Four years ago, Canada entered the Vancouver Olympics in desperate need of a gold-medal win on home soil after a disappointing 2006 tourney had cost the nation its status as hockey's preeminent power. Under tremendous pressure, the team delivered a thrilling overtime win over the Americans in 2010 to do just that.
This year, the pressing need for a win to secure Canada's status as a hockey power is distinctly less, but the challenge is likely to be even greater as the Canadians travel to Sochi to face European teams schooled in big-ice play and a Russian team in particular that is under much of the same tension that Canada was in Vancouver.
Canada has managed eight gold medals in men's ice hockey in its Olympic history, and in the four best-on-best tournaments featuring NHL players, it has alternated between winning gold and finishing outside the medal round. If the pattern continues, Canada will miss the podium in Sochi, but if the Canadians can win gold again, they will have won a majority of Olympic tournaments featuring the best players in the world.
Read on for everything—from key storylines to the depth chart to the TV schedule—that any fan needs to know in preparation for these games.
A lot of key players are returning from Canada's 2010 win, but few of the returnees will face as much scrutiny as captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby is widely acknowledged as the best player in the NHL, but he will be facing two top contenders for that crown in the persons of Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. With the games being played on Russian soil, those superstars will have the home-ice advantage that Crosby has enjoyed for so long in the NHL; the performances of all three will go a long way toward answering the question of who really is the best.
Martin St. Louis is not one of the returnees, but he has a compelling story. The undrafted, 38-year-old winger was turned down time and again en route to his emergence as an NHL star, and seeing him denied his final Olympic opportunity by Tampa Bay Lightning general manager and Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman was incredibly difficult. His strong work since then, and his subsequent naming to the team, will be a continual storyline for Canada, and he may find himself playing on the team's top line.
More than any individual, though, two factors that are always huge stories for the Canadians will be repeated ad nauseam over the course of the tournament.
While Roberto Luongo was good enough to win gold the last time around, there remains suspicion that he isn't really in the same class as other goalies in the tournament—and more that Canadian goaltending as a whole isn't close to the strength the country enjoys at other positions. Every mistake will be judged and judged harshly.
It is also widely known that Canada has not had success on European ice the last few years, and the adjustment from NHL ice and rules to Olympic standards will be closely watched.
The performances of the following six players will be key for Team Canada at these Olympic games.
Sidney Crosby, Centre
He is the best player in the world, but Canada has spent an inordinate amount of time fretting about Crosby's performance, even sending Pittsburgh linemate Chris Kunitz with him to the Olympics. He had a slow start to the Vancouver Games, and the Canadians need him to be at his best in Sochi.
Ryan Getzlaf, Centre
With Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares all pushing for time at centre, how much ice time Getzlaf gets is open to consideration. He has just one less even-strength point than Crosby and ranks second in the NHL in scoring.
Duncan Keith, Left Defence
Keith is having a great scoring season and stands a good chance of winning his second Norris Trophy this summer. Unlike most of Canada's best defencemen, he plays on the left side and stands a good chance of leading Team Canada in ice time.
Martin St. Louis, Right Wing
The 38-year-old St. Louis was a controversial omission from Canada's roster when the team was initially named, but he received his chance to play when injury forced teammate Steven Stamkos to bow out. It is not yet clear what role last year's leading NHL scorer will play in Sochi, but he has exceptional talent and character and will want to make an impact in what is certain to be his last Olympics.
Roberto Luongo/Carey Price, Goalies
As always, in a very real way, it's going to come down to goaltending for Canada (and the same goes for everyone else). The Canadian starting job is not secure, and one of these men has to take it and hold it.
Chris Kunitz—Sidney Crosby—Rick Nash
Jamie Benn—Ryan Getzlaf—Corey Perry
Patrick Sharp—Jonathan Toews—Jeff Carter
Patrick Marleau—John Tavares—Martin St. Louis
Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron
The exact combinations are open to flux, and virtually any player could play anywhere in the rotation, with Patrice Bergeron likely to be used as a defensive-zone specialist and faceoff ace.
What is nearly certain is that certain pairs will stick together. Toews and Sharp, Getzlaf and Perry and finally Crosby and Kunitz are likely to be the foundation of Canada's top three forward lines.
Duncan Keith—Shea Weber
Marc-Edouard Vlasic—Drew Doughty
Jay Bouwmeester—Alex Pietrangelo
Dan Hamhuis—P.K. Subban
There is lots of fluidity in terms of likely combinations here, with the only near-certain pairing being that of Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo
The right side of Canada's defence group is incredibly impressive, with four of the team's five best defencemen playing on that side of the ice. On the left side, the depth chart is much weaker, with only Duncan Keith considered an elite two-way defender.
