By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Major injuries and the larger European ice surface have added a further element of unpredictability to the already difficult task of forecasting the gold, silver and bronze medal winners in the men's Olympic ice hockey tournament.
Let's be honest though -- only four teams have a legitimate chance of medaling. Host nation Russia, defending gold medalists Canada, the United States and Sweden each possess the star power and depth to truly compete in Sochi, Russia.
Biggest strengths: Scoring balance, tremendous depth at center
Canada is loaded on offense. As many have noted, if Canada were able to bring a "B team" to Sochi, that team would probably medal, too.
Even considering the loss of superstar Steven Stamkos, the Canadians have more offensive punch than any team in Sochi
Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares give Canada an unquestionable edge down the middle at center. It's absolutely frightening to see one of the NHL's most exciting stars in Tavares listed as Canada's fourth line pivot.
Canadian head coach Mike Babcock has plenty of options to mix around his forward lines due to the ability of Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau to play either wing or center.
Corey Perry, Patrick Sharp, Carter and Rick Nash are some of the game's most prolific goal scorers and it appears that Carter will have the honor of playing on Crosby's right wing.
It remains to be seen whether defenseman P.K. Subban gets a chance to light up these Olympics. He's set to be a healthy scratch when the games begin. Same goes for veteran Martin St. Louis. The fact that Babcock can sit last season's Norris Trophy winner in Subban and the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner in St. Louis speaks volumes about Canada's incredible depth.
Biggest question mark: Carey Price's inexperience?
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Price was recently named the NHL's number one star of the week. If Price is able to transfer his sparkling NHL form to the Sochi games, it will make it almost impossible to topple Canada.
All the Canadians need is above average goaltending to repeat as gold medal winners. Should Price be overwhelmed by the Olympic spotlight, Roberto Luongo could step right in. Remember, Luongo was the gold medal-winning goalie on that memorable night in Vancouver.
Biggest strengths: Team speed, nastiness, goaltending depth
The Americans seem to have the ideal combination of speed and grit. While many were quick to complain about the omission of scoring wingers Kyle Okposo and Bobby Ryan, this team is built with chemistry in mind and players fitting into specific roles.
No, this isn't the most talented team at Sochi. Far from it ... and that's exactly the point. The United States roster is built to wear opponents down with physicality and tireless legs.
Rugged forwards David Backes, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan lead the way in that department.
Ryan Miller is expected to repeat as the starting goalie as he led the Americans to the final in 2010. Jonathan Quick might be the better goalie on paper, but Miller's Olympic experience is invaluable.
Biggest question mark: Scoring depth, youth on the blue line
Should the United States fail to medal in Sochi, there will be significant backlash directed at GM Dave Poile for leaving Okposo and Ryan at home.
Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel will be counted on to supply the goals for the Americans, but is there enough offense evenly spread throughout the U.S. lineup? We'll soon find out.
Another concern is whether youthful defensemen like Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh and John Carlson can handle their first Olympic experiences. While all three are mature individuals, to play in one's first Olympics in a strange country can sometimes be overwhelming.
Biggest strengths: Star quality, team speed
Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk are four of the most talented players in the world. We all know that.
Who's next? Youngster Vladimir Tarasenko is maturing and has the ability to be a breakthrough player in Sochi.
Russia might not have an all-time great goalie between the pipes, but this team is skilled and lighting-quick on skates.
Biggest question marks: Unconvincing defense, too much pressure?
I'm struggling to pinpoint a difference-maker on defense for Russia. Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings might be the closest thing Russia has to a power play point-getter. Overall, the Russian's blue line is fairly average and will not strike fear in opponents.
It's been long overdue for a Russian team to deliver on the Olympic stage as it last earned a medal -- a bronze no less -- at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
The Russians are carrying a tremendous weight of expectations. Perhaps, the expectations will be too much of a burden for them on their home soil.
Biggest strengths: Lundqvist's brilliance, talented two-way forwards and defensemen
In the 2006 Torino Games, Henrik Lundqvist led the Swedes to gold. He will have to be at his best in Sochi, especially since the Swedes will be hurting a bit on offense due to the loss of star center Henrik Sedin, a rib injury that has cast a large doubt over Sweden's gold medal chances.
