The closest thing to a Group of Death in this tournament, Group A features two legitimate gold medal contenders in Russia and the United States, and a dark horse team in Slovakia that should advance to the quarterfinals.
Slovenia: The first-time Olympic qualifier has already won simply by making the cut for Sochi. Ranked 17th in the world, the Slovenians knocked off the Ukraine, Denmark and Belarus in tournament play last February. That they managed to do so without their only legitimate world-class player, Kings center Anze Kopitar, is amazing, but their Cinderella story will end here. With just one other player boasting NHL experience (forward Jan Mursak, 46 games), the no-name Slovenians are unlikely to be competitive, or to record a win.
Slovakia: With 17 current or former NHL players on the roster, the Slovakians won't be pushovers on the same order as Slovenia. That said, Slovakia lacks the depth of the true contenders, and barring a Ryan Miller-like performance from goalie Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis Blues), it can't pace with the Russians and the Americans. Winger Marian Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks) and defenseman Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins) will draw much of the attention, but keep an eye on the kids -- Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings), Richard Panik (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Tomas Jurco (Red Wings) up front, and Martin Marincin (Edmonton Oilers), who could assume a top-four role on the blue line. The ability of this new wave to overcome a lack of experience will be critical to overcoming the losses of Marian Gaborik (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Lubomir Visnovsky (New York Islanders).
Russia: Entering the tournament as, at worst, co-favorites for gold, the Russians boast a dynamic lineup loaded with some of the NHL's top stars, including leading goal scorer Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), former MVP Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and the league's best defensive forward in Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings). Along with KHL defector Ilya Kovalchuk, these four give Russia an array of gamebreakers that no other team can match. Winger Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues) is an emerging talent, and forward Nikolai Kulemin always seems to step up in international play. Beyond that group, however, the talent thins quickly, and there are concerns about how the KHL and the NHL players on the roster will meld together.
There are real question about the defense as well, where Anton Belov (Oilers), Slava Voynov (Los Angeles Kings), Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens) and Alexei Emelin (Canadiens) form a top four that won't scare anybody. But the Russians have a great equalizer between the pipes. Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche) is in the middle of a breakthrough season and probably has the inside edge on the starting job, although 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets) is equally up to the task. Though unheralded, this is as good a 1-1A punch as there is in the tournament. For Russia to deliver on the great expectations it faces, either Varlamov or Bobrovsky will have to play at an MVP level.
USA: The defending silver medalists come to Sochi with gold medal aspirations, but also carry the weight of previous failures on the big ice. This team was built not with a gritty, North American playoff style in mind, but instead with an emphasis on quickness and offensive ability. Led by a mobile corps of defensemen and possibly Team USA's finest ever crop of forwards, this group should be able to avoid getting bogged down in the neutral zone. The Americans will rely on the ability of the young blueliners like Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues) and Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes) to effectively move the puck in transition and to force opposing defensemen back buy space for the U.S. forwards. It just might work. Coach Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh Penguins) will have to make a tough choice between goalies Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) and Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres), but it's a good problem to have. Both men are excellent options who'll give the Americans a chance in every game.
Pavel Datsyuk's health. Datsyuk said of his return to action Thursday night after missing more than a month with a knee injury: "Looks like everybody fast, ice is so small, goalie so big, net so small. I hope everybody slow down and be careful with my age." So that's probably his humorous way of saying he felt a little rusty out there against the Panthers, but it's something the Russians have to be concerned about. Datsyuk isn't just the captain of the team. He's the glue, the guru, the one guy who everybody else on that team looks up to and respects. His ability to compete at a high level, and to keep the troops focused and grounded at the same time, is critical to Russia's success.
Russia vs. USA, Saturday, Feb. 15. Barring some wholly unexpected turn of events, this one will be for first place in the group, as well as one of four byes into the quarterfinals.
Predicted order of finish
USA, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia
A draw that looked comparatively easy for defending gold medalist Team Canada has gotten easier as a result of injuries to its top competition. But does an easier preliminary round necessarily help Canada get past the stigma of previous failures on the bigger international ice and set it up to win its third title of the Olympics' NHL era?
