Predicting the Group Standings for Ice Hockey at 2014 Winter Olympics
With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi less than one month away, all 12 nations participating in the men's hockey tournament have announced the 25-man rosters that will carry their nations' hopes.
Now fans can move onto the next stage of analysis—studying the three groups that will make up the round-robin portion of the tournament and predicting who will triumph heading into the medal round.
These are the groupings:
Group A: Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, USA
Group B: Austria, Canada, Finland, Norway
Group C: Czech Republic, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland
After the round-robin, the top four teams advance to the quarter-final while the other eight play a one-game sudden-death playoff where the four winners move on.
Here's a look at how the teams could stack up at the end of the three-game preliminary round.
All tournament info from IIHF.com.
Group A Winner: Russia
Biggest Advantage: Home ice. The host country wants nothing more than to win gold in men's hockey on its own soil, and the Russians are eager to avenge their sixth-place debacle in Vancouver from 2010. The Russians won gold at the 2012 World Championships but haven't stood on an Olympic podium since they scored bronze in Salt Lake City back in 2002.
Biggest Weakness: Depth and defense. Russia's top two lines match up well against any team in the tournament with stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, but the team's bottom-six forwards could leave some defensive holes.
Olympic Prediction: No team is under more pressure than the Russians, and they're in a tough group with Team USA and Slovakia. They'll win their round robin and should press through to the gold-medal game.
Group A Runner-Up: USA
Biggest Advantage: Confidence. A brand-new group led the Americans within a whisper of gold in Vancouver during 2010. The American leadership core will build on that experience with a talented group of teammates in Sochi. Team USA boasts an impressive mix of speed, size, grit and scoring punch.
Biggest Weakness: Big-ice success. North American players aren't as comfortable on the international-sized ice they'll be skating on in Sochi, and past results have reflected this handicap. Both the USA and Canada have struggled in past Olympics on the big ice, failing to medal in Turin and Nagano. The 2012-13 NHL lockout may have helped North American players in this regard—many gained some big-ice experience playing overseas while the NHL was shut down.
Olympic Prediction: If the Russians struggle at all under the weight of their nation's expectations, expect the Americans to swoop in and win Group A. No guarantees for gold, but the Americans should get into the medal round.
3rd and 4th Place in Group A
Third Place: Slovakia
The Slovaks were the big surprise at the 2010 Olympics, finishing fourth overall in the tournament after a hard-fought bronze medal game against the Finns. They've lost some key players and are hampered by injuries, but Zdeno Chara and company could give a scare to one of the Group A favorites.
Fourth Place: Slovenia
Slovenia was ranked 18th in the world when they qualified for the Olympics a year ago. They beat out Denmark, Belarus and Ukraine in their qualifying tournament to nap their country's first-ever berth in the hockey tournament. The team will be led by its lone NHLer, Anze Kopitar, and coached by Kopitar's father Matjaz. For Slovenia, it truly will be an honor just to be invited.
Group B Winner: Finland
Biggest Advantage: Goaltending. With a population of just over five million people, the Finns crank out a stunning number of world-class netminders. Even with Pekka Rinne on the sidelines, opponents will have a tough time putting pucks past Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen. The Finns also recently had a nice moment of national pride, coming off an upset win at the 2014 World Junior Championship.
Biggest Weakness: Offensive punch. Teemu Selanne will be playing in his sixth Olympics, but the 43-year-old can't be expected to contribute like he did in his younger days. Leading forward Mikko Koivu is currently sidelined for a month after ankle surgery, putting his Olympic status in question.
Olympic Prediction: Even if Koivu can't suit up, Finland will win Group B thanks to the strong play of role players like Valtteri Filppula and Jussi Jokinen and youngsters like Aleksander Barkov and Olli Maatta—all having outstanding seasons. Comfortable on the big ice, the Finns should roll through the round robin, beating Canada. Look for Finland to match or improve upon its bronze-medal standing from Vancouver.
