Just like men's basketball highlights the Summer Olympics, the Winter Games will be headlined by the exciting men's hockey tournament. With four legitimate, top-flight contenders—along with several dark-horse teams that can potentially make a run—the level of competition in Sochi will be incredible.
Many of the best players from the NHL and around the world will go at it, and it is entirely possible that this will be the final Olympics involving NHL players. Because of that, the players will almost certainly lay it all on the line since this may be their final opportunity to capture Olympic gold.
Along with the entire men's hockey schedule for the Sochi Games, here is a look at the teams that have the best chance to stand atop the podium on Feb. 23.
|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 Teams to Watch
As is always the case, Canada enters Sochi as the prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal. Canada held off a stiff challenge from the United States in the 2010 gold medal game, and things won't get any easier in 2014, especially since Russia will be playing on home ice. With that said, no team is deeper than Canada from top to bottom. Not only do the Canadians boast the best player in the world in the form of Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, but they also feature a ton of depth both up front and on the blue line, so there aren't many weaknesses to speak of.
There is one area in which a few other teams have the advantage over Canada, though. There are definite goaltending question marks with Canada bringing Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith to Sochi. Luongo led Canada to the gold medal in Vancouver; however, he looked shaky at times. Price is the projected starter, but he has struggled mightily as of late. Because of that, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star views the netminder situation as a concern:
It has been proven often in the NHL over the past several years that an elite goalie isn't necessarily needed to win it all as long as he has a ton of talent in front of him. Canada is certainly hoping that a similar philosophy manifests itself in Sochi. As long as Price, Luongo or Smith don't embarrass themselves between the pipes, Canada is going to be a contender.
No team was a bigger disappointment in the Olympics four years ago than Russia. The ultra-talented squad failed to medal, although it did receive an unlucky draw that forced it to face Canada in the quarterfinals. It's impossible to say how the draw will shake out this time around, but there is no doubt that Russia has the horses necessary to win gold. That is especially true when it comes to the skill it possesses at the forward position.
Canada may have more depth of scoring than Russia, but the Russians are the type of team that can potentially pot 10 in one game. The likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin and others make Russia the most dynamic team in the tournament. Not only will they be dangerous at even strength, but their power play should be a well-oiled machine. Although the skill level drops off on the third and fourth lines, Rob LaPlante of the Wright County Journal-Press feels as though the upper-tier talent that Russia does have will make life miserable for the opposition:
Like Canada, though, there is some concern when it comes to Russia's ability to stop the opposition from scoring. Defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets is likely to get the starting nod; however, he doesn't enter Sochi in great form. Also, Russia's defensive corps is lacking when it comes to elite players, and many of them are offensive minded. If there is one thing that can prevent Russia from reaching its full potential, it is an abundance of defensive lapses.
Few expected Team USA to make it as far as it did back in 2010, but the element of surprise is no longer present in 2014. The United States is behind Canada, Russia and Sweden when it comes to betting favorites, according to Bovada, but there is every reason to believe that the Americans will be a major factor. They caught a tough break by getting stuck with Russia in Group A; however, Team USA absolutely has what it takes to win the gold in Sochi.
Some combination of Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller will handle the goaltending duties, which gives Team USA a huge advantage over Canada and Russia. At the same time, the United States doesn't have as much top-end talent at forward. Team USA didn't struggle to score in 2010 with a similar cast, though. Chicago Blackhawks superstar forward Patrick Kane has taken a huge step forward since 2010 and could be a Crosby-esque player for the Americans. As evidenced by his comments during a recent Associated Press interview, Kane has a singular focus heading into Sochi:
I'm very happy about where I am at in my career, but at the same time, you never want to be satisfied. You want to keep winning and keep having that taste of success in your mouth because there's no better feeling. I'm sure that if you could accomplish that with your country, it would be pretty unreal.
Team USA is built upon balance, as many of the players have strong two-way games, and it will be interesting to see what bearing the Olympic ice has on that. The 2010 Olympics were contested on an NHL-sized rink, so it's entirely possible that the United States' strategy won't be quite as effective. Whatever the case, opposing teams can't afford to sleep on the Americans.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter