The men's hockey competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia is just getting under way, but it is worth following in the early going to figure out which teams are in elite form ahead of the playoff qualification.
Several teams stand out as the top candidates to make the podium, so it's worth breaking down the likely medal winners to separate the premier clubs from the underdogs. With the caliber of NHL talent present in the Winter Games, some nations have a distinct advantage with a bigger talent pool.
While that is not the best development for parity's sake, it should still create a ton of excitement down the stretch. Plus, the pressure is on for the heavily favored squads to take care of business in the early part of the competition, as a pitfall would be a massive disappointment for some.
Here is a look at the viewing information and listed times for every game on the schedule, along with predictions for gold, silver and bronze.
|Wednesday, Feb. 12||Results|
|Czech Republic vs. Sweden||Sweden 4, Czech Republic 2|
|Latvia vs. Switzerland||Switzerland 1, Latvia 0|
|Thursday, Feb. 13||Results|
|Finland vs. Austria||Finland 8, Austria 4|
|Russia vs. Slovenia||Russia 5, Slovenia 2|
|Slovakia vs. USA||USA 7, Slovakia 1|
|Canada vs. Norway||Canada 3, Norway 1|
|Friday, Feb. 14||Viewing Information|
|Czech Republic vs. Latvia||3 a.m. ET, MSNBC|
|Sweden vs. Switzerland||7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN|
|Canada vs. Austria||12 p.m. ET, USA|
|Norway vs. Finland||12 p.m. ET MSNBC|
|Saturday, Feb. 15||Viewing Information|
|Slovakia vs. Slovenia||3 a.m. ET, NBCSN|
|USA vs. Russia||7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN|
|Switzerland vs. Czech Republic||12 p.m. ET, NBCSN|
|Sweden vs. Latvia||12 p.m. ET, USA|
|Sunday, Feb. 16||Viewing Information|
|Austria vs. Norway||3 a.m. ET, USA|
|Russia vs. Slovakia||7:30 a.m. ET, USA|
|Slovenia vs. USA||7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN|
|Finland vs. Canada||12 p.m. ET, USA|
|Tuesday, Feb. 18||Time|
|Qualification Round||3 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 12 p.m. (2) ET|
|Wednesday, Feb. 19||Time|
|Quarterfinal Round||3 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 12 p.m. (2) ET|
|Friday, Feb. 21||Time|
|Semifinal Round||7 a.m., 12:00 p.m. ET|
|Saturday, Feb. 22||Time|
|Bronze-medal game||10 a.m. ET|
|Sunday, Feb. 23||Time|
|Gold-medal game||7 a.m. ET|
Source: ProHockeyTalk.com. TV listings still TBD for next week.
No one can question the tradition of excellence and rich history associated with Canadian hockey at the Winter Olympics.
The team's 3-1 win over Norway at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday marked its 100th all-time win, per Kevin Gibson of TSN.ca:
That's the 100th win for the Canadian men all-time at the Olympics (1920-2014)— Kevin Gibson (@TSNResearch) February 13, 2014
Who will win the gold medal in men's hockey?
But that storied legacy won't be enough for Team Canada to salvage anything better than the bronze, which isn't the worst consolation prize given the caliber of competition in men's hockey in 2014.
Veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo has had a solid season for the Vancouver Canucks so far but struggled in his five most recent games (0-5, .880 save percentage). The 34-year-old was in net in 2010 when the Canadians hosted the Winter Games and seized gold in front of their native crowd, but they won't have that luxury this time around.
Luongo isn't quite as reliable as he used to be, and the team's other primary goalie in Carey Price—who started versus Norway—has wilted on the NHL playoff stage as a member of the Montreal Canadiens with a 9-17 career postseason record.
This competition is a bit of a different instance, and Price did well in saving 19 of 20 shots on Thursday. However, despite their offensive might, the Canadians don't have the goaltending depth to match up with the U.S. or Russia.
Silver: United States
Chicago Blackhawks superstar and two-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Kane is one of the catalysts. Another is team captain and Minnesota Wild left winger Zach Parise.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be irked to see their scoring machine in Phil Kessel playing for the Americans after becoming accustomed to his prowess north of the border. In other words, this team is absolutely stacked.
Coach Dan Bylsma made the potential destiny-shaping decision to start Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick over 2010 Vancouver Games standout Ryan Miller, the longtime Buffalo Sabres netminder. The rather surprising move to go with Quick over Miller has been much of the buzz surrounding this club.
Bylsma explained his reasoning, citing Quick's recent return to health and subsequent stellar play as the reason for the switch, per Yahoo! Sports' Greg Wyshynski:
Given the year, with Jonathan being injured, coming back from that injury, and playing 12 games really was a key for him to get back in that net. He's played real well since that time period, and has some good numbers, goals-against (average) a shade above two in that time period. Either guy going in that cage is going to give us a real good guy in net.
So far, so good for Quick, who stopped 22 of 23 shots against the Slovaks. However, the pressure is only going to increase as he attempts to emulate the brilliant backstop job Miller did en route to aiding the Americans' run to the silver medal in 2010.
There should be enough firepower in terms of scoring, so Quick will have to play like the Conn Smythe Trophy winner he was in the 2012 NHL playoffs to give the U.S. a shot at gold. It's stands to reason that Miller will see significant ice time, too, so the good news is that there's ample depth and experience between the pipes.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the home crowd and loaded Russian roster will be too much to overcome, as the hosts will beat the Americans in the gold-medal game.
A strong preview of where these two clubs stand will transpire in Group A play on Saturday, which should ignite both countries' hockey fanbases. Team Russia was rather lethargic in a 5-2 win over Slovenia in the opener, but that should be a blip, not a sign of things to come.
Washington Capitals All-Star Alexander Ovechkin is the assistant captain, and Detroit Red Wings veteran Pavel Datsyuk is the captain. Given how used to winning Datsyuk is and how Ovechkin has fallen short in the NHL postseason time and again, both leaders should ensure that their teammates are ready to go.
When it was revealed that Datsyuk would grind it out and play in the first game through a lower-body injury, Pete Jensen of NHL.com weighed in:
Datsyuk's toughness should be a source of inspiration for Ovechkin, the entire Russian team and the home fans as they cheer on a gold medal-winning performance. Oh, and Russia has Pittsburgh Penguins dynamo Evgeni Malkin and homeland favorite Ilya Kovalchuk, too.
As far as the goaltending situation, a pair of 25-year-olds in the Colorado Avalanche's Semyon Varlamov and the Columbus Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky both have the chops to hold up under the pressure.
Vengeance will be had for a failure to advance past the quarterfinals in the Vancouver Games, as Russia will rise to the top of the podium with the most prestigious hardware in hand.