As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi approach, there is a great deal of focus on the men's ice hockey tournament. That is unquestionably the signature sport of the Winter Games, and there is sure to be a great deal of competition. Aside from the usual suspects, though, there are several potential contenders.
According to Bovada, Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States are a cut above the rest in terms of vying for a gold medal, but it isn't often that Olympic hockey goes chalk. There are always one or two surprising teams that make a run, and there is no reason to think that 2014 will be any different.
Aside from the teams that most fans are talking about heading into Sochi, here are three potential dark horses that have a legitimate opportunity to win a medal and perhaps even make a push for gold.
Picking up a medal in five of the past seven Olympic Games since 1988, it feels somewhat odd to call Finland a dark horse. The Finns have never won gold, but they are always in the mix, and they have captured a medal in each of the past two Olympics. Perhaps Finland doesn't boast as much star power as some of the other top teams, but it has a great mix of youthful exuberance and veteran experience, with Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne leading the way in the latter category, according to the NHL on Twitter.
Having guys like Selanne and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen on the team is invaluable since they have been there and done that on the big stage. At the same time, there are plenty of hungry players who are looking for their first taste of Olympic gold. Forwards Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund are rising stars in the NHL, and they both have the skill set necessary to thrive on the larger Olympic ice surface.
Ultimately, though, Finland's biggest strength exists between the pipes. No team in the tournament can match Finland's depth in goal with Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen forming a veritable three-headed monster. Both Rask and Niemi have their names on the Stanley Cup, and all three goalies have at least 20 wins in the NHL this season. Finland has long been known for its disciplined, defensive style, and that will serve it well with so much ability in the crease. If Rask plays at the level that he has been in the NHL, then Suomi will absolutely make a run.
Although Finland captured the bronze medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, it is easy to forget whom they beat to earn that honor. Finland slipped past a surprising Slovakian team that lost to Canada by just a single goal in the semifinals. Few expected the Slovaks to make such a deep run since they have never medaled in the Olympics, but they eliminated Sweden and came dangerously close to taking out the eventual gold medal winners in Canada.
A lot of things change over the course of four years obviously, but Slovakia has plenty of returning players, and there is no reason why it can't make yet another run. There is a definite lack of depth up front, but the goal-scoring combo of Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik gives Slovakia some firepower. The anchor is undoubtedly Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, who will likely play close to 30 minutes per game for the Slovaks and will also serve as the team's captain, per Boston.com.
Like Finland, Slovakia has a chance to make some noise due to its goaltending. St. Louis Blues backstop Jaroslav Halak will be the workhorse, and he has enjoyed a spectacular NHL season for the surging Blues. Halak also has a history of getting hot in big games, as evidenced by his stellar playoff run for the upstart Montreal Canadiens in 2009-10. Provided Halak can find that form, Slovakia will be a dangerous team that nobody wants to face.
Despite having just eight NHL players on its roster, Switzerland is a team that could most definitely give the hockey powers something to sweat about in Sochi. Switzerland has a recent history of success in the Olympics, which includes a win over Canada in the 2006 Torino Games. In fact, the Swiss have made huge strides across all international hockey competitions since 2006 especially, and the next logical step is an Olympic medal.
Leading the way for Switzerland will be Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Mark Streit. The veteran will represent Switzerland in the Olympics for the fourth time, and he has seen the evolution of Swiss hockey firsthand. According to Tim Panaccio of CSNPhilly.com, Streit is proud of the strides that his country has made in the sport of hockey.
Swiss hockey has come a long way the past, 10, 12, 15 years,. It's great to see more and more players playing in the NHL. It's great for Swiss hockey and the national team. It's good to compete and face a lot of good teams there.
Which team is most likely to medal in Sochi?
Switzerland enjoyed its greatest success in the World Championships last year as it reached the gold medal game before falling to Sweden. Many of the players who were on that team will represent Switzerland in Sochi. The scarcity of NHL players might cause some to dismiss the Swiss, but no team in the tournament has more continuity. These players have been teammates often, and many of them play together in the Swiss league. In fact, Switzerland has six players from the ZSC Lions, so there will be a great deal of chemistry.
Add in the possibility of Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller putting the team on his back, and there is every reason to believe that the Swiss can compete for a medal.
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