Most of the best games in the men's Olympic hockey tournament will take place in the knockout stages, but there is plenty to like about the group round in Sochi as well. The 2014 Winter Olympics will feature one of the most competitive hockey tournaments ever and has hockey fans across the world salivating.
There are four teams that appear to be a cut above the rest and have legitimate gold-medal aspirations, while two or three others should be able to make a run as well. Most of the elite teams were kept away from each other in group play; however, that won't stop high drama and intense competition from occurring.
Along with a look at the full men's hockey schedule ahead of the Sochi Games, here are a few specific clashes that are sure to be crowd pleasers.
|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|
When: Wednesday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 23
Where: Sochi, Russia
Watch: USA, MSNBC, NBCSN, NBC
USA vs. Russia
There can be no argument that the Group A battle between Team USA and Russia will make more headlines than any other early game in the tournament.
The United States got somewhat unlucky by getting placed in Russia's group despite winning silver in 2010, but the Americans won't be intimidated. Team USA beat Canada in group play in the Vancouver Games and came within one goal of beating the Canadians for gold. Much of the 2014 American team is the same as 2010, so experience on the big stage will be a huge plus.
From a pure talent perspective, it is tough to beat Russia. The Russians boast some of the most dynamic offensive players in the world in Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. Because of that and the home ice factor, former Russian Olympian Sergei Fedorov believes there is a great deal of pressure on Russia to succeed, according to the Associated Press.
"Just like the Canada guys in Vancouver 2010, a lot of pressure," Fedorov said. "Maybe more. Our fans might be a little tougher."
It's tough to argue with Fedorov's assertion, especially since Russia hasn't tasted gold since the Unified Team won it all in 1992.
Winning it all at home would be sweet, but falling short would be bitter. Russia has a chance to set the tone by beating one of its biggest rivals; however, Team USA will have something to say about that. The Americans won't be able to match Russia's top-flight scoring, but they will have the edge in net with either Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick. Whichever goalie starts will have to be on top of his game.
Sweden vs. Switzerland
When it comes to NHL talent, there is a huge contrast between Sweden and Switzerland.
The Swedes will bring 24 NHL players with them to Sochi, while the Swiss will have just eight. Even so, it would be a big mistake to discount Switzerland's chances in this game. Sweden is heavily favored to win Group C and is expected to win a medal of some kind; however, the familiarity that the Swiss players have with each other coupled with continued progress at the international level will be major factors.
Switzerland is starting to become an international power in hockey, and it all started when the Swiss upset Canada at the 2006 Torino Olympics.
Switzerland has slowly ascended since then, culminated in a silver medal at the 2013 World Championships. The Swiss lost to Sweden in the gold-medal game and will be out for revenge. Sweden has a ton of depth at forward especially, but it won't have the benefit of Detroit Red Wings winger Johan Franzen, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press:
Even without Franzen, Switzerland will have a tough time slowing down the likes of Daniel Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, Loui Eriksson. What the Swiss lack in NHL star power, they make up for in teamwork since most of their roster has played together quite a bit, and many of the players are teammates in the Swiss league.
Add in the red-hot play of goalie Jonas Hiller, and Switzerland is definitely a team that can compete with the big guns.
Finland vs. Canada
The expectation is that Team Canada will romp through Group B, and while the Canadians won't have much trouble with Austria and Norway, they can't afford to look past Finland.
Although more than one-third of Team Finland plays in leagues other than the NHL, Suomi will be a force to be reckoned with in Sochi. Canada could very well enter this game oozing with overconfidence, but that would be a dire error that could cost Team Canada the group and subsequently make the road to gold much tougher.
Canada may very well be able to get by on talent alone. Not only does it have the world's best player in Sidney Crosby, but it can roll four scoring lines and has insane depth on defense from No. 1 to No. 8.
The one concern is the goalie position with Carey Price faltering lately. Roberto Luongo could potentially step in, but he was shaky in 2010 despite leading Canada to the gold medal. Such a problem doesn't exist on Team Finland, as NESN's Billy Jaffe explained The Hockey News' Ronnie Shuker's assertion that Finland is a successful Olympic squad with one simple word:
Most countries would kill for one good goalie, but Finland has three in the form of Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. Rask is likely to get the starting nod thanks to his stellar play, and he could possibly stymie Canada, especially if Finland's defensive system is on point. The talent gap between Canada and Finland is fairly wide, but that often doesn't matter over the course of a single game.
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