Every Ice Hockey Team's Biggest Question in 2014 Winter Olympics

Dave LozoNHL National Lead WriterJanuary 7, 2014

Every Ice Hockey Team's Biggest Question in 2014 Winter Olympics

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    At long last, we now know the rosters for the 12 men's ice hockey teams competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

    So let's not waste any time trying to figure out what each team's biggest questions are for the tournament, which gets under way Feb. 8.

    Is Canada a lock for a medal, or will its goaltending prove to be a fatal flaw? Can the Americans build on their silver-medal finish in 2010, or do they lack the offense required to compete with the big boys? Will playing on home soil make the difference for a talented Russian squad?

    We answer the questions for all 12 teams—in alphabetical order—in this enlightening list designed to get you prepared and excited for the Sochi Games.

Austria: How in the World Will It Win a Game in Group B?

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    It's been 10 years since Austria qualified for the Olympics. Back then, the team had Ziggy Palffy, Pavol Demitra, Miroslav Satan and Lubomir Visnovsky. Austria finished 12th out of 14 teams but did upset Slovakia in the preliminary round.

    The 2014 team's NHL talent consists of Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders and Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers. The rest of the team is made up of players in various European leagues.

    There's really no shot Austria gets to the elimination round, but it could give Norway a tough game. But it should be completely overmatched against Canada and Finland. 

Canada: Is the Goaltending Good Enough to Win Gold?

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    A starter hasn't been named, but it's very likely to be Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. He's having an outstanding season, posting a record of 19-11-4 with a 2.26/.927 split.

    But his postseason track record isn't all that positive.

    In 30 career playoff games, Price is 9-17-3 with a 2.90/.905 split. His only international competition was in the world juniors in 2007.

    If the stage proves too big for Price, coach Mike Babcock will likely turn to Roberto Luongo, who won gold for Canada at the 2010 Olympics. Luongo replaced a bumbling Martin Brodeur and was good enough to lead his team to an overtime win in the gold-medal game.

    But Luongo is 34 now and hasn't won a playoff game since 2011, when he fell apart at times during the Stanley Cup Final against Boston.

    Canada has the most talent on paper, but its Achilles' heel could be in net. 

Czech Republic: Will Ondrej Pavelec Get This Team to the Medal Round?

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    Ondrej Pavelec has played so poorly for the Winnipeg Jets this season that he has lost playing time to backup Al Montoya. But thanks to a dearth of Czech goaltenders, he's all but guaranteed to start in Sochi.

    It's a sad state of affairs for the Czechs, as Pavelec's career numbers in 264 games are 102-116-32 with a 2.96/.906 split. He's been even worse this season, going 11-17-4 with a 3.06/.901 split.

    The one thing the Czechs have going for them is that Group C is wide-open after powerhouse Sweden. They have a chance to advance with Latvia and Switzerland as their main competition, but Pavelec will have to be better than he has…well, in his entire career.

Finland: Is the Defensive Corps Good Enough to Medal Again?

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    The Finns took bronze four years ago with a balanced team that had solid goaltending (save for the semifinal game against the U.S. team), depth scoring and a steady group of defensemen.

    The only thing that's changed is the blue line has gotten mostly older and decimated because of injury.

    Back are Kimmo Timonen of the Flyers and Sami Salo of the Lightning, but Toni Lydman retired due to concussions and Joni Pitkanen is still out with a broken heel suffered last season.

    Timonen is now 38 years old; Salo is 39. 

    Penguins rookie Olli Maatta is just 19 and will provide new blood for the Finns, but the team could struggle to defend. Group B belongs to Canada, but Finland will have to fight with Norway and Austria to earn the second spot.

Latvia: Will It Avoid Finishing in Last Place Again?

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    The Latvians were smoked at the 2010 Olympics, losing to Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia by a combined 19-4. Latvia finished 12th in the 12-team tournament.

    The only NHL player of Latvian descent is Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres, who has four goals and 14 points in 41 games.

    With Sweden, the Czechs and Switzerland in Group C, Latvia's matchups aren't as difficult as they were four years ago, but they're not easy, either. It will likely be a second straight last-place finish at the Olympics for Latvia.

Norway: Will It Steal Enough Points to Survive Group B?

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    Norway was trounced 8-0 by Canada and 6-1 by the United States at the 2010 Olympics before squeezing out a point against Switzerland in a 5-4 overtime loss. 

    Four years later, the Norwegians should expect more of the same.