Norway: That Norway comes into the Olympics as the ninth-ranked team in the world shows just how steep the talent drop-off is once you get past the elite eight. Though the Norwegians qualified automatically for Sochi after making nine straight appearances in the World Championships, they come in with very modest expectations: Win their qualification round games and this event will be a success. But with just one NHL player, Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello (center Patrick Thoresen had a couple of cups of coffee with the Oilers and the Flyers), on the roster, Norway will be hard pressed to generate enough offense to keep pace with the world's powers. One player to watch is Sondre Olden. The 6-foot-4, 194-pound winger, a third-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2010, could use this event as a stepping stone for an NHL future in Toronto.
Austria: The Austrians played two key games against archrival Germany in 2013. A loss last April relegated them to Division 1A for the 2014 World Championships, but it was their win in February -- on German ice, no less -- that earned them an unexpected trip to Sochi. Now that they're here, the goal is simple: To not embarrass themselves.
Austria will dress three NHL players -- Thomas Vanek (New York Islanders), Michael Grabner (Islanders), and Michael Raffl (Philadelphia Flyers) -- who will likely skate on the same line, provided that Raffl moves back to the center position he played in Europe. Beyond that trio there's not much depth, although Thomas Hundertpfund could provide secondary scoring off the wing. Austria’s strength might be on the blue line where four veterans -- Thomas Pock, Andre Lakos, Robert Lukas and Matthias Trattnig -- played together in the country’s last Olympic appearance, at Salt Lake City in 2002. Their familiarity and Olympic experience could help prevent games against the big boys from getting out of hand.
Finland: A strict commitment to defense and stellar goaltending always seems to generate a result that exceeds the talent that Finland brings to these events, but a series of late injuries to the team's already sketchy offense will put that philosophy to the test. With Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild) and Valtteri Filppula (Tampa Bay Lightning) pulling out of Sochi last Friday, a club that was already expected to have a hard time scoring is suddenly short its top two offensive centers. That leaves Olli Jokinen (Winnipeg Jets) and Mikael Granlund (Wild) to take on roles that are well above their pay grade. Rookie sensation Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers) and grizzled veteran Teemu Selanne (Anaheim Ducks) -- who is playing in his sixth Olympics -- will lead a group that hopes to take advantage of bounces and breakdowns to score just often enough to give the tournament's deepest goaltending pool a chance to steal games. There's no word yet whether Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins) or Antti Niemi (San Jose Sharks) will get the starting nod, but either one will operate with no margin for error. The odds of Finland winning a fourth medal in its last five Olympic appearances seems like a long shot.
Canada: There aren't many teams that could shrug off the loss of the NHL's top goal scorer over the past four seasons, but the depth and versatility of Canada's corps of forwards should compensate for the late defection of the Lightning's Steven Stamkos (broken leg). The defending gold medalists will rely heavily on a nasty group of centers that includes the NHL's three top scorers -- Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks) and John Tavares (New York Islanders) -- along with two of the three finalists for last season's Selke Trophy in Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins).
This is a younger, quicker group that is seemingly better suited for the big ice than the larger, heavier group that struggled to score in Torino back in 2006. The defense is big, mobile and experienced, led by Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators) and Duncan Keith (Blackhawks), with P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens) adding some sizzle to the power play. The coaching staff might be the best in the tournament, especially with the savvy addition of former Swiss national team boss Ralph Krueger to offer insight into the European game. Taken as a whole, it looks to be the deepest group of talent assembled for these Games, but the question remains: Can this team succeed on the bigger ice?
Canada's goaltending. Sure, Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens) has been dynamite during his past six starts, but he hasn't won a truly significant game since the 2007 World Juniors. And yeah, Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks) was between the pipes when Canada held off the U.S. in Vancouver in 2010, but there was never a sense that he was in charge in that tournament -- and his meltdowns in the ’11 Stanley Cup Final don't paint a portrait of a man capable of rising to the occasion. Ultimately, one of the two simply has to become the next Grant Fuhr -- a goalie who lets a few in but stops the ones he needs to stop -- in order for Canada to repeat in Sochi. Are either of them up to the task?
