The 2014 Winter Olympics are almost a month away, but with rosters released, we can begin speculating and making predictions on what will happen during the ice hockey tournament in Sochi.
Which perennial power will fall short of a medal? Which elite goal scorer will be held without a goal during the tournament? Will Jonathan Quick be the answer in net for Team USA? Which country will be the surprise of the tournament?
This list will deliver 10 bold predictions—and maybe one or two ludicrous ones—about the Olympic ice hockey tournament. So click through to discover who will be tournament MVP and which country won't lose a game on the way to a gold medal.
The Swedes are the best team in what appears to be the weakest group, and they should be able to take advantage of that during round-robin play. Switzerland and Latvia are almost devoid of current NHL players, while the Czech Republic will have Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in net.
There should be a lot of cake on that walk for Sweden.
That start will provide Sweden with the top seed during the elimination round, which means it'll likely have no more than two truly difficult matchups over the rest of the tournament. It won't be easy, but Sweden has an excellent chance to go 6-0.
How rare is it to win gold in ice hockey at the Olympics without suffering a loss? No team has done it since the NHL began sending its players in 1998. The last team to do it was the Soviet Union at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The Soviets went 8-0 with a team that featured Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick has been sharp since returning from his groin injury, turning aside 63 of 67 shots in three games for the Kings. But something has been off in Quick's game going back to last season, and it will cost him his starting job with Team USA at Sochi.
Quick will be shaky in the preliminary round. After squeaking past Slovakia and losing to Russia, coach Dan Bylsma will turn to Ryan Miller for the rest of the tournament.
Miller will rediscover his magic from the 2010 Olympics, when he was named tournament MVP. But the magic won't get Team USA to the gold-medal game this time. Instead, Miller and the Americans will have to settle for a bronze medal in Sochi.
This probably looks like the boldest of the bold predictions, but Canada failing to medal at an international tournament outside of North America isn't a new idea.
During the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the Canadians stormed through round-robin play, going 3-0 with a 12-3 goal differential. But they lost in the semifinals to Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic, 2-1, and dropped the bronze-medal game to Finland, 3-2.
At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, Canada finished seventh. After going 3-2 in group play, Canada was blanked 2-0 by the Russians in the quarterfinals. Evgeni Nabokov made 27 saves while Alex Ovechkin and Alex Kovalev scored for the Russians.
No one is saying Canada isn't the best team on paper, but this isn't tic tac toe. All it takes is one outstanding goaltending performance to derail a powerful team like Canada, and that's what will happen to the Canadians in Sochi.
The Swiss likely won't go as deep into the tournament as other teams, but it won't be because of goaltender Jonas Hiller.
He is having an outstanding season for the Anaheim Ducks—he is 21-4-4 with a 2.40/.912 split and has been playing his best hockey since December. The Swiss will have to play a defensive style to compete with the likes of Sweden and the Czech Republic in Group C, and Hiller will be the beneficiary of it.
At the 2010 Olympics, Hiller went 2-3 as Switzerland finished eighth. But he had a .918 save percentage, a number he will improve on in his second tournament to give his team a chance to do damage in Sochi.
If it was a different NHL season, Nicklas Backstrom would be receiving serious consideration for the Hart Trophy. The playmaking center for the Washington Capitals has 47 points in 43 games and is tied for seventh in league scoring.
Backstrom will carry that over into the Olympics, where his ability to dish the puck will result in him winning MVP.
Part of this prediction has to do with a perceived easy setup in Group C with the Czechs, Latvians and Swiss. Backstrom will be a point-scoring machine in those early matchups, and if the tournament breaks the right way, there won't be many defensive stalwarts in front of Sweden in the knockout round, either.
The Swedes will be a juggernaut in Sochi, and it will be Backstrom leading the way offensively.
Slovakia? A team that features seven forwards who play overseas is going to reach a medal game? Really?
Yes, really. Slovakia reached the bronze-medal game in 2010 under almost exactly the same conditions, and it's good enough to pull an upset or two and get there again in 2014.
The key pieces are all returning—goaltender Jaroslav Halak, defenseman Zdeno Chara and right wing Marian Hossa are all back. Also back are right wing Marian Gaborik and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky; although their status for Sochi is in question due to injuries, they haven't been ruled out.
The Slovaks also have some solid depth players from the NHL with forwards Tomas Tatar, Tomas Kopecky and Michal Handzus, and defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Andrej Sekera.
If these current Olympic teams played an 82-game season, would Slovakia finish in the top three? Absolutely not. But in a short tournament with one-game eliminations, Slovakia can be as deadly as anyone.
While Nicklas Backstrom will win tournament MVP, former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk will eke out the scoring title in Sochi thanks to playing for the high-flying Russians and being accustomed to bigger ice.
Kovalchuk has 35 points in 37 games for St. Petersburg SKA this season—not an overly impressive number—but he has been coming on strong of late after an injury early in the season. He has also posted those numbers playing with KHL-level talent, a level that will rise when Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are on the ice.
Kovalchuk will also likely be motivated to face the players he left behind for the KHL after leaving the NHL this past summer.
The Russians have some questions on defense, but Kovalchuk will be leading the way on offense.
There was all kinds of discussion about whether P.K. Subban would make Team Canada. Many early predictions had him staying home, but Steve Yzerman and the Hockey Canada brass named him to the team to the delight of many.
But looking over the defense corps, Subban looks like he could be either the seventh defenseman or the one who is scratched most nights.
Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Alex Pietrangelo are all locks to be in the lineup every night, and three of them are right-handed. Two other spots are likely to go to lefties Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jay Bouwmeester, leaving Mike Babcock to decide between Dan Hamhuis and the right-handed Subban as the seventh defenseman.
Hamhuis is a steady veteran with tons of experience, while Subban is young and getting his first taste of games this big. The prediction here is Subban gets in against lesser competition in group play, but when the games get tough, Babcock will go the safe route and dress Hamhuis.
It seems crazy given how talented Subban is, but it's very likely to play out with him doing more watching than playing.
The only reason Chris Kunitz is on Team Canada is because he plays so well with Sidney Crosby...is a thing most of the free world is thinking. People believe Kunitz will be stitched on the left side of Crosby's body throughout the tournament and wouldn't be there if not for his connection with the best player in the world.
He may have made the team because of that connection, but the coaching staff won't be hesitant to shuffle lines if Canada is struggling during a game or throughout the tournament to score goals.
Before Kunitz was riding shotgun with Crosby, he was playing alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with the Anaheim Ducks, and both Getzlaf and Perry are on the Canadian roster. Kunitz will spend more time with that duo and perhaps even other centers on lower lines during the course of the tournament.
Patrick Kane is having a dominant season in the NHL with 23 goals in 46 games. He has 54 points, good for second in the league behind Sidney Crosby.
But that offense will all but disappear when he takes the ice in Sochi.
This prediction is an absolute guess that has almost zero facts to back it up, but sometimes you have to go with your gut.
In 2010, Kane had three goals in six games. He played mostly with Paul Stastny and Zach Parise during the tournament. Parise is a tremendous driver of possession, but a foot injury could have him at way less than 100 percent when the Olympics start.
Kane scored two of his three goals in the semifinals against Finland, both of which came with Team USA already having a 3-0 lead in a 6-1 victory. His other goal came during the preliminary round in a blowout against Norway.
The U.S. team has two tough games in the preliminary round in 2014, drawing Russia and Slovakia. In 2010, the U.S. team faced Canada but had two layups with Switzerland and Norway.
There will have to be some bad luck involved, but Kane won't find the back of the net at Sochi.