    The team's only NHL player is Mats Zuccarello, who has 10 goals and 30 points in 42 games this season. If Norway is to have a shot in Group B against Canada, Finland and Austria, Zuccarello and Norway's goaltending will need to be at the top of their games.

    Even if all the cards fall into place, Norway is probably looking at another rough Olympic appearance.

Russia: Will It Use Home-Ice Advantage to Win Gold?

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    Since the NHL started sending its players to the Olympics in 1998, the host nations have done quite well. 

    At the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, the U.S. team earned silver, losing to Canada in the gold-medal game.

    At the Turin Games in 2006, the Italian team was obviously throttled, but the gold-medal game featured Western European countries—Sweden took gold by defeating Finland.

    At the Vancouver Games in 2010, it was again the North American teams playing for gold, with Canada defeating the U.S. team.

    Russia is coming off a disappointing sixth-place finish in Vancouver, but it has a loaded team in all areas that has a real shot at winning gold on home soil. The creature comforts of playing in Russia could be what helps the team to its first medal since it captured bronze in 2002.

Slovakia: Will Jaroslav Halak Carry the Slovaks to the Medal Round?

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    Slovakia isn't exactly teeming with NHL players, but the ones it has are among the best in the league.

    Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara leads the back end while Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa is the biggest name up front. But the success of Slovakia will ride on Jaroslav Halak, who will have to be the best goaltender in the tournament in order to get his team back to the bronze-medal game.

    The Slovaks will have to contend with host Russia and 2010 runners-up United States, and an argument can be made that both of those teams are better than they were four years ago. But Slovakia and Halak finished third in their group last time and fought their way to the bronze-medal game, where they lost to Finland 5-3.

    The road will be tougher this time around with Marian Gaborik out with a broken collarbone, but Halak can once again be the great equalizer.

Slovenia: Will It Lose Any of Its Games by Fewer Than Three Goals?

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    Anze Kopitar is one of the NHL's elite two-way players, but he is the only NHL player on Team Slovenia, which should be in for a rude awakening in Group A.

    Jan Mursak, who played 46 games with the Detroit Red Wings and now hones his craft in the KHL, is the only other player with NHL experience. The squad enters the tournament ranked 12th out of 12 teams and will likely finish there when all is said and done.

    Slovenia is in a group with the United States, Russia and Slovakia. It's going to be a brutal Olympics for Slovenia.

     

Sweden: Will Henrik Lundqvist Find His Game in Sochi?

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    The Swedes are deep and talented in all areas. They have so much talent up front that Nicklas Backstrom of the Capitals could be a third-line center. The defense is so complete that Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Blackhawks may find himself on the third pairing.

    But for the first time in a long time, the big question mark is in net with Henrik Lundqvist, who hasn't been able to get out of his own way this season.

    Lundqvist has lost playing time to rookie Cam Talbot, which happens when you're 12-16-2 with a 2.78/.905 split. The other Swedish goaltenders—Robin Lehner of the Senators and Jhonas Enroth of the Sabres—aren't likely to supplant Lundqvist no matter what he does between now and the Olympics.

    It's possible Lundqvist turns things around before he gets to Sochi, but even if he doesn't, playing behind a team as talented as this one could cure what ails him.

Switzerland: Does It Have Enough Talent to Cause Problems?

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    The Swiss aren't thought of as a hockey power, but they boast some top-notch NHL talent that could make them a dark horse in Sochi.

    Goaltender Jonas Hiller has been outstanding this season for the Ducks. He is 20-4-4 with a 2.42/.911 split and dominated December by going 9-0-1 with a 1.96/.921 split. Hiller is capable of stealing games and carrying a team for two weeks.

    Hiller wouldn't have to do it alone, as he is joined by fellow NHLers Damien Brunner, Mark Streit, Rafael Diaz, Roman Josi and Nino Niederreiter. 

    No one is going to pick Switzerland to win gold, but it has a chance to cause headaches for the powerhouses.

United States: Does It Have Enough Scoring to Be a Factor?

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    Not sure if you've heard, but Team USA left perennial 30-goal scorer Bobby Ryan off the roster. It may have been written about once or twice last week.

    It's a bold move, as the Americans will count on their defense and goaltending perhaps more than any other medal contender. Sure, the U.S. team has its fair share of offensive threats, but it probably falls short of what Canada and Russia are bringing to Sochi.

    Olympic hockey is a heightened version of playoff hockey where goals are at a premium. If there's one thing that's likely to bring the Americans down, it's going to be an unproductive offense.