There is no better hockey than what you'll find every four years at the Winter Olympics. The best players on the planet get together for a two-week tournament, and it never fails to deliver.
With the NHL's biggest stars on display once again, the 2014 Sochi Olympics should be no different.
The hockey festivities will begin Feb. 12 with simultaneous games at separate rinks, one between the Czech Republic and Sweden at the Bolshoy Ice Dome and another between Latvia and Switzerland at nearby Shayba Arena. The puck will drop on those games at 9 p.m. locally, and they will be the only two contests that day.
The best of the best will be taking part in this year's tournament. This is the fifth straight time the NHL is sending its players to the Olympics—all in all, close to 150 NHL players will be taking part—which makes it must-watch television for any hockey fan.
This year's tournament will feature 12 countries vying for gold, with Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States the favorites. Canada is the defending champion, having defeated Team USA in the gold-medal game in Vancouver in 2010 on Sidney Crosby's overtime golden goal.
This slideshow is designed to get you prepared with all the pertinent information for the 2014 tournament. It features schedules, television and live-streaming information, group breakdowns and players to watch. If there's anything you need to know—including what time games start in North America—you will find it in here.
So sit back, click through and bookmark this page to use as your guide over the next two-plus weeks.
It was four years ago when Sidney Crosby answered the prayers of a nation with his golden goal against the United States. Crosby's shot that beat goaltender Ryan Miller in overtime will go down in history as one of the most memorable in Canada's history and is a great jumping-off point for this year's tournament.
It marked the second time Canada has won gold at the Olympics since the NHL began allowing its players to participate, a practice that began in 1998. Here are the medal winners from those Games, in gold, silver, bronze order:
1998 (Nagano, Japan): Czech Republic, Russia, Finland
2002 (Salt Lake City, Utah): Canada, United States, Russia
2006 (Turin, Italy): Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic
2010 (Vancouver, BC): Canada, United States, Finland
On North American soil, the Canadians and Americans have been the dominant countries. Outside North America, it's been the European countries sweeping the medals.
Ice hockey has been part of the Winter Olympics since 1924, but the first time it was an event was at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp. Canada won gold in six of the first seven tournaments, while the Soviet Union grabbed gold in seven of the next nine events with the United States winning in 1960 and 1980.
As hockey has become a more global game, the Olympics have become a more wide-open event. There are about five teams with a legitimate shot with gold at Sochi in 2014.
The tournament appears complicated to the uninitiated, but really it's quite simple.
Twelve teams are divided into groups of four. The four teams in each group play a round robin format in which everyone within the group plays everyone else in the group. Those games are not elimination games and simply set the seeding for the elimination portion of the tournament.
In theory, you could lose all three round-robin games and still win gold.
Here are the groups at this year's tournament.
• United States
• Czech Republic
The team with the best record in each group earns a bye, along with the team with the best record among non-group winners. The first tiebreaker is goal differential.
The remaining eight teams are seeded based on record and play qualification-round games. The winners of those contests advance to the quarterfinal round to face the teams that earned byes.
After that, it's like any other one-and-done tournament. Three victories is all it takes at that point to win gold. The two teams to lose in the semifinals will play for the bronze.
Tournament TV/Live Stream Info
CBS Sports has the complete schedule and TV listings for the United States, and you can get it here. All games will be shown live, although depending on your time zone, you will have to adjust your sleep cycles to see games. Or perhaps you should just give up sleeping altogether.
If you're in the United States and are looking to watch a live stream, NBCOlympics.com has you covered.
Canadians can watch the games on a host of networks, and the day-by-day hockey schedule is available at CBC.ca.
Live-streaming in Canada also will be available at CBC.ca.
Prepare to be hit over the head by the terms "big ice," "bigger ice," "larger ice" or "Olympic-sized ice" for the next two weeks. You will be hearing about how the ice surface at Sochi is bigger than the ice used in the NHL, and you will be hearing about it a lot.
The differences between an NHL rink and Olympic rink are small, but they can be a factor. Both rinks are 200 feet in length, but the rink in Sochi will be 15 feet wider. Essentially, the face-off circles are in the exact same place, but there's more room along the outside of each zone.
The neutral zone in Sochi is 58 feet, which is eight feet larger than what exists in the NHL. That results in each attacking zone being six feet smaller, although there is an additional foot of space behind the goal line on Olympic ice.
The math is the easy part. Trying to decipher which countries benefit from the unusual dimensions is the hard part.
"Size isn't as relevant as it would be in a small game," Canada associate coach Ken Hitchcock said in an NHL.com article by Dan Rosen. "We're going to play against quicker players than we ever have played against before. We're going to play against players that have great agility, great one-on-one skills. We're going to see lineups that are different than we would play in North America."
Olympic ice is also European ice, so teams like Sweden, Finland and Russia should be able to adjust more quickly. European countries have swept the medals in the past two Olympics outside North America, but when Canada and the United States played for gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, that was on Olympic-sized ice.
The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver were played on NHL-sized ice, as organizers decided it would be too costly to convert the sheet to meet Olympic requirements.
