Canada is the popular pick to win ice hockey gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Host Russia is also among the favorites, along with 2010 silver medalist, the United States.
According to the gambling website Bovada, Canada is the odds-on favorite at 2-1 with Russia next at 9-4. The heavy money to win it all is clearly being placed on the Canadians and Russians.
But the smart money should be wagered on Sweden, the team that truly has the best chance win ice hockey gold in 2014.
It's true that Canada has the best team on paper. Unfortunately for them, the game will not be played on or with paper. If a hockey game was played on paper, the skate blades would slice through the paper. Maybe if this was a rock, paper, scissors competition, Canada being great on paper would matter, but it isn't, so it doesn't.
There are two important factors that make Sweden the clear favorite—the tournament is taking place outside of North America and being played on a larger ice surface than that in the NHL.
Since the NHL began sending its players to the Olympics in 1998, there have been two occasions in which the tournament took place outside of North America: Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006. Both times, Canada and the United States failed to medal.
In 1998, the medal finish was Czech Republic-Russia-Finland. In 2006, the medal finish was Sweden-Finland-Czech Republic.
It's certainly up for debate what playing on larger Olympic ice means for each participating country. Clearly European squads have had plenty of success on the Olympic sheet, but people forget that the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City was played on big ice and saw Canada and Team USA win gold and silver, respectively.
But at recent world championships, the combination of European soil and big ice has translated into success for the European nations.
The previous five IIHF World Championships took place in European countries. Russia (twice), the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden all took home gold medals. The Swedes captured medals in all but one of those five tournaments. Canada and Team USA have combined for one silver and bronze in that time.
It's important to note that while the Olympics are a best-on-best international tournament, that's not the case for the Worlds, which take place during the NHL's playoffs when some players are unable to participate for their home countries. It doesn't change the fact, however, that North American squads have tended to falter in these situations, while the Europeans have thrived.
Among those European nations, Sweden is head and shoulders above everyone else.
|Team Sweden Possible Line Combinations and Defense Pairs|
|LEFT WING||CENTER||RIGHT WING|
|Alexander Steen||Henrik Sedin||Daniel Sedin|
|Loui Eriksson||Nicklas Backstrom||Daniel Alfredsson|
|Gabriel Landeskog||Henrik Zetterberg||Gustav Nyquist|
|Carl Hagelin||Patrik Berglund||Jakob Silfverberg|
|LEFT DEFENSEMAN||RIGHT DEFNSEMAN||EXTRAS|
|Niklas Kronwall||Erik Karlsson||F - Jimmie Ericsson|
|Oliver Ekman-Larsson||Alexander Edler||F - Marcus Kruger|
|Niklas Hjalmarsson||Jonathan Ericsson||D - Henrik Tallinder|
|D - Johnny Oduya|
There are six players on this year's roster that won gold in 2006—Henrik Lundqvist, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson and Niklas Kronwall. That gold medal-winning core has been surrounded by some of the best players in the world, including perhaps the best group of defensemen in the tournament.
Those line combinations and pairings are probably entirely wrong, but it gives you an idea of Sweden's depth. That's four incredibly talented lines and three outstanding defense pairings that feature players with plenty of big ice experience, something Canada and Team USA are lacking.
The one area Sweden has the advantage over the rest of the contenders for gold—European or otherwise—is in net.
Lundqvist got off to an uncharacteristically poor start to the season with the Rangers. Whether it had to do with playing in a new system, with smaller pads, through injuries or with his contract negotiations taking place, he had a first half of the season to forget.
Since the calendar turned to 2014, however, he's been among the best goaltenders in the NHL. He went 9-3-1 with a 1.85/.938 split in January/February and is heading into the Olympics looking like he's in a zone.
In 2006, Lundqvist had a similarly strong push heading into the Olympic break. He went 11-2-2 with a 1.91/.940 split in his final 15 NHL games before helping carry the Swedes to gold in Turin.
The Swedes should be able to dominate Group C, which includes the Czech Republic, Latvia and Switzerland, a weak trio of combatants to face the Swedes, and earn a bye into the quarterfinals.
The big ice. The tournament taking place outside North America. A lack of stiff competition in the round-robin portion of the tournament. A deep and talented roster. An elite goaltender heating up at the right time.
Everything is aligning for Sweden to leave Russia with a second gold medal in three Olympics.