1a. Roberto Luongo
1b. Carey Price
3. Mike Smith
It seems likely that Luongo, who stepped in for a faltering Martin Brodeur and backstopped Canada to gold in 2010, will retain his position as the starter, but it is not certain. Luongo and Price are neck and neck in terms of performance, and either netminder would be a fine choice; both will likely get games in the preliminary round.
Smith, meanwhile, is a designated third-string goaltender; he's there in case of injury and should not play otherwise, as there is a clear separation between him and the starting duo.
Head coach Mike Babcock faces a difficult decision here, one that will be closely scrutinized if the tourney doesn't go Canada's way.
Head coach: Mike Babcock
Assistant coaches: Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien
Babcock, who coached Canada to gold in 2010, returns behind the bench, headlining a Canadian staff with extensive international experience.
Hitchcock leads the way in that category; this is his fourth consecutive Olympics as an assistant coach, having been part of Pat Quinn's staff in Salt Lake City and Turin and Babcock's staff in Vancouver. Ruff, too, is a holdover from 2010, leaving only Julien as a first-time Olympic coach.
Not listed above is former Swiss coach Ralph Krueger, who is acting as a consultant for the Canadian staff by virtue of his extensive experience in Europe.
There is not a team in the tournament that can match Canada in terms of depth up the middle. The NHL's top three scorers centre three of Canada's four lines, well-regarded two-way force Jonathan Toews plays pivot on another and perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron is the team's No. 5 at the position.
That Martin St. Louis is Canada's injury replacement says almost everything that needs to be said about this team. The Canadians have ridiculous talent at all positions and unparalleled depth.
The left side
Positionally, Canada's left side both up front and on defence is its weakest position. Canada's three weakest defencemen all play on the left side; Chris Kunitz is likely to be the team's first-line left wing. By Olympic standards, this is still a good team on the left side, but the left-side depth pales in comparison to how strong Canada is down the middle and on the right side.
The fear for virtually every Canadian team, from the Olympics to the World Juniors, is that the goaltending won't match up to the talent at other positions. Roberto Luongo and Carey Price are both good goalies, but neither inspires the confidence of a player like Patrick Roy.
For more strengths and weaknesses, see our breakdown after the team was named.
The groups at Sochi were based on the 2012 IIHF World Ranking, a list that should have guaranteed Canada a negative berth by virtue of ranking it fifth. However, given the relatively nebulous relationship between that ranking (based in large part on World Championship results) and actual strength in a best-on-best tournament, Canada actually has one of the most favourable groups.
Austria and Norway are international minnows. Both had to play in a qualification tournament to appear in Sochi, and neither is likely to be anything more than speed bump for the international powers. Thomas Vanek adds an offensive dimension to the Austrian team, and Norway has some distinguished European professionals, but these teams are not threats to medal.
Finland will be Canada's toughest challenge. The club has been ravaged by injury but consistently puts in competitive showings internationally. And with Tuukka Rask starting, the Finns can match anyone between the pipes.
Thursday, February 13
Canada vs. Norway @ 12 p.m. EST; CBC, NBCSN; 7:30 p.m. EST replay on TSN
Friday, February 14
Canada vs. Austria @ 12 p.m. EST; CBC, NBCSN; 7:30 p.m. EST replay on TSN
Sunday, February 16
Canada vs. Finland @ 12 p.m. EST; CBC, NBCSN
- The last time Canada won gold in Europe was in 1952: The Edmonton Mercurys, a senior-A level team, was Canada's choice at the 1952 Oslo Games and won the tournament (they had also previously won the 1950 World Championships). It was Canada's last Olympic win prior to the 2002 Salt Lake City victory and remains the last time Canada won in Europe.
- Canada has a history of winning gold after opening-round losses. In both 2002 and 2010, Canada started badly before winning it all. In 2002, the team lost 5-2 to Sweden, followed it up by just barely beating the Germans (3-2) and then tied the Czechs. The Canadians would win the next three elimination games by a combined score of 14-4. In 2010, a lopsided win over Norway was followed by a shootout win over Switzerland and a loss to the United States. Once again, Canada was able to improve dramatically, winning four straight elimination games.
- Only four members of the team play for Canadian NHL teams. Only tow Canadian NHL teams are sending players to the Olympics with Team Canada. The Vancouver Canucks are represented by Roberto Luongo and Dan Hamhuis, while P.K. Subban and Carey Price play for the Montreal Canadiens.
It is a truism that anything less than the gold medal is considered a disappointment for Hockey Canada.
That is as may be, but attaining gold is going to be anything but easy for the Canadians.
A lot of factors come into play. For one, after group play this is a single-game elimination tournament, so any mishaps in the playoff round could cost the team dearly. It also leaves the Canadians more open to being burned by a hot opposition goaltender.
More than that, Canada failed in Turin to adapt to the big ice and the strategies employed by its opposition. Once again there is likely to be a lot to learn and very little time to take it all in.
With all that said, gold is still the expectation and a realistic outcome.