Group BIIHF Ranking: first2006 Olympic finish: fourth
STORYLINE: There were some lean years for Russian hockey after its 1993 World Championship win in Munich. The superlative skill was still there, but politics, infighting and personal motivation always seemed to pull the rug out from under the bear at the critical moment. Then came the dramatic 2008 win in Quebec City, and the 2009 championship in Bern -- each time at the heartbreaking expense of archrival Canada. Suddenly, Russia, under the guidance of Vladislav Tretiak, had found the focus to go along with its talent.
And what a bumper crop of talent. The names read like a Murderer's Row on blades: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin. Forget the talk about this being the best group in a generation. This might be the finest lineup the country has ever iced, topping even the fabled 1987 Canada Cup squad.
Granted, Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar lack the sturdy presence of Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, but with Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, the Russians may have their best goaltending since the days of Tretiak. The back end will find its balance.
Don't overlook the coaching presence of Slava Bykov. Previous Russian sides have rebelled against authoritarian bench bosses, but Bykov, a member of that '87 team, is one of them. After guiding the team to those world championships, he's earned their trust. That may end up being the X-Factor for this club.
MVP:Alexander Ovechkin. Just a guess, but I'd imagine that no loss eats at his hockey soul like that 6-1 beating administered by Team Canada in the gold medal match at the 2005 World Juniors. Though he's already extracted his revenge once at the 2008 Worlds, you can bet that Ovechkin wants to hit Canada where it lives. So he's not just the best player in the world. He's not just the hottest (40 points in his last 19 NHL games). He's also the most driven. If he's the MVP of the tournament (and who's gonna bet against him?), then Russia wins the gold.
KID TO WATCH: Alexander Radulov. The wayward Predator is having a massive season with Salavat Yulaev, where he's fifth in the KHL scoring race with 22 goals, 57 points and an eye-popping plus-38 through 51 games. He's likely to play on a line with Salavat teammates Sergei Zinoviev and Viktor Kozlov. Their familiarity should help them make an impact in the early going.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Andrei Markov. The Russian blueline tends to be written off as a weak link and it is...but only in comparison to one of the most dynamic forwards corps ever assembled. Markov leads a group that lacks the size and star power of the Canadians, but is more than capable of taking care of its own zone and making the transitional plays that will key the fast-paced Russian attack.
BOTTOM LINE: Talk to members of the two-time defending world champs and you come away with the sense that they want it more than anyone else. In the end, that might make the difference.
Group AIIHF Ranking: second2006 Olympic finish: seventh
STORYLINE: Let's get this out of the way, all right? Canadian hockey teams always skate with the weight of an unforgiving nation on their shoulders. If you think this time around is any different than in Torino or Salt Lake City, at the World Cup, the World Championship, the World Juniors, well, you're wrong. This is what it's like every time a team puts on the maple leaf. The ability to face that pressure and, more often than not, overcome it is a good part of what makes Canadian hockey great.
So what's the real story? The turning of the page. That may seem obvious, but that's always been a weakness of Hockey Canada: loyalty to a fault. Sure, there'll be grey hairs in the shaving sink, but this is a team that will rely heavily on players who've never won at this level.
MVP: Sidney Crosby. It was widely regarded as a smart move by the Canadian staff to stitch the C on the sweater of veteran Scott Niedermayer rather than Crosby's, but it doesn't change anything. This is Sid's team and it will go as far as he and his redwood legs can carry them. Tall order for a 22-year-old, sure, but does anyone who watched him last spring as he willed the Penguins to the Stanley Cup have any reason to doubt? And as impressive as that performance was, this is the role that he was born to play. We've yet to see Crosby's best...but we might not have to wait long for the chance.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Drew Doughty. There's a sense in some corners that the 20-year-old was brought on board to be the seventh defenseman. Dismiss that notion immediately. Doughty is the picture of effortless poise in the NHL and was Canada's most effective blueliner at the 2009 World Championships. "He might not be [top six] when the tournament starts, but watch him at the end," one scout told SI.com. "He lives for the challenge of playing the Malkins and Ovechkins and Sedins. He has the mental toughness that you need for the big games."
