2014 Olympic Hockey: Top Storylines to Watch in Men's Ice Hockey Tournament

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey: Top Storylines to Watch in Men's Ice Hockey Tournament

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have begun, with the men's ice hockey tournament kicking off on February 12. Canada enters the tournament as the defending gold-medal champion. It can expect a serious challenge from the United States, Sweden and the host country, Russia. Once again, the NHL is well-represented, as most of the 12 countries in this tournament are carrying a number of NHL stars. 

    In a round-robin tournament where playoff games can be decided by shootout, there's little room for error. As a result, some interesting storylines will emerge. The Russian team faces tremendous pressure to win on home ice. Injuries could prove critical to a team's overall performance. An underdog could emerge to challenge the favorites for gold. The larger ice surface could play a role in determining the tournament's outcome. 

    Here's a look at 10 storylines worth watching in men's ice hockey at the Sochi Olympics.

The Olympic Rookies

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    A number of notable NHL stars will be making their Olympic debuts in Sochi. Among them are Thomas Vanek (Austria), John Tavares (Canada), Tuukka Rask (Finland), Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), Erik Karlsson (Sweden) and Cam Fowler (United States). 

    The youngest rookies include Finland's Aleksander Barkov and Russia's Valeri Nichushkin, who are both 18.

    Most of these players are expected to play key roles for their respective teams in this tournament. How they handle the pressure of Olympic competition for the first time will be reflected in their performances.

Larger Ice Surface

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    Sergei Grits/Associated Press

    Unlike the Vancouver Olympics, which used an NHL arena for ice hockey, the rink in Sochi conforms to International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) specifications. The rink is 200 by 100 feet, making it 15 feet wider than the NHL standard of 200 by 85 feet. 

    The wider surface allows for a faster transition game. That explains why many of the teams in this tournament favored swift-skating players over those who play a slower, more physical style.

    It's assumed the larger ice surface provides the Europeans an advantage over the North American players. During the recent NHL lockout, however, many Canadian and American NHL stars played in European leagues. That recent experience on the larger ice surface could negate that perceived edge for the Europeans.

Injured Players

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    Nathan Denette/Associated Press

    Injuries took a toll on several NHL stars before the Olympics began. Steven Stamkos (Canada), Vladimir Sobotka (Czech Republic), Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen (Sweden), Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula (Finland) and Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky (Slovakia) were forced to withdraw. Their absences will be felt by their respective teams.

    As per TSN.ca, the current list of injured NHL players indicates several players are entering this tournament nursing various ailments. Finland's Kimmo Timonen has a bruised left foot. Canada's Dan Hamhuis has an upper-body injury. Sweden's Johnny Oduya has a lower-body injury, while goaltender Jonas Gustavsson is experiencing dizziness. Russia's Vladimir Tarasenko, while uninjured, is battling the flu.

    Others could be playing through undisclosed aches and pains. These nagging injuries could hamper their respective performances in this tournament.

The Chance of Upsets

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Yahoo! Sports' Greg Wyshynski reported Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States as the favorites to win gold in men's ice hockey. Given the round-robin tournament and the depth of professional talent spread among the 12 teams, several clubs are capable of pulling off upsets in this tournament.

    Finland's solid goaltending (Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi and Tuukka Rask) could carry the team into medal contention. The Czech Republic's depth in skilled two-way NHL talent makes it a tough opponent at both ends of the rink.

    Slovakia's defensive depth could make life miserable for opposing forwards. Switzerland is a growing hockey power and won't be taken lightly. 

Swan Songs

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    For a trio of ageing NHL stars, the Sochi Games could be the last time hockey fans can appreciate their skills on Olympic ice.

    The Czech Republic's Jaromir Jagr turns 42 during this tournament (February 15) and is appearing in his fifth Olympics. He was part of the Czech Republic's 1998 gold-medal team. Sweden's Daniel Alfredsson (41) is also appearing in his fifth Winter Games and won gold in 2006.

    The oldest is Finland's 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, who is making his sixth Olympic appearance. He was part of Finland's bronze-medal teams in 1998 and 2010 and its silver-medal squad in 2006. This will be his last chance to win Olympic gold. 

Sweden's Defense

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    One reason Sweden is considered a serious gold-medal contender is their defense corps. It contains an impressive mix of speed, size and skill.

    Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Kronwall are among the world's top defensemen. Niklas Hjalmarsson is currently among the NHL's top shot-blockers and has also improved his puck-moving skills. Jonathan Ericsson, Johnny Oduya and Henrik Tallinder are experienced shutdown blueliners, while Alexander Edler plays a good all-around game.

    Combine this blue line with superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and Sweden's opponents could find goals difficult to come by in this tournament.

Miller or Quick?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick make up Team USA's goalie trio. Miller and Quick are expected to compete for the starter's job. 

    Miller is a former Vezina Trophy winner and backstopped Team USA to a silver medal at the 2010 Games. Quick won the Conn Smythe trophy, carrying the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup championship in 2012. Miller has played well this season with the woeful Buffalo Sabres. Quick missed half the season with a groin injury and struggled in several recent appearances.

    Dave Lozo notes it won't be easy determining who gets the starter's job. Recent performance heading into the tournament favors Miller, but it could come down to their respective play in the round robin.

Can Canada Repeat as Gold Medalists?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Few countries can match Canada's roster depth. Eleven players from their 2010 gold-medal team are returning for this tournament. Five of the squad's top forwards (Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Patrick Sharp) are among this season's top 10 NHL scorers. Canada's defense is a strong mix of speed and skill.

    While ranked among the gold-medal favorites, there's no guarantee the Canadian's will repeat as champions. The goaltending trio (Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Mike Smith) face intense pressure to backstop Canada to gold, and the offense was weakened when injury forced superstar Steven Stamkos to withdraw from the tournament.

    Team Canada must also cope with the heightened expectations of its hockey-mad nation. Anything less than gold will be considered a failure.

Can Russia Win Gold on Home Ice?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    A dominant Olympic hockey power during the Soviet Union era, Russia's last Olympic gold in men's hockey was in 1992 as part of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Russians face tremendous pressure to succeed on home ice. They are keen to atone for their humiliating failure to win a medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games. 

    Led by Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, the Russians aren't lacking in superstar talent. Their scoring punch is why they're considered among the favorites to win this tournament. Goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov are among the NHL's best.

    Their weakness is their defense, which lacks the depth of the other tournament favorites. Their defensive play could be the determining factor in their quest for gold.

Is This the NHL's Final Olympics?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    The Toronto Star's Damien Cox reports NHL commissioner Gary Bettman claims one of the reasons the NHL participates in the Olympics is because the players want to go. However, The Canadian Press (via TSN.ca) reports the NHL hasn't committed to future Olympic participation.

    League officials aren't sure shuttering the league down for two weeks midseason is good for business, especially if the Games aren't held in North America. 

    The 2018 Winter Olympics will be held in South Korea. It remains to be seen if there will be an NHL presence there.