Olympic Hockey 2014: Stock Watch for Top Superstars in Sochi
The preliminary-round games in the men's Olympic hockey tournament are now complete. Sudden-death knockouts begin on Feb. 18.
For many countries, speculation about rosters and plans for 2014 began the day after Canada captured the gold in Vancouver in 2010. The Olympics are only a 10-day tournament, but the impact of the wins and losses resonates for years in the hockey-mad nations that participate.
No matter how carefully the experts from each country analyze and strategize, there are always surprises in such a short tournament. Injuries play a massive role, and talented teams don't always mesh into a cohesive unit in time to play their best hockey.
Starting up front and working our way back, here's a look at 10 of the top individual stars of the 2014 Olympic tournament, how each one has performed so far and what to expect as we head into the elimination games on a quest for one gold-medal team on Sunday.
Sidney Crosby: Canada
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 0-2-2
The NHL's leading scorer tallied just two assists and five shots in the preliminary round. Now, all of Canada is weighing in on who Sidney Crosby should play with instead of his Pittsburgh Penguins linemate Chris Kunitz. Crosby played well in Canada's final Group B game against Finland, but eyebrows are raised because he hasn't scored.
Sidney Crosby's famous for the overtime goal that won the gold medal for Canada in Vancouver in 2010, but overall, his tournament wasn't especially dominant. Look for Captain Canada to raise his game as the elimination rounds progress. He won't stay off the scoresheet forever and will likely make his mark in his usual dramatic fashion.
Alex Ovechkin: Russia
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 1-1-2
Just like Crosby with Canada, Alex Ovechkin hasn't been the expected goal-scoring engine for an offensively challenged Russian team. He has just one goal, scored against Slovenia in Russia's opening game.
Heads turned when Ovechkin didn't get a chance to contribute in Russia's eight-round shootout against the U.S., but the stats show why. Over his career, Ovechkin has a success rate of over 30 percent in the shootout, but this season he's just 2-of-14. The NHL's leading goal scorer has been making his contributions for the Washington Capitals during game action.
Ovechkin is leading the Russian forwards in both ice time and shots. Their power play hasn't clicked yet, but it's been plenty dangerous. The Russians will not go quietly with the weight of their nation on their shoulders: expect to see Ovechkin break out, most likely on the power play, in the elimination round.
Pavel Datsyuk: Russia
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 2-0-2
Despite questions about his health coming into the tournament, Pavel Datsyuk was Russia's most important player in the team's pivotal game against the United States, scoring both goals. The dazzling center is doing his part on a Russian team that has struggled to score so far.
Still one of the most skilled forwards in the entire sport, 35-year-old Datsyuk is entering the twilight of his career. If these are his last Olympics, he'll want to go out on a gold-medal note in his home country.
Phil Kessel: USA
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 4-3-7
For a player who won a car in exchange for being the last pick in the one-and-only (so far) NHL All-Star draft lottery in 2011 (from the Toronto Star), Phil Kessel has proven that he is, indeed, an offensive force to be reckoned with. The fleet Toronto Maple Leafs winger leads all scorers after the preliminary round with seven points in three games.
Thanks to their shootout win over Russia in group play, Team USA is brimming with confidence going into the elimination rounds. No one feels better about his game than Kessel. He has now established himself as a consistent sniper in the NHL—a big moment or two on the Olympic stage could elevate his level of stardom significantly.
T.J. Oshie: USA
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 1-3-4
A first-time Olympian, T.J. Oshie was a bit of a surprise choice in the U.S. lineup over better-known stars like the Ottawa Senators' Bobby Ryan.
Oshie became an instant celebrity on Feb. 15 when he scored on five of his six penalty-shot attempts to give his team a new "Miracle on Ice" moment with a 3-2 victory over the host Russians. According to international hockey scoring protocol, Oshie was awarded one goal for his winning effort.