QUESTION MARK: Roberto Luongo. Martin Brodeur's reputation, not to mention his gold medal from 2002, makes him the presumptive starter, but count on coach Mike Babcock to go with the hot hand in goal. If Brodeur falters -- and a recent stretch in which he allowed at least three goals in nine of his last 12 games raises concern -- then Luongo could assume a larger role. He's been the hotter goalie of late, winning eight of 10, including hard-earned victories over the Blackhawks, Penguins and Sabres.
BOTTOM LINE: On paper, the Canadians are everything you'd want in a national team: big, fast, talented, deep enough to handle any situation and guided by a truly exceptional coaching staff. But can they match the Russian hunger? That could be the difference between a gold medal and ignominious failure.
Group CIIHF Ranking: fourth2006 Olympic finish: Silver medal
STORYLINE: While the Americans decided to cut ties with the heroes of their greatest victory, the Finns are giving their own legends one last hurrah in Vancouver. The old guard, led by Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen, carved their names into the record books with the 1995 World Championship, the first and only in the country's history. Along with vets like Teemu Selanne and Niklas Hagman, that aging group accentuates an obvious development gap in Finnish hockey. While the country has turned into the world's leading goaltending factory (promising stoppers Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask didn't even get a sniff of this roster and 2006 Olympic MVP Antero Niittymaki is slated as this team's third-stringer), Finland isn't turning out high-end forwards like it used to. With speed at a premium in this tournament, that may be their downfall.
MVP: Mikko Koivu. One of just five skaters on the team under the age of 30, Koivu is also the most complete package. The burly center, who leads all Finnish NHLers with 52 points, has the physical game and defensive acumen to match up against the opposition's top centers.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Teemu Selanne. He's been thei offensive sparkplug at the last four Olympiads, netting 20 goals and 35 points in just 25 games. Still, at age 39, there seems to be plenty of magic left in Selanne's stick. With 18 goals in 35 NHL games, he's scoring at a 40-goal pace.
QUESTION MARK: Olli Jokinen. When press box talk swings to players who get the least out of their talent, Jokinen's name always pops up. He's big, he's strong, he has a nasty shot and yet, as Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter will attest, he has all the personal drive of David Wooderson. He won't be asked to shoulder the offensive load here -- with the Koivu brothers likely to center the first two lines, Jokinen should be relegated to third line duty -- and that diminished responsibility may suit him well.
BOTTOM LINE: The Finns have won more medals than any other country since 1988, so they'll stick to the formula that's served them so well over the years: goaltending, quality coaching and a tireless effort. They won't beat themselves and they won't be intimidated. Just in terms of talent, it's hard to place them above the big three, but this team always seems to punch above its weight.
Group BIIHF Ranking: third2006 Olympic finish: gold medal
STORYLINE: No roster is more unsettled with just days to go before the start of the tournament than the defending champs'. Fredrik Modin is dealing with a bruised foot and hasn't played since Feb. 4. Tomas Holmstrom played Thursday night, but is battling a bruised knee. Niklas Kronwall, sidelined 30 games already, is hoping a new brace will allow him to skate on Saturday. Brittle Peter Forsberg has proclaimed his availability, but could blow an ankle while crossing into the Pacific time zone. And now Johan Franzen, out most of the season with a torn ACL, has returned to action two months early and could be available for action. Interesting times, eh?
Fortunately, the Swedes are stable where the big minutes are distributed. The top six boasts plenty of grit and panache with the Sedin twins Henrik and Daniel, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Backstrom. The blueline will be anchored by Nicklas Lidstom, Mattias Ohlund and the wildly underappreciated Douglas Murray. Henrik Lundqvist provides a steadying presence in goal and big-game track record that gives them a chance to win every night.
