Few sporting events are more intense and competitive than Olympic hockey, as players from across the globe will attempt to win gold for their respective countries. The NHL's involvement in the Olympics has been a hot-button issue over the past several years, so fans will want to soak up as much of the action as they can in Sochi.
If the 2014 Winter Olympics prove to be the swan song for NHL players at the event, then it's going out with a bang. Canada, Russia, the United States, Sweden and a couple other squads look like legitimate threats to win it all, and they will unquestionably lay everything out on the line.
Along with the full Olympic hockey schedule for the Sochi Games, here is some further analysis regarding the biggest group-stage games that hockey fans everywhere simply can't afford to miss.
When: Wednesday, Feb. 12 through Sunday, Feb. 23
Where: Sochi, Russia
Watch: USA, MSNBC, NBCSN, NBC
|2014 Olympic Hockey Schedule|
|Wednesday, Feb. 12||Noon||C||Czech Republic vs. Sweden||USA|
|Wednesday, Feb. 12||Noon||C||Latvia vs. Switzerland||MSNBC|
|Thursday, Feb. 13||3 a.m.||B||Finland vs. Austria||NBCSN|
|Thursday, Feb. 13||7:30 a.m.||A||Russia vs. Slovenia||MSNBC|
|Thursday, Feb. 13||7:30 a.m.||A||USA vs. Slovakia||NBCSN|
|Thursday, Feb. 13||Noon||B||Canada vs. Norway||USA|
|Friday, Feb. 14||3 a.m.||C||Czech Republic vs. Latvia||MSNBC|
|Friday, Feb. 14||7:30 a.m.||C||Sweden vs. Switzerland||NBCSN|
|Friday, Feb. 14||Noon||B||Canada vs. Austria||USA|
|Friday, Feb. 14||Noon||B||Norway vs. Finland||MSNBC|
|Saturday, Feb. 15||3 a.m.||A||Slovakia vs. Slovenia||MSNBC|
|Saturday, Feb. 15||7:30 a.m.||A||USA vs. Russia||NBCSN|
|Saturday, Feb. 15||Noon||C||Switzerland vs. Czech Republic||NBCSN|
|Saturday, Feb. 15||Noon||C||Sweden vs. Latvia||USA|
|Sunday, Feb. 16||3 a.m.||B||Austria vs. Norway||USA|
|Sunday, Feb. 16||7:30 a.m.||A||Russia vs. Slovakia||USA|
|Sunday, Feb. 16||7:30 a.m.||A||USA vs. Slovenia||NBCSN|
|Sunday, Feb. 16||Noon||B||Finland vs. Canada||USA|
|Tuesday, Feb. 18||3 a.m.||Qualification Round||NBCSN|
|Tuesday, Feb. 18||7:30 a.m.||Qualification Round||USA|
|Tuesday, Feb. 18||Noon||Qualification Round||NBCSN|
|Tuesday, Feb. 18||Noon||Qualification Round||MSNBC|
|Wednesday, Feb. 19||3 a.m.||Quarterfinal||NBCSN|
|Wednesday, Feb. 19||7:30 a.m.||Quarterfinal||NBCSN|
|Wednesday, Feb. 19||Noon||Quarterfinal||USA|
|Wednesday, Feb. 19||Noon||Quarterfinal||MSNBC|
|Friday, Feb. 21||7 a.m.||Semifinal||NBCSN|
|Friday, Feb. 21||Noon||Semifinal||NBCSN|
|Saturday, Feb. 22||10 a.m.||Bronze Medal Game||NBCSN|
|Sunday, Feb. 23||7 a.m.||Gold Medal Game||NBC|
Top Group Games to Watch
USA vs. Russia
In what should unarguably be the marquee game of group play, host Russia will take on defending Olympic silver medalists Team USA. Some might argue that the United States drew the short straw in terms of group placement, but Russia has proven to be vulnerable during Olympic play despite having an immense amount of talent. With that said, there is little doubt that this game will decide which team will reign supreme in Group A.
From a pure skill perspective, perhaps no team can compete with Russia. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk provide an insane amount of offensive firepower, but there are definite concerns for Russia on defense and in between the pipes. There are no such concerns for Team USA in goal, as the tandem of Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller will receive the bulk of the work.
The in-depth piece written by ESPN.com's Scott Burnside about the selection of Team USA would seem to suggest that the powers that be are leaning toward Quick as the primary starter, but Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News feels as though it would be a huge mistake.
Since this game is clearly Team USA's biggest in group play, the starting goalie decision will say a lot about the plans moving forward. Quick has a Stanley Cup win to his credit, but Miller was the tournament MVP during the 2010 Olympics, so both men have their accolades. Whoever mans the crease for Team USA against Russia will be the key to victory for the Stars and Stripes.
Finland vs. Canada
It comes as no surprise that Team Canada is favored to win the gold in Sochi. Not only did Canada win it all in 2010, but no team can rival its depth from top to bottom. A legitimate contender could conceivably be made out of the players who were snubbed from Team Canada, which makes the team that was selected a force to be reckoned with. With that said, Finland is also a team worth watching in Group B, and it could give Canada quite a scare.
Finland is the only team to medal in each of the past two Olympics with bronze in Vancouver and silver in Turin, so the Finns certainly rise to the occasion on the big stage. They tend to play a defensive game, which puts a lot of pressure on the defense and goaltender, but it also frustrates the opposition.
One player who would've been important for Canada in this contest is Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, the sniper has not been medically cleared to play by the Bolts and won't be competing in Sochi.
Lighting and Team Canada general manager elaborated on the reasoning behind the decision in a team press release, per ESPN's Craig Custance:
Although the doctor was very pleased to this point with the healing process, he explained that the callus surrounding the fracture site is not 100 percent consolidated, and Steven will not be cleared to play in a game until that happens. It was a pretty clear-cut decision, no gray areas at all.
Even without Stamkos, Team Canada is expected by most to beat Finland and go on to win the gold medal. At the same time, beating Finland is difficult without guys who can create their own shots and make things happen individually. The likes of Sidney Crosby and John Tavares can certainly step up in that regard, but Stamkos is a major loss.
Czech Republic vs. Sweden
Group C isn't receiving much love ahead of the Olympics due to the fact that Canada, Russia and USA reside elsewhere, but Sweden is a dark-horse contender that could very well outdo all of them. Tre Kronor's forward group is something special, with the Sedin twins, Henrik Zetterberg, Loui Eriksson and a host of others making Sweden perhaps the best puck-possession team in the tournament. Despite that, it would be unwise to sleep on the Czech Republic.
Although the Czechs failed to medal in 2010, they took bronze in 2006, and they are ripe with NHL talent. Even so, the Czech Republic is probably the sixth or seventh choice at best in terms of winning gold.
One thing that the Czechs have over almost every other team is the experience edge. Ageless forward Jaromir Jagr will make his fifth Olympic appearance, according to Yahoo! Sports, but he is only the second-oldest player on the roster.
It can be argued that experience won't translate well to the Olympic-sized ice surface, but the Czechs will find a way to be competitive. Nobody is talking about them right now, so they'll enter Sochi without much pressure. Sweden has gotten a bit more attention, but it is still playing in the shadows of Canada, Russia and the U.S., so it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
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