Still, the Swedes possess an exciting wealth of two-way forwards and defensemen. Alex Steen is enjoying a huge season in St. Louis. Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom, Daniel Sedin, Gabriel Landeskog -- this group can score goals in bunches. Having two of the best puck-moving defensemen in the world in Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is further proof of Sweden's formidable roster.
Karlsson could be one of the key players to watch at the Sochi Games. His combination of exceptional skating and powerful shooting can cause havoc on the power play.
Biggest question marks: Key injuries, lack of large forwards, questionable backup goaltending.
Losing two key contributors in Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen is a big blow for this team. Sweden might have enough offensive weapons to minimize Sedin's absence, but it seems to lack power forwards in Franzen's mold that score dirty goals around the crease.
Backup goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth do not inspire confidence in the event that Lundqvist suffers a significant injury. Both are fairly average NHL backups, so losing Lundqvist would be a disaster scenario for the Swedes.
THE DARK HORSES:
The Sochi Games will mark the sixth and final appearance of legendary Finnish captain Teemu Selanne, who has been one of the most charismatic and entertaining players in hockey's modern era.
These Olympics could have been Selanne's final legitimate shot to win gold. But that hope was ended when top forward Mikko Koivu sustained an ankle injury, which will keep him out of the tournament.
Pittsburgh Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta has been great of late and is quickly becoming one of the NHL's most exciting rookies. Finland's blue line has an abundance of experienced defensemen, including Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen.
The Finns possess incredible goaltending depth.
Tuukka Rask has won some big games for the Boston Bruins over the years and is enjoying another fine season. The San Jose Sharks' Antii Niemi won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and Kari Lehtonen is probably one of the more talented, yet overlooked goalies in the NHL. The Finns can't go wrong no matter who they start, but Rask will probably be the main guy.
The absence of injured forward Marian Gaborik and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky looms large over this Slovakian team. That's a lot of experience and ability lost in two key players.
Slovakia does not have a lot of quality names behind skilled winger Marian Hossa and imposing defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues is a very dependable netminder, but this team lacks genuine scoring depth. If you shut down Marian Hossa, you'll shut down the Slovaks.
The Czechs were once a superpower, but they've struggled in the Olympics since the retirement of all-time great goaltender Dominik Hasek. It's a void that has been impossible to fill, as the Czechs finished seventh four years ago in Vancouver.
Ondrej Pavelec has struggled between the pipes for the Winnipeg Jets and there's little reason to believe he will rise on the Olympic stage.
Bruins' center David Krejci is the most dynamic offensive force on a Czech team armed with plenty of firepower, including Jakub Voracek, Ales Hemsky and the ageless New Jersey Devils duo of Patrik Elias and Jaromir Jagr.
Strangely, the Czechs opted not to bring the scoring touch of Calgary Flames' winger Jiri Hudler to Sochi, instead preferring 42-year-old former Rangers' center Petr Nedved. Nedved was last seen playing in the NHL during the 2006-07 season for the Edmonton Oilers and looked pretty washed up.
Besides sub-average goaltending, the other big weakness is on defense. There isn't a true number one pairing to speak of on the Czech roster. The Czechs better hope that their defense doesn't leak in high-scoring games.
The Anaheim Ducks are the Presidents Trophy leaders at the Olympic break. Much of that credit is due to the fine goaltending of Swiss netminder Jonas Hiller.
The Swiss are lacking scoring forwards needed to win games in Sochi. They have the goaltending and a decent group of blue liners led by Mark Streit, Roman Josi and Raphael Diaz. The element that's missing is a pure scorer or two. The Swiss won't get that from Devils' winger Damien Brunner or Minnesota Wild winger Nino Niederreiter.
Norway is led by by two forwards who are flourishing offensively in separate leagues. Mats Zuccarello has taken his game to new heights with the Rangers this season, leading the Blueshirts with 43 points. His soaring reputation in the New York is only topped by his star power in his homeland.
Meanwhile, former NHL center Patrick Thoresen has become a star in the KHL after struggling to catch on with Edmonton and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Norway does boast a decent group of blue liners, including minute-eating defenseman Jonas Holos, formerly of the Colorado Avalanche. Their biggest issue is their goaltending. All eyes will be on Zuccarello to provide the spark and will Norway into playing beyond its collective talents.
Islanders fans will be watching Austria closely, with Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek leading the way. Vanek's future with the Isles (or lack thereof) is a story for another day. Philadelphia rookie winger Mchael Raffl has established himself as a legitimate NHL-er.