MVPs: Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Alright, they've been disquietingly off their games during the past couple weeks, but can even their most vociferous detractors still harbor doubts about this duo? At 29, the Sedins have revealed themselves to be fully capable of strapping a team on their shoulders, with each taking on elements of the other's style to round out their offensive repertoires. With Mats Sundin retired and Forsberg limited to spot duty, this is their turn in the spotlight.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Nicklas Backstrom. Relegated to the shadows in Washington, this could be his chance to prove that he's more than just Chin Ho Fat to Ovechkin's Steve McGarrett. Backstrom could line up alongside Alfredsson and Franzen to form a devastating troika.
QUESTION MARK: Peter Forsberg. It was announced Thursday that Foppa would travel with the team to Vancouver, but there's no word yet on when, or even if, he'll suit up. Forsberg has been limited to just 17 games with MoDo by a nagging foot injury, but if he's ready to go, his presence gives the Swedes the most dangerous group of centers after the Canadians.
BOTTOM LINE: There aren't many voices piping up to support a Swedish repeat, but this team is not the afterthought it was in 2006. A first-to-fourth finish is possible, but with those health issues limiting their potential, bet on the latter.
Group AIIHF Ranking: fifth2006 Olympic finish: eighth
STORYLINE: If you spent any time listening to general manager Brian Burke, you might think the members of Team USA would be happy to sell 50/50 tickets during intermission if it meant the chance to watch the elite squads battle it out live and in person. He's not fooling anyone. Despite his best efforts to sandbag his squad in the media, these new-look Yanks are a dangerous bunch. Sure, they're more green than red, white and blue, but they've got quick-strike capability up front with Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise, who should get his much-deserved national close-up after an injury scare earlier this week. Team USA also boasts what might be the strongest trio in net with red-hot Ryan Miller, 2009 Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas, and young Jonathan Quick, who currently leads the NHL with 34 wins.
The problem is the thin blueline. Injuries to a pair of defenders already have necessitated a pair of roster changes -- Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason are in for Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek -- and diminutive Brian Rafalski will be asked to assume the No. 1 role. That's a lot to ask of the consummate No. 2, especially when his support staff lacks depth and experience.
MVP: Ryan Miller. You wanna talk pressure? The ability of the Americans to contend rests solely on his narrow shoulders. Short of a complete meltdown, the table is his to run. If Miller can't cover the growing pains of this young squad, the Americans will be heading home early.
KID TO WATCH: Patrick Kane. Deep into his third season with the Blackhawks, he still looks more like some player's lucky tagalong kid brother than a bonafide NHL superstar...at least until he straps on the blades and starts dancing around defenders and picking off unprotected corners. With the Americans lacking the offensive heft of the top contenders, he has to be a factor in every game.
QUESTION MARKS: Erik and Jack Johnson. The consensus holds that the unrelated Johnsons -- big, smooth, puck-distributing Erik and big, smooth, demolition ace Jack -- are the future of the American blueline. Unfortunately, this tournament takes place in the present and they're likely too raw to handle the heavy lifting against the deep Canadian, Russian and Swedish squads.
BOTTOM LINE: On paper, the Americans rank as the fourth-, maybe fifth-most talented squad in Vancouver. Still, they have to be considered legitimate contenders for the podium simply because of the game-changing presence of Miller.
Group BIIHF Ranking: sixth2006 Olympic finish: bronze medal
STORYLINE: The fortunes of the Czech hockey squad are as predictable as the quality of Kansas City sushi. Expect to be disappointed and you might be surprised. Or not. The challenge for Vladimir Rucizka's squad will be to start pulling in the same direction from the opener. Too often, the Czechs have seemed at cross purposes, skating without the cohesion it takes to carry one of these events. If Rucizka can keep them focused, they'll be in the mix. The Czechs also caught a break this week when captain Patrik Elias returned from a concussion that cost him 10 games and threatened his participation.
MVP: Tomas Vokoun. The Czechs skated away with a bronze from Turin thanks largely to Vokoun's 28-save shutout performance against the Russians in the consolation match. He'll need to be better than his overall 3-4 record if his team hopes to qualify for the medal round. This time he's coming in with the knowledge that he's the starter (he replaced the injured Dominik Hasek in the 2006 opener) and he's coming in hot. Vokoun has allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of his last 18 NHL starts and was spectacular in January, posting four shutouts to go along with a 1.49 GAA and .956 save percentage.
