Is Team Canada Still the Hockey Gold-Medal Favorite at 2014 Winter Olympics?

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Is Team Canada Still the Hockey Gold-Medal Favorite at 2014 Winter Olympics?
Winslow Townson/USA Today

Team Canada looked vulnerable in its 2-1 overtime victory Sunday. Finland gave everyone a blueprint for how to beat the defending Olympic champions—clog the neutral zone, force everything to the boards in the attacking zone and use patience to counterattack for offense.

It's not a new big-ice strategy to use against North American teams more comfortable on smaller ice, but it's one Finland used to near perfection.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

That strategy, as well as it worked, might not be enough to prevent Canada from winning gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

There are two problems facing teams that are likely to encounter Canada over the rest of the tournament—they're likely not talented enough to stay with Canada the way Finland did or it may not be a strategy under consideration by a potential opponent.

Canada is the No. 3 seed and will face the winner of Tuesday's game between Switzerland and Latvia, with the Swiss very likely to prevail. They've proven themselves to be defensive stalwarts in Sochi, allowing two goals in three games.

The Swiss are a sexy upset pick to eliminate Canada, but it doesn't seem very likely.

While Canada will have two days of rest before taking the ice in the quarterfinals, the Swiss would be playing a second game in two days. Goaltender Jonas Hiller has yet to allow a goal in his two Olympic starts, but—if the Swiss indeed advance—he will be playing back-to-back games for the first time in the tournament and will have to battle fatigue against a fully energized Canadian squad.

An argument can be made that Latvia won't require Hiller to expend much energy, but it's still not optimal for a Swiss team looking to pull a major upset.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Switzerland has a dearth of offensive talent, with Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter representing as their most gifted scoring forwards. Even with the losses of Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, the Finns are a more dangerous team than Switzerland. If the Finns were able to generate only five shots over the final two periods against Canada, what's a tired Swiss team going to do even if they use Finland's worthwhile strategy?

Should Canada get past their next opponent, they likely won't find themselves getting bogged down in the semifinals by a European team pouring tar in the neutral zone.

Team USA is destined for the semifinals if they get past the winner of the Czech Republic/Slovakia tilt. It's possible the Czechs or Slovaks could gum up the works and surprise the Americans, but if they don't, it sets up a juicy showdown between two North American teams that won't be trapping each other into oblivion.

Canada-USA would be a total coin flip. It would also be a contest in which the Canadians could play to their strengths, a north-south game that won't require a machete to cut through the neutral zone. It's a style the Americans would welcome as well, and despite the Canadians not playing their best in group play, they are still the team to consider the slight favorite in this potential matchup.

Projecting who Canada would face in the gold-medal game is about as difficult as it is silly, but we've come this far.

Martin Rose/Getty Images

Sweden, Russia and Finland are the three most likely countries to advance from the other side of the bracket. The Canadians have already proven they can beat Finland, Russia prefers to play the attacking style of the Americans and when they try to go into a defensive shell aren't as effective, and the Swedes are weakened by the loss of Henrik Zetterberg during the tournament and Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen before it started.

One hot goaltending performance for 60 minutes can end anyone's tournament, but Canada's wealth of talent (assuming they solve the chemistry problems with their forward lines) makes them almost impervious to it.

The European teams have the right strategy for neutralizing Canada but lack the talent to win. Team USA has the talent but they won't be employing the European strategy against Canada.

Team Canada has its flaws, but they are still unbeatable until someone actually beats them. If one team can do it, it's Team USA.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo. 

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