The rink isn't the only adjustment required for the athletes. Players will need to adjust to the time change, the living conditions and new teammates. There's not a whole lot of practice time available for players, so how quickly players acclimate will play a huge factor in who wins a medal and who goes home early.
• United States
This group will likely come down to the Russians and Americans with the Slovaks serving as a dark-horse contender. Slovenia earning just a point in group play would be quite the accomplishment, as its only NHL player is Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.
The United States will play its first two games against Slovakia on Feb. 13 and Russia on Feb. 15, so they will have to be on top of their game immediately. Russia's first game is against Slovenia, which should serve a nice tune-up for their games against the Americans and Slovaks.
The only country that could potentially put up resistance against the Canadians is Finland. It's very likely both teams will be unbeaten when they face off in this group's final game, although it would take quite an effort from the Finns to pull an upset on Feb. 16.
Austria and Norway will have their work cut out for them. The Austrians have three NHL players—Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the Islanders and Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers. Norway's only NHL player is Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers.
• Czech Republic
Sweden is the clear-cut favorite here, although the Czech Republic and Switzerland are capable of surprising. The loss of Henrik Sedin is a big one, but the Swedes have enough firepower to take the group.
The Czechs have 17 players on their roster, but their No. 1 goaltender is the Winnipeg Jets' Ondrej Pavelec, one of the worst NHL goaltenders in recent seasons. The Swiss have eight NHL players, including Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller and New Jersey Devils forward Damien Brunner.
Latvia is likely in for three drubbings in this group. Its only NHL player is Buffalo Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons.
The group's first game could be the one that decides its winner—Sweden will play the Czech Republic to open the tournament on Feb. 12.
The Olympics feature the best of the best, so there are very few players whose names you do not know. But here's one player from each team who is worth keeping an eye on.
Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Russia
Remember him? Former Thrasher, retired Devil, bolted for the KHL during the offseason? He has 16 goals and 40 points in 44 games for St. Petersburg SKA and will be reunited with his old buddies from the NHL.
Zdeno Chara, D, Slovakia
He was his country's flag bearer and will have to carry more than that if the Slovaks want to do damage. Chara can neutralize anyone, but he can't shut down everyone.
Anze Kopitar, C, Slovenia
The Kings' star is the lone NHL representative on the roster, so it'll be interesting how he develops chemistry with his countrymen in a short tournament.
Phil Kessel, RW, United States
The speedy winger is perhaps Team USA's best goal scorer. He will be counted on heavily by a team that will rely on defense and goaltending to win.
Thomas Vanek, RW, Austria
One of the most coveted players at this year's trade deadline is the biggest name on his national team. Forget about gold—Vanek needs to avoid serious injury if the Islanders are to deal him before March 5.
Chris Kunitz, LW Canada
This is a guy who essentially made Team Canada because he plays so well with Sidney Crosby. If he fails to produce alongside Crosby, will coach Mike Babcock move him to a different line? Will he become a healthy scratch?
Teemu Selanne, RW, Finland
This is the sixth Olympics for the 43-year-old, who is really, finally, seriously and truly playing in his final NHL season.
Mats Zuccarello, LW, Norway
The 5'7" forward is in the midst of his best NHL season and has plenty of experience on larger ice. He was the MVP of the Swedish Elite League in 2010.
Ondrej Pavelec, G, Czech Republic
The Czechs have a chance to do damage, but they'll need Pavelec to be strong in net. He's ranked near the bottom among NHL goaltenders in goals-against average and save percentage.
Zemgus Girgensons, C, Latvia
Get a good look at this player to watch, because Latvia isn't long for this tournament. The 20-year-old has a lot of potential and has had a respectable rookie season with the Buffalo Sabres.
Erik Karlsson, D, Sweden
The speedy 23-year-old with the effortless skating stride will probably be the least-affected player when it comes to adjusting to big ice.
Jonas Hiller, G, Switzerland
If the Swiss are to shock the world (or at least mildly stun it), the Anaheim Ducks goaltender will need to be outstanding.
It's understandable that at all international tournaments, Canada is penciled in as the favorites. The Canadians have the best player in the world—Sidney Crosby—and you don't have to go far (like here) to find someone saying that Canada's "B" team could contend for gold at any Olympics.
Canada is the defending champion and should be considered a favorite to win gold again.
Canada has had its share of problems at Olympics outside North America. It failed to medal in Japan in 1998 and in Italy in 2006, which may not mean much, as no one on this roster had anything to do with those disappointments, but it's something to consider.
Steven Stamkos, one of the world's best goal scorers, was unable to recover from a broken leg in time to join the team. Yes, Canada has so much talent that it's hardly a major loss, but it's still a setback that makes it a weaker club.
The goaltending is also a potential issue. While Roberto Luongo was in net when Canada when gold four years ago, Canada won in spite of him, not because of him. Carey Price has had an outstanding season with the Canadiens, but he has very little experience on a stage of this magnitude.
There's nothing wrong with hitching your wagon to Canada, the odds-on favorite to win gold. But there are enough question marks around the Canadians that they could easily find themselves without a medal yet again.
