sweden is one of the teams that most people have as the favorite to take gold in Sochi. Henrik Zetterberg leads the Swedes and he will be on a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Steen. Sweden had two significant players turn down the trip to Sochi due to injuries, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzén. They will surely be missed but the Swedish team is still really strong and when your top pairing defencemen are Oliver Ekman-Larsson and former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, you can see why a lot of people are putting Sweden in the gold-medal discussion. Henrik Lundqvist will be in net and the New York Rangers keeper has been playing well after a pretty rocky start to the season. The Swedes is one of the better teams in the tournament and that’s why I have them winning Group C (and I’m Swedish so of course I believe in my home country to make it far in the tournament).
The Czech Republic has a solid team on paper. It could have been even stronger, but politics and personal vendettas between the head coach Alois Hadamczik and players has led to the snubs of Radim Vrbata and Jiri Hudler to name a couple. Jaromir Jagr will be a factor with his leadership on and off the ice and it will be interesting to see players like Martin Hanzal, Jakub Voracek and David Krejci among the forwards. On defence Zbynek Michalek will be playing a big role for the Czechs, just as he’s used to being the top shutdown defenceman on the Phoenix Coyotes. Tampa Bay Lightning’s Radko Gudas is a player that has gotten a fine start to his NHL career and someone people should keep an extra eye on. Goaltending is the weak link for this team, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Alexander Salak steals the starting job in front on Winnipeg Jets’ goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Switzerland is and up and coming hockey nation. They lost in the final to the Swedes in the World Championship last year and will get solid goaltending from Anaheim Ducks star Jonas Hiller. On the blueline Mark Streit will lead the team with Yannick Weber, although they have a real gem in Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators who I think will be a future Norris Trophy candidate. Up front it looks just a little bit too weak. Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter are the only NHL forwards in the squad (I count Simon Moser as an AHL player). Veteran forward Martin Pluss has great hands, but I’m afraid he’s lost too much speed to be effective against the Swedes and the Czechs.
Latvia, coached by Ted Nolan are the biggest underdogs in the tournament alongside Slovenia. Zemgus Girgensons is the only NHL player on the squad and it’s going to be a tough test for Noland and his boys. Former NHL star Sandis Ozolins is on the team. Ozolins who played 15 seasons in the NHL, and is probably most known for his time on the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, has turned 41 but he’s still going strong in the KHL with Dinamo Riga.
For more Olympic Hockey, be sure to listen to Real Hockey Talk (Wednesday 4-7pm MST on sportsbreakthrough.com and on Saturday noon-1pm MST on AM 1480 KPHX).