Each 2014 Olympic Hockey Contender's Key Difference-Maker
Which players will be most critical at the Winter Olympics in Sochi? It is a highly competitive tournament where up to seven teams have great goaltending and elite top lines.
For each nation, the difference between winning gold and going home with nothing can often fall largely on the shoulders of a single key player.
Finding these key difference-makers requires a fundamental understanding of the makeup of each team, including their strengths and weaknesses. In each case, there's a primary role on which their medal hopes rest, whether that's the ability to score goals, stop the puck or shut down a key opponent.
Only the top seven contenders for a medal are included on this list and they will be reviewed in alphabetical order by country name. Each slide will feature the player in that critical role, the credentials that they bring to it and their potential impact.
One of the following seven players will likely determine the winner of the gold medal in Sochi. Read on to begin with the hero of the previous Winter Olympics.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics come from the writer's own original research.
Sidney Crosby, Canada
Team captain and two-way, top-line superstar.
Sidney Crosby scored the overtime winner in Vancouver's Olympic Games in 2010. "Sid the Kid" is arguably the world's greatest hockey player. Last year, Crosby was named the NHL's best player by ESPN, The Hockey News and his fellow players.
Crosby is the NHL's leading scorer, but unlike many of the other players in the scoring race, he does so against top competition and without having any of his defensive zone responsibilities reduced.
Quite simply, if Crosby is on his game, then Canada is unstoppable. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Crosby has a great tournament and yet the team comes up short.
While it is possible for a team as skilled as the Canadians to win the gold medal without him, it becomes a virtual certainty if he plays as well as he so often has in the past.
Jaromir Jagr, Czech Republic
Top-line winger and inspirational leader.
Jaromir Jagr is one of the greatest offensive forces of all time, with an incredibly long list of career accomplishments, including the most career NHL game-winning goals.
Even today, Jagr remains a dominant force in the NHL, leading the New Jersey Devils in scoring by a nine-point margin and ranking second among the team's forwards with an average ice time of 19:15 minutes per game.
Potential Impact: Jagr's leadership and clutch play will be crucial. It isn't so much about what the 41-year-old can still bring to the table himself, but what he can bring out in those around him.
Though without a medal-stealing goaltender like they had in the past (Dominik Hasek), the Czech Republic still has a deep and well-rounded team. If Jagr can find a way to motivate his teammates, then they can find a way to get Jagr back on the Olympic gold medal podium he last climbed in Nagano in 1998.
Tuukka Rask, Finland
No. 1 goalie, backed up by two more great goalies in Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.
Tuukka Rask led the postseason with three shutouts and a .940 save percentage in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. His .928 save percentage is the league's best since his 2009-10 debut, when he led the NHL in both save percentage and goals-against average.
This season, he's one of the safer bets for the Vezina Trophy.
Tempting as it is to select 43-year-old Olympic legend Teemu Selanne, if Finland wins any kind of medal, it will likely be because of its goaltending.
Finland is not an explosive team offensively, to put it mildly. Selanne, Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu might actually be the team's greatest scoring threats. As such, it's going to take a few shutouts for the team to medal.
Fortunately for Finland, Rask has a league-leading nine shutouts over the past two seasons, including three more in the postseason. If Rask can keep goals against to an absolute minimum, a few lucky bounces would get the Finns on the podium for the third consecutive Olympic Games.
Alexander Ovechkin, Russia
Team superstar on its top scoring line.
Alexander Ovechkin is the world's greatest goal scorer. He has 63 goals in 88 games over the past two seasons, while no one else even has 50. This season will likely bring his fourth Maurice Richard Trophy and potentially his fourth Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
Russia's strength is clearly the offensive punch of its top line, which is potentially rivaled only by Team Canada's. There are very few possible scenarios that result in a Russian medal if Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk fail to punch through the inevitably tight defensive coverage and light the red lamp repeatedly.
Ovechkin is the type of generational talent that can win a tournament almost single-handedly, even one of this magnitude.
Having been shut out of the past two Olympic medal ceremonies, and set to be 32 at the next Winter Games, one can expect Ovechkin to be particularly motivated this year at home. If he is, watch out!
Zdeno Chara, Slovakia
Top defenseman, playing huge minutes and shutting down top opponents like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Even at age 36, Zdeno Chara is potentially the world's best defenseman—especially defensively. He is simply massive, and his leadership and clutch play have helped the Boston Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Final in two of the past three seasons.
Though not one of the stronger teams, Slovakia just barely missed the podium at the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver, losing the bronze medal game to Finland.
If Chara can neutralize top opponents, allowing the rest of the team to play on a more even basis with its secondary lines, the Slovakians may get another chance in Sochi.
Slovakia's top-line talent, featuring Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, is competitive, but its secondary lines are at risk of being dominated. The top four of Chara, Andrej Sekera, Andrej Meszaros and Lubomir Visnovsky—not to mention star goalie Jaroslav Halak—will be called upon to keep the games tight while the team's top forwards catch their breath.
If Chara can lead that effort, then Slovakia can and will capture that elusive bronze medal.
Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden
While Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth might shine given the opportunity, in all likelihood, Sweden's fortunes rest with its No. 1 goalie, Henrik Lundqvist.
Arguably the world's best goalie, Lundqvist was the starting goalie on Sweden's gold medal team in Turin in 2006. Over the past two postseasons with the Rangers, King Henrik has posted a .932 save percentage in 32 games.
Though not having his best season right now, he won the Vezina in 2012 and his .920 save percentage is the sixth-best mark since the 2005 lockout.
Though Sweden is a great team overall without any obvious flaw, starting goaltending is the one area where it is perhaps the best in the world.
Despite its depth of scoring, responsible two-way play and ideal blend of veteran experience and youth, the Swedish team could still struggle to beat teams like USA and Canada if it gets only average netminding out of Lundqvist.
Lights-out goaltending could be the key factor that helps the Swedes overcome the relatively small gap between them and North America's two teams.
Patrick Kane, USA
Top scoring-line forward, focusing exclusively on generating offense whenever it's needed most desperately.
Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe in last year's Stanley Cup Final and scored an amazing 47 points in Chicago's two successful playoff runs over the past four years. Kane is also second to Crosby with 109 points over the past two seasons, while no one else has scored 100.
Team USA is a remarkably strong defensive team, with the enviable ability to neutralize all opposing lines while still posing an offensive threat of its own. Its success could therefore come down to its ability to score goals at critical moments.
That's where Patrick Kane comes in.
Just like in Chicago, Kane will start his shifts primarily in the offensive zone and against secondary competition whenever that's at all possible. One of the world's best offensive players, Kane will be largely unencumbered with defensive responsibilities, but bear most of the scoring responsibility.
If Kane scores, America will win.
Rob Vollman is the author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. Follow him @robvollmanNHL.
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