Canada vs. Finland, Sunday, Feb. 16
Predicted order of finish
Canada, Finland, Norway, Austria
The weakest of the three groups features the two finalists from last year's World Championships, a fan favorite and a former power in decline.
Czech Republic: It's hard to believe the Czechs won the world championship just four years ago when you consider the mish-mash of friends and family this country will ice in Sochi. The roster, hand-picked by coach Alois Hadamczik, features Michal Barinka, Hadamczik's nondescript son-in-law, on the blueline, and 42-year-old forward Petr Nedved, who has spent the last six seasons toiling anonymously in the Czech league. Barinka and Nedved are in Sochi instead of such proven NHL scorers as the Flames' Jiri Hudler and the Coyotes' Radim Vrbata. In short, the lineup is built on politics rather than ability, which is why this team enters the tournament as an afterthought.
That said, there is some pop up front. David Krejci (Boston Bruins) has been the Stanley Cup playoffs' leading scorer in two of the past three seasons, and Jake Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers) and Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay Lightning) could provide some punch off the wing. And then there's Old Man Jagr (New Jersey Devils). He's playing in his sixth Olympics, but with his legs going south, his puck protection game might not be as effective on the big ice. And don't forget that he struggled to produce with Krejci during the Bruins' failed Cup run last spring. Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets) is expected to be the starter in net, but even his recent success with the rejuvenated Jets don't fully paper over the fact that he's allowed 130 goals this season, second most in the league, and has a .901 save percentage, which ranks 40th. There's no reason to believe that he can carry this misfit team past the quarterfinal round.
Latvia: The Latvians have earned a rep as the lovable losers of international hockey, big on heart, low on talent and driven by the most vocal fans in the game. A medal? Forget about it. That said, this could be the year they finally catch someone by surprise. With Sabres' coach Ted Nolan behind the bench, you know they'll turn in an honest performance, and with eight of their 23 players coming from the same team, Dynamo Riga of the KHL, they have the benefit of immediate chemistry. Edgars Masalskis is small (maybe 5-8), but he's an experienced and capable netminder. (Remember his 47-save performance against the Czechs in 2010?) And while the Sandis Ozolins-led blue line lacks the puck-moving ability of the top teams, it will be reliable in its own zone. The Latvians don't have a lot of touch up front -- Lauris Darzins, Janis Sprukts and Mikelis Redlihs looks to be the top line, and Buffalo rookie Zemgus Girgensons is their only current NHL player -- but they will forecheck tenaciously and look to capitalize on turnovers. If nothing else, they'll be fun to watch.
Switzerland: Coming off an all-time best silver medal at the 2013 World Championship, the Swiss feel they can beat any team on any given day -- and they don't need a miracle to do so. Like the Finns, Switzerland has a reputation for playing a patient, disciplined game, but there's a sense that coach Sean Simpson will open things up a bit to take advantage of what might be the most talented lineup the team has ever had. The group features nine NHL players, led by goalie Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks). The veteran gives the Swiss the solid goaltending they'll need if they hope to play a bit more adventurously. The defense will rely heavily on Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers) and Roman Josi (Nashville Predators), with Swiss league vets Severin Blindenbacher and Mathias Seger -- who is Switzerland's captain -- providing the glue. It's a smart, experienced group that's more physical than in the past, and which can move the puck effectively.
Scoring has always been a problem for the Swiss, and the caliber of their NHL forwards -- the Devils' Damien Brunner and the Wild's Nino Niederreiter -- doesn't suggest that that's going to change. But as they proved at the Worlds, the national team vets have ditched an over-reliance on passing and are capable of playing a heavier, North American-style game, generating traffic -- and chances -- down low. A medal seems unlikely, but a semifinal berth is certainly within Switzerland's reach.