Group B Runner-Up: Canada
Biggest Advantage: Chemistry. Canada has chosen to populate its forward lines with tried-and-true pairings: Crosby and Kunitz; Perry and Getzlaf; Toews and Sharp. Teammates Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo will also likely play together on defence—even former teammates Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis could get matched up. Players' familiarity with each other should set a strong foundation for the team.
Biggest Weakness: Pressure. Not only did Team Canada deliver the gold in Vancouver in 2010, the squad sparked one of the most dramatic outpourings of national pride in history. Being on the big ice, away from home, the challenges will be different this time. The Canadians can't let expectations weigh too heavily on their shoulders.
Olympic Prediction: Canada will have a tough time getting out of the round robin ahead of a strong Finnish team. The big ice will be an issue, but the team should have enough talent to contend and will make noise in the medal round.
3rd and 4th Place in Group B
Third Place: Austria
Austria was ranked 15th in the world when it won its Olympic qualification tournament last year. The Austrians were surprise winners over Germany, and also triumphed over Italy and the Netherlands in their group. Austria has some firepower up front—Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Flyers' upstart rookie Michael Raffl, to name a few. Still, they shouldn't cause the top teams too much trouble.
Fourth Place: Norway
The 2012 IIHF world rankings saw Norway in eighth place, allowing them to qualify automatically for the Olympic tournament. With only Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers representing the NHL on Team Norway, they'll have a fight on their hands if they hope to challenge Austria for third place in the group.
Group C Winner: Sweden
Biggest Advantage: National groove. The 2006 Olympic champs won gold on home ice at the 2013 World Championships last spring with a team that should resemble the squad that skates in Sochi. Henrik Lundqvist is getting back in form, and the Swedish defense is built for the big ice.
Biggest Weakness: Injuries. The Swedes aren't the only team with this issue, but they have a long list of key players with question marks next to their names.
At forward, Alex Steen is out with a concussion while Loui Eriksson and Johan Franzen are getting close to returning from theirs. Meanwhile, Henrik Sedin is nursing a mysterious finger injury.
On the blue line, Jonathan Ericsson's out with broken ribs while Alex Edler is rumoured to be close after missing more than a month with a knee problem. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is back with Phoenix after two missed games following a hit from behind.
Olympic Prediction: Even if they're not at full strength, the Swedes should have a relatively easy time winning a group that includes Switzerland, an aging Czech team and Latvia. They'll need all hands on deck, though, if they hope to make noise in the medal round.
Group C Runner-Up: Switzerland
Biggest Advantage: Jonas Hiller. The Swiss veteran backstopped his team during the Vancouver Games and is having an outstanding season with the Anaheim Ducks. Hiller was named the NHL's third star in December and is riding a confidence-building winning streak with the Ducks.
Biggest Weakness: Scoring power. The Swiss always surprise in Olympic competition and broke through to win the silver at the 2013 World Championships, but they lack big league offense. The only NHL forwards on the Swiss roster are 21-year-old Nino Niederreiter of Minnesota and New Jersey's Damien Brunner, who's on injured reserve with a sprained knee.
Olympic Prediction: If the Swedes get unlucky with their injuries, Switzerland has the best chance of swooping in to win Group C. Expect tight, low-scoring games from the Swiss—the kind that could easily be decided by a single bounce.
3rd and 4th Place in Group C
Third Place: Czech Republic
The Czechs are currently fourth in the IIHF's world rankings behind the Swedes, Finns and Russians, but they'll have a tough time contending in their group. The Czechs boast some talent—like Boston's David Krejci—but their biggest names are 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr and 42-year-old Petr Nedved. The Czechs surprisingly left skill players like Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata off their roster, and they'll have just one NHL netminder on their team, Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec.
Fourth Place: Latvia
Latvia's our final qualifying team, who beat out France, Kazakhstan and Great Britain to secure their Olympic berth. Ranked 11th in the world, North Americans will recognize Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons and ex-NHLer Kaspars Daugavins on the Latvian roster. Don't expect much noise from the Latvians in an ultra-competitive group.