KEEP AN EYE ON: David Krejci. Returning sooner than expected from summer hip surgery slowed him down in the early NHL going, but the Bruins' sublime playmaker seems to have regained his form over the past few games. He could center the second line between Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Fleischmann, clearly the best wingers he's had the chance to play with.
QUESTION MARK: Jaromir Jagr. At 37, he's no longer the kinetic force he was back when the Czechs took gold in Nagano (1998), or when he was the NHL's MVP in 1999. Still, there are more than a few general managers who think he has something to contribute, and word is he's willing to leave Omsk if the right NHL opportunity comes along. As important as he is to this team over the next two weeks, it'll be hard not to couch his performance in terms of his future.
BOTTOM LINE: There's a youthful element to this team (Fleischmann, Martin Erat, Roman Polak), but make no mistake: the Czechs are bringing one of the most experienced groups to Vancouver. They've won this tournament before and were world champs as recently as 2005. They're expecting to medal and a silver or bronze should surprise no one.
Group BIIHF Ranking: ninth2006 Olympic finish: fifth
STORYLINE: The most stunning exit from the Turin Games was not by the underperforming Canadians or Americans, but by the Slovaks, who started the tournament 5-0 (including wins over the Russians and Swedes) only to be broomed out of medal contention after a single loss to the hated Czechs. That painful memory should provide sufficient motivation to improve their fate this time around, but the talent might not match the heart.
Slovakia boasts some explosive scoring talent in Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, but many of their key forwards (Jozef Stumpel, Ziggy Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Richar Zednik) are edging into obsolescence. Gaborik is nursing a knee injury and pulled himself from the Rangers' game against Pittsburgh after four minutes on Friday night. If he can't go, Marek Svatos of the Avalanche will be a likely replacement. The defense corps boasts last season's Norris Trophy-winner (and perennial candidate) Zdeno Chara and gifted puck-mover Lubomir Visnovsky, but the depth fades quickly after the top pairing. Get 'em on their heels early, and they'll pack up the tents.
MVP: Marian Hossa. The Blackhawks winger is a dandy two-way threat in the NHL, but Hossa seems to save his best hockey for his homeland. He's been an impact player at the last two Olympiads, finishing among the top-five scorers each time.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jaroslav Halak. Goaltending's been the one area where the Slovaks have fallen short in previous best-on-best competitions, but Halak could be the difference-maker they've lacked. Though he's yet to establish himself as one of the game's top stoppers, he has wrested the top job in Montreal from golden boy Carey Price.
QUESTION MARK: Pavol Demitra. The team's best playmaker, it'll be up to Demitra to move the puck to finishers Gaborik and Hossa. The question is: will he be healthy enough? The veteran forward saw his first action of the NHL season in mid-January and is still working the rust off his blades. The surgically repaired shoulder has held up so far, but he hasn't yet re-established his game.
BOTTOM LINE: Realistically, this is a sixth-place club, but it has enough pieces in place to upset any team in this tournament. With some hot goaltending and a break or two, the Slovaks could even sneak into the medal round. Could...but won't.
Group AIIHF Ranking: seventh2006 Olympic finish: sixth
STORYLINE: The Swiss slipped into the role of giant killer at the 2006 Games, shutting out Canada 2-0 and edging the Czechs 3-2. A bold statement from a developing hockey power? Not so much. The Swiss followed those stunners with ties against lightweights France and Italy. This club has neither the talent nor the emotional capacity to compete on a consistent basis, but there's that "any given Sunday" quality that demands they not be overlooked. They'll win a game in Vancouver, maybe two. The key for the contenders will be to avoid being lulled into their trap.