Team Russia is loaded with NHL talent, but there were quite a few notable snubs when it announced the roster. Nail Yakupov, Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov were left off the squad, as Russia grabbed two defensemen, seven forwards and one goaltender from the KHL.
Alexander Semin was originally a snub but then replaced Sergei Soin of Dyanmo Moscow due to injury.
There's plenty of top-end talent on this roster, but a bottom-six forward group of KHL players makes for an interesting situation. On one hand, they're coming from an inferior (but improving) league; on the other, they've been playing on larger ice for the most part in Russia.
This team should roll through teams like Slovenia, but how will it match up against the likes of the United States and Slovakia in group play?
It should noted that in 2010 in Vancouver, no team was more disappointing than Russia, which went 2-0-1 in group play before getting smoked in the quarterfinals by Canada 7-3.
Italy and Japan excluded, host nations have done well at the Olympics since the NHL began sending its players. The United States won silver in 2002, and Canada won gold in 2010. The gold-medal game could be in the offing for Russia with the Games in Sochi.
Things are lining up pretty well for the Swedes.
In group play, they get to avoid the Russians, Canadians and Americans, perhaps the three strongest contenders for gold along the with the Swedes. It gives them a great chance to pile up points in Group C and earn a bye into the quarterfinals.
There are five members of this year's team that were around in 2006, when Sweden won gold—Henrik Lundqvist, Niklas Kronwall, Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Sedin. They're surrounded by some of the best players in the world, including Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Steen and Gabriel Landeskog.
The loss of Henrik Sedin is massive. He pulled out Thursday because of a rib injury, and his absence could affect brother Daniel, as the two thrive when playing with each other but aren't quite the same when apart.
Lundqvist got off to a slow start with the New York Rangers this season, but he's been on fire since January and could carry the Swedes to gold once again.
“You can look at it (like it’s a lot of pressure) and just make it tough on yourself, or you look at it as a great experience, a great challenge, and something that not a lot of people get to experience,” Lundqvist said of the Olympics, as reported by Pat Leonard in the New York Daily News. “You go out there and have fun, and you enjoy that moment. ... You don’t get that many opportunities to go, so you have to have fun, and that’s when you play your best, I think.”
The Finns had a shot at gold at the 2010 Olympics, but their doors were blown off in a 6-1 semifinal loss to the United States. They settled for bronze by beating Slovakia 5-3 in the consolation game.
Four years later, the Finns don't have as strong a roster, but they can still do damage at Sochi.
The biggest weakness is clearly on defense. Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo are past their primes and could have trouble covering the bigger ice. Penguins rookie Olli Maatta made the team and should provide a steady presence on the back end.
Fortunately for Finland, while the defense is suspect, it is stacked in net. Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are the goaltending trio, although Rask is likely to get the nod as the team's No. 1 goaltender.
Longtime captain Saku Koivu didn't make the team, but Teemu Selanne will participate in his sixth Olympics. Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild will not be participating because of a broken ankle.
Finland either has a team with a wealth of experience or one that is past its prime.
The Americans boast a roster that's as good, if not better, as the one that fell one goal short of gold at the 2010 Olympics. About half the team that lost to Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game is back, and this year's incarnation has more speed than the one of four years ago.
Offense was an issue for the team four years ago, but Team USA has so many scorers that it was able to leave perennial 30-goal scorer Bobby Ryan home this time. It's added new blood in Max Pacioretty, a 30-goal scorer in 2011-12, along with James van Riemsdyk and Blake Wheeler, two players who are on pace for 30 goals this season.
Ryan Suter leads the defense corps and can play more than 30 minutes per game with ease. The back end of the Team USA is loaded with top-notch skaters, including Ryan McDonagh, Paul Martin and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Ryan Miller was tournament MVP in 2010 and could be the starter in net this year. It will be between him and Jonathan Quick for the No. 1 job in Sochi, and that may not be decided until round-robin play has concluded.
Team USA has everything required to win gold this time, but it'll have to hold its own in a tough Group A with Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The Most Valuable Player and All-Tournament Team are chosen by attending media at the Sochi Olympics. Here were the winners four years ago and predictions for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
MVP and All-Tournament Team at the 2010 Olympics
MVP: Ryan Miller, G, United States
G: Ryan Miller, United States
D: Brian Rafalski, United States
D: Shea Weber, Canada
F: Pavol Demitra, Slovakia
F: Jonathan Toews, Canada
F: Zach Parise, United States
Predicted MVP and All-Tournament Team at the 2014 Olympics
MVP: Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden
G: Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden
D: Ryan Suter, United States
D: Andrei Markov, Russia
F: Nicklas Backstrom, Sweden
F: Ilya Kovalchuk, Russia
F: Sidney Crosby, Canada
How will this two-week tournament shake out? Who's to say?
I am to say. Here are my predictions for gold, sliver and bronze.
Bronze: United States
Canada will breeze through group play and earn a bye into the quarterfinals. That's when it will be shocked and sent home without a medal by the United States.
Playing on home soil will fuel Russia's run to the final, but Henrik Lundqvist and Sweden will be too strong.