The 2014 Winter Olympics feature 98 events across 15 disciplines. Few of those competitions will generate more interest than the men's hockey tournament. At least six countries belong in the contender category, led by defending champion Canada and host nation Russia.
Aside from the high number of countries with legitimate medal hopes, the event is also highlighted by plenty of star power. Ultimately, how those high-profile players perform in Sochi will determine which teams earn a podium finish.
Which nation will win gold?
With that in mind, let's check out the three most important players taking to the ice in Russia. While most athletes feel some level of pressure when competing on the international stage, this trio will carry an especially heavy burden in the coming weeks.
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena
When: Wednesday, Feb. 12 – Sunday, Feb. 23
Watch: NBC Family of Networks
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com
Sidney Crosby (Canada)
Four years ago Crosby beat United States goalie Ryan Miller in overtime to send Canada into a gold-medal frenzy. Not much has changed as the Sochi Games get set to begin. The Canadians are once again favorites and the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar will be asked to lead the way.
The 26-year-old center is enjoying another tremendous season for Pittsburgh. He's racked up 77 points in 57 games while logging 22 minutes per contest. His heavy workload will come in handy because Canada will lean heavily on him after it was announced Steven Stamkos wouldn't return from injury in time to play, as noted by Erik Erlendsson on the Tampa Tribune:
#tblightning star Steven Stamkos has not been medically cleared to return this weekend, will not participate in Olympics— Erik Erlendsson (@erlendssonTBO) February 5, 2014
Make no mistake, Canada sports no shortage of offensive talent. But when the going gets tough late in the tournament, it's always crucial to have one player capable of completely taking over the game. Crosby certainly fits the bill, as he showed in Vancouver.
Alex Ovechkin (Russia)
Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals by a wide margin. He's found the net 39 times in 53 games. The next highest is Phil Kessel with 30. Russia hopes he is able to maintain that outstanding pace during the Olympics, which are being contested on its home soil.
Playing in front of your own fans always adds a little extra motivation. It also increases the pressure. The Washington Capitals sniper talked about the increased scrutiny the Russians will face and what they must do to succeed with Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo Sports:
I think it is not a secret that we are going to be under an immense amount of pressure. The three days we will have will certainly be needed, maybe for someone to recover from an injury, to come up with optimal lines. We will also have to talk about the tactics, about the power play and the penalty kill. I think the special teams will be a very important component for us, a very important aspect of our game.
Ovechkin finds himself much in the same place as Crosby—the most talented offensive player on a team with plenty of dynamic threats. He must make sure the entire team comes together to live up to its potential. That didn't happen in the last two Games, when Russia failed to medal.
Patrick Kane (United States)
The United States can't match the raw offensive potential of Canada or Russia. Instead, the Americans rely on a physical two-way style to win games and it worked very well four years ago. But when they are desperate to generate scoring chances, they'll turn to Kane.
Which of these stars will have the best Olympics?
For the team to thrive, it needs Kane to rediscover his early-season form. He had tallied 53 points in 42 games through the first three months. Since that point, however, he's generated just 10 points in 17 games for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The American squad is likely to play a lot of close games, especially once the knockout stages arrive. In those tense moments, the onus will be on Kane to jump-start the offense. If he does, the U.S. will have a chance to capture the gold medal that slipped away four years ago.