Sweden: The defending world champs were expected to enter these Games as one of the clear favorites, but this team looks nowhere near as imposing as it did when the roster was announced a month ago. The Swedes might be the tournament's most dangerous team from the blue line back, with 2006 gold-medal goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers) between the pipes and a defense corps built around Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix Coyotes), Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings) and Alex Edler (Vancouver Canucks), but slumps and injuries up front have left nagging questions. With Henrik Sedin (Canucks) out, can brother Daniel (Canucks) hope to snap out of a brutal spell that's seen him go 19 (!) games without a goal? Can Loui Eriksson (Boston Bruins) regain his pre-concussion confidence with the puck? Are the next-gen kids -- Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Carl Hagelin (Rangers), Marcus Johansson (Washington Capitals) and Gustav Nyquist (Red Wings) -- ready to contribute on the big stage?
There's some terrific veteran leadership with Henrik Zetterberg (Red Wings) and the ageless Daniel Alfredsson (Senators), and Nicklas Backstrom (Capitals) and Alex Steen (St. Louis Blues) can be counted on to provide secondary scoring, but the forward corps lacks the depth of Canada and the U.S. That puts the pressure on Lundqvist to steal a medal-round game, or two, in order for Sweden to win gold.
Nicklas Backstrom. The Washington wizard is tied for third in the NHL with 45 assists through 59 games. It looks as though he'll be playing center on a line with Sedin and Eriksson, so Backstrom's playmaking ability will be the key to getting those struggling wingers back on track. If that line clicks and takes pressure off the top unit of Zetterberg, Steen and Landeskog, the Swedes become a much more dangerous club.
Sweden vs. Switzerland, Friday, Feb. 14
Predicted order of finish
Sweden, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Latvia
The lessons learned from the failures in Nagano and Torino will power Canada, finally, to an overseas triumph in the Sochi Games. GM Steve Yzerman built a team that's capable of succeeding on any surface against any opponent, and with Mike Babcock behind the bench this group will be prepared for any scenario. John Tavares will lead the offense and Carey Price will be surprisingly steady between the pipes. Canada takes the final over Russia. The score? It will be 6-5, of course.
No athletes in these Games will face greater scrutiny than Russia's hockey stars who, much like the Canadians in 2010, cannot afford to come away with anything less than gold. They'll respond to the pressure with an offensive performance for the ages, but Canada's defense will derail their dreams in the final. Sorry, no invites to Putin's dacha next summer.
They lack the offensive sizzle to return to the final but, just as they were in 2010, the Americans will be lifted by exceptional goaltending -- this time it will be Jonathan Quick -- to secure their first overseas medal since 1956 in Cortina d'Ampezzo.
Men's Olympic hockey schedule with TV times
Czech Repub vs. Sweden
12 PM ET USA, SNET1
Latvia vs. Switzerland
12 PM ET, MSNBC
Finland vs. Austria
3 AM ET, SNET, NBCSN
Russia vs. Slovenia
7:30 AM ET, CBC, MSNBC
Slovakia vs. USA
7:30 AM ET, TSN,NBCSN
Canada vs. Norway
12 PM ET, CBC, USA
Czech Repub vs. Latvia
3 AM ET, TSN, MSNBC
Sweden vs. Switzerland
7:30 AM ET, TSN, NBCSN
Canada vs. Austria
12 PM ET, CBC, USA
Norway vs. Finland
12 PM ET MSNBC, SNET
Slovakia vs. Slovenia
3 AM ET, SNET, NBCSN
USA vs. Russia
7:30 AM ET, CBC, NBCSN
Switzerland vs. Czech Repub
12 PM ET, NBCSN
Sweden vs. Latvia
12 PM ET, USA
Austria vs. Norway
3 AM ET, TSN2, USA
Russia vs. Slovakia
7:30 AM ET, USA
Slovenia vs. USA
7:30 AM ET, NBCSN
Finland vs. Canada
12 PM ET, CBC, USA
3 AM, 7: 30 AM, 12 PM (2) ET
3 AM, 7: 30 AM 12 PM (2) ET
7 AM, Noon ET
Bronze medal game
10 AM ET
Gold medal game
7 AM ET, NBC