MVP: Jonas Hiller. It's really all on his shoulders, isn't it? For the tight-checking, light-scoring Swiss to have a hope of competing, the Anaheim star has to play virtually mistake-free hockey. He's coming into the Games on a roll, having given up two goals or fewer in six of his last seven NHL starts.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Hnat Dominichelli. A star for Team Canada at the 1996 World Juniors, the Edmonton-born Dominichelli hung around the fringes of the NHL for seven seasons before finding his niche in the Swiss league. He took a Swiss passport last summer, allowing the 33-year-old to earn a spot on the squad. He'll be counted on to replace the offense provided in the past by Canadian-born vets Paul DiPietro and Ryan Gardner.
QUESTION MARKS: Luca Sbisa and Roman Josi. The two young defenders are the pride of the Swiss developmental program and both are considered fine NHL prospects. But therein lies the problem: Sbisa (Anaheim) and Josi (Nashville) are young enough to have played in the recent World Junior tournament. Veterans Mark Streit and Yannick Weber will do most of the heavy lifting on the blueline, but coach Ralph Krueger didn't bring these diaper dandies to hide them on the bench. They'll be thrown in the deep end and told to swim.
BOTTOM LINE: The win over the stone-handed Canadians was a generational fluke. A top-eight finish in Vancouver would be considered a success.
Group CIIHF Ranking: eighth2006 Olympic finish: did not participate
STORYLINE: Belarus authored what may have been the second greatest upset in Olympic hockey history with their 4-3 ouster of the previously unbeaten Swedes in the 2002 quarterfinals, so this team can't be written off like some of the weak sisters. That said, three of their four NHL representatives -- Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn, Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski and Colorado's Ruslan Salei -- are sidelined by injury, leaving a talent pool that's painfully shallow. With seven of their players coming from Dynamo Minsk, they'll benefit from some instant chemistry, but even that won't help them do more than tread water. One of the team's assistant coaches will be Dave Lewis, last seen manning the bench in Boston back in 2006-07.
MVP: Andrei Mezin. Lost in the "can you believe it?" moment created when Vladimir Kopat's long-range slapper bounced off the head of Tommy Salo and into the net to seal the 2002 upset of the Swedes was the amazing performance of Mezin. The veteran netminder kept his team in the game, stopping 44 shots and wave after wave of Swedish aggression. While that game was the highlight of his career, it wasn't lightning in a bottle. Mezin was voted the top goaltender at the 2009 World Championships after he posted a 1.72 GAA and .948 save percentage. He has that game-stealing ability that opponents have to respect.
KID TO WATCH: Sergei Kolosov. He was left off the early provisional roster, but the 2004 Red Wings draft pick was added to the squad last week as an injury replacement. He plays a fairly conservative game, so don't expect Kolosov to jump out at you. "He's a stay-at-home guy, keeps the crease clear, blocks shots, bangs the puck off the boards," a scout told SI.com. "There's a chance he could be a depth guy [in the NHL]."
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sergei Kostitsyn. Andrei's little bro has some growing up to do, as evidenced by his inability to hold a steady job in Montreal and his reaction to a demotion earlier this season. This tournament may be the kick in the pants he needs. Kostitsyn could be front and center with the Belorusian squad, but he'll have to earn the trust of new coach Mikhail Zakharov.
BOTTOM LINE: They lucked out with a spot in the C Pool, generally regarded as the least intimidating of the three, but they're missing too many of their big guns to be taken seriously.
Group AIIHF Ranking: 11th2006 Olympic finish: did not participate
STORYLINE: The Norwegians punched their ticket to Vancouver with a surprising showing at the 2008 World Championships, where they knocked off the Germans, dragged the Finns into overtime and battled Canada down to the wire in a thrilling 2-1 loss. Things didn't go quite as well last year in Bern, where Norway won just one contest (beating lightweight Denmark 5-4) and was outscored 25-12 as limitations were exposed by superior opponents. Honestly, those results are more indicative of their potential in this tournament. The Norwegians will dress just one NHLer, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen of the Red Wings.