A shootout specialist is a good guy to have around in a high-stakes, closely contested tournament where any game could come down to the skills competition. Say what you will about the fairness of using the shootout to decide games—it played out with high drama to end a fantastic game between the U.S. and Russia.
Oshie's playing a secondary role on Team USA during regular game action, but you can bet that Dan Bylsma won't dare scratch him as the stakes get higher.
Erik Karlsson: Sweden
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 3-2-5
With key offensive players like Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen missing from the Swedish forward ranks, Erik Karlsson has picked up the slack from the blue line. His dynamic presence and offensive firepower have helped Sweden cruise through the preliminary round despite being shorthanded.
When Karlsson rushed back from a nasty Achilles injury to join the Ottawa Senators in the 2013 playoffs, he didn't play up to his usual standards. Here at the Olympics, it's clear that the 23-year-old is now back to 100 percent and is every bit as good as he seemed when he won the Norris Trophy in 2012.
Sweden has played a good team game so far, but Karlsson's continued contributions will be key if Tre Kroner hopes to advance to a medal position.
Drew Doughty: Canada
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 4-1-5
The forwards aren't scoring for Team Canada, but defenseman Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings is picking up the slack. His shooting percentage is sitting at 50 percent with four goals on eight shots. Two of his four markers have been game-winners.
Doughty first made a name for himself as a 20-year-old on Team Canada's blue line in Vancouver in 2010, but even he's amazed at his Olympic outburst. "I don't know what's going on. I don't score like this in L.A. at all," he told Neil Davidson of the Canadian Press (per ctvnews.ca).
Much has been made of Canada's deep offense, where all 12 forwards are supposed to be able to contribute. So far, it's been Doughty and fellow defenseman Shea Weber who have been notching the key goals from the blue line. As opposing defenses get progressively tighter in later rounds, that back-end production will be more important than ever if Canada hopes to have a chance to repeat as hockey's Olympic gold medalist.
Henrik Lundqvist: Sweden
Group-Play Highlights: 3 GP, 3-0-0, 1.67 goals-against average, .936 save percentage
Henrik Lundqvist of Team Sweden is the only goaltender in the men's tournament other than Lars Haugen of Norway to have played all three of his team's preliminary-round games. Lundqvist allowed five goals, which is on the high side for this defensively stingy tournament, but he led a banged-up Team Sweden to a perfect record in Group C play.
Lundqvist is the anchor for the Swedish team, one of the few who hasn't struggled to score so far. As the Swedes progress through the elimination rounds, they'll need Lundqvist to remind hockey fans why he's known as the best goaltender in the world.
Jonas Hiller: Switzerland
Group-Play Highlights: 2 GP, 2-0-0, 0.00 goals-against average, 1.000 save percentage
Switzerland gave up just one goal in three games in the preliminary round—and that was scored on second-string goaltender Reto Berra. Jonas Hiller was perfect in both his appearances, stopping 47 total shots in games against Latvia and the Czech Republic.
It's no longer a surprise that Switzerland's tight defensive approach sets them up to play spoiler in almost every international tournament. Assuming the Swiss beat Latvia in the qualification game on Tuesday, Team Canada will need to find a way to get at least one puck past Hiller if it hopes to advance past the Olympic quarterfinal.
Roberto Luongo: Canada
Group-Play Highlights: 1 GP, 1-0-0, 0.00 goals-against, 1.000 save percentage
Roberto Luongo stopped 23 shots to lead team Canada to a 6-0 shutout win over an Austrian team with some scoring punch in players like Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek. But Carey Price got the nod in net for Canada's other two preliminary-round games, which means Luongo's perfect performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics might very well be his last.
As the stronger goalie coming into the tournament, Price has given up just two goals in two Olympic games so far. He looks like he'll be Mike Babcock's first choice in the elimination round. Luongo probably won't see any more action unless Price falters. If that happens, Canada's gold-medal chances will probably already be gone.
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