MVP: Mats Zuccarello Aasen. Four members of the Swedish club team MoDo will suit up for the Polar Bears, including the flashy Zuccarello Aasen. His diminutive frame (5-7, 160) was deemed too small even for the new NHL, but the 22-year-old is putting up big numbers in the Elitserien. With 18 goals and 51 points in 48 games, he ranks third in the circuit. His ability to create similar magic against bigger, stronger opponents will be key to the success of Norway's offense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jonas Holos. The Colorado Avalanche draft pick (170th overall, 2008) has established himself as one of the top blueliners in the Swedish league. He'll likely play alongside Tollefsen on the top pairing. A good showing could give the 5-11, 210-pound 22-year-old a leg up going into the Avs' camp next fall.
QUESTION MARK: Ruben Smith. The Norwegians have yet to name a starting goalie, and while there's some sentiment to hand the gig to veteran Pal Grotnes, the 22-year--old Smith is expected to see his share of action. The MVP of the 2008 Norwegian playoffs, it's just a matter of time before the Pang-sized stopper takes over the duties on a permanent basis
BOTTOM LINE: Their gold medal match comes in the opener against Canada. If they can keep it close, they'll be thrilled. If they pull off the upset (like they did at the 2000 World Championships), the streets of Oslo will make the post-Super Bowl French Quarter look a ghost town. Don't count on that happening, though. This group should be happy with their invite to the party.
Group BIIHF Ranking: ninth2006 Olympic finish: 12th
STORYLINE: Now that the Arturs Irbe/Sandis Ozolinsh era has passed, the Latvians have become just another club clinging to the fringes of respectability. With just two non-descript NHLers -- Karlis Skrastins of the Stars and Oskars Bartulis of the Flyers -- this year's squad is pretty much Dynamo Riga in different sweaters. Sixteen players from that mid-level KHL side will make up the bulk of the team. Even with that level of familiarity, they'll be mowed down by the Russians, Czechs and Slovaks.
MVP: Alexanders Nisivijs. At just 5-9, 169 pounds, Dynamo's leading Latvian-born scorer is the country's answer to Martin St. Louis. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with creativity, speed and flair. The 33-year-old will be the key to his country's offense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Martins Karsums. Not that he'll be hard to spot. Karsums, a second-round selection of the Bruins in 2004 whose rights are currently owned by the Lightning, plays a Steve Ott/Steve Downie style game. He's small but relentless and his aggressive pursuit of the puck makes him one of the most obnoxious guys on the ice...and one of the most entertaining to watch.
QUESTION MARK: Edgars Masalskis. The veteran netminder will have to be a standout if the Latvians hope to avoid humiliation.
BOTTOM LINE: They may not make much noise on the ice, but they sure will in the stands. If you'll be in Vancouver, find your way to the Latvian cheering section. Outside of Brazil's fanatical soccer supporters, these may be the best fans in all of sports.
Group CIIHF Ranking: 12th2006 Olympic finish: 10th
STORYLINE: Observers of the German hockey scene have been saying for years that the DEL's overreliance on foreign-born players was stunting the development of homegrown talent. As their 15th-place finish at the 2009 Worlds proved, those chickens have come home to roost. The roster boasts a few serviceable NHL vets -- Christian Ehrhoff, Marco Sturm and Marcel Goc the most prominent -- but the presence of a quartet of creaky Canadian ex-pats (Jason Holland, John Tripp, Travis Mulock and Chris Schmidt) clearly demonstrates the failings of their system.
MVP: Christian Ehrhoff. The veteran defender is enjoying a breakthrough season with the Canucks and stands out as the country's most talented player. Couple that with the fact that he wouldn't be a top-10 defender with any of the medal contenders and you realize just how deep a hole the Germans are in.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Marco Sturm. The knock on the Bruins winger is that his offense tends to run hot and cold. Unfortunately, Sturm's hands have been ice kalt in his two previous Olympic appearances, with just one assist in seven games.
QUESTION MARK: Thomas Greiss. The Sharks benchwarmer has just one major international game on his resume, and it didn't go particularly well as he gave up five goals to the snake-bitten Canadians in Turin.
BOTTOM LINE: The Germans are capable of executing a smothering defensive system that can cause the occasional opponent fits, but a severe talent shortage suggests this team will be lucky to tie a game.