Austria's talent drops off significantly below its top two lines and former Rangers/Islanders defenseman Thomas Pock is the only blue liner of any renown. Similar to Norway, Austria has a distinct goaltending weakness.
Sandis Ozolinsh, a 41-year-old defenseman, will be counted on to provide big minutes and leadership for the Latvians. Yes, the same Ozolinsh who hasn't played in the NHL since the 2007-08.
Latvia does boast one current NHLer in 20-year-old Buffalo Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons, a former No. 12 overall draft pick who will be coached by Buffalo head coach Ted Nolan at the Sochi games.
Besides the Nolan-Girgensons connection, there is a lot of familiarity on Latvia's roster. Approximately one-third of the roster, including Ozolinsh, plays together for Dinamo Riga of the KHL.
Los Angeles superstar Anze Kopitar is the only household name on Slovenia, which will be playing in the Olympic tournament for the first time and will have Kopitar's father, Matjaz, presiding behind the bench as head coach.
Because of that lack of experience, Slovenia is the ultimate underdog in Sochi. Fans of the Red Wings may remember oft-injured winger Jan Mursak, who recently moved to Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL. Otherwise, the majority of Slovenia's roster is made up of players from substandard European leagues.
WHO WINS GOLD?
Up until the devastating loss of star forward Henrik Sedin, Sweden would have earned my nod as the favorite to earn the gold medal. The loss of Franzen has made things worse.
Even if Lundqvist is the most dominant goalie at the Sochi Games, it would be hard imagining the Swedes winning gold without Henrik Sedin.
GOLD MEDAL GAME: Canada over the United States
It will be another highly emotional gold medal rematch -- the Canadians' firepower versus the grit and determination of the Americans. Unfortunately for the U.S., Canada's scoring depth will likely be too much to handle.
BRONZE MEDAL GAME: Sweden over Russia
Lundqvist's presence will be enough for the Swedes to capture bronze.
PRELIMINARY ROUND SCHEDULE:
|Date||Game||Time (ET)||Live TV|
|Wed, Feb. 12||Czech Republic vs. Sweden||12 p.m.||USA|
|Wed, Feb. 12||Latvia vs. Switzerland||12 p.m.||MSNBC|
|Thu, Feb. 13||Finland vs. Austria||3 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Thu, Feb. 13||Russia vs. Slovenia||7:30 a.m.||MSNBC|
|Thu, Feb. 13||Slovakia vs. United States||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Thu, Feb. 13||Canada vs. Norway||12 p.m.||USA|
|Fri, Feb. 14||Czech Republic vs. Latvia||3 a.m.||MSNBC|
|Fri, Feb. 14||Sweden vs. Switzerland||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Fri, Feb. 14||Canada vs. Austria||12 p.m.||USA|
|Fri, Feb. 14||Norway vs. Finland||12 p.m.||MSNBC|
|Sat, Feb. 15||Slovakia vs. Slovenia||3 a.m.||MSNBC|
|Sat, Feb. 15||United States vs. Russia||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Sat, Feb. 15||Switzerland vs. Czech Republic||12 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Sat, Feb. 15||Sweden vs. Latvia||12 p.m.||USA|
|Sun, Feb. 16||Austria vs. Norway||3 a.m.||USA|
|Sun, Feb. 16||Russia vs. Slovakia||7:30 a.m.||USA|
|Sun, Feb. 16||Slovenia vs. United States||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Sun, Feb. 16||Finland vs. Canada||12 p.m.||USA|
The top four teams will receive a bye to the quarterfinal round. Teams are ranked by the following measures: 1) preliminary round performance, 2) group position, 3) points 4) goal differential 5) goals for and 6) 2013 IIHF World Ranking is the final tiebreaker.
|Date||Qualification Round||Time (ET)||Live TV|
|Tue, Feb. 18||Game No. 1||3 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Tue, Feb. 18||Game No. 2||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Tue, Feb. 18||Game No. 3||12 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Tue, Feb. 18||Game No. 4||12 p.m.||MSNBC|
|Date||Quarterfinal Round||Time (ET)||Live TV|
|Wed, Feb. 19||Game No. 1||3 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Wed, Feb. 19||Game No. 2||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Wed, Feb. 19||Game No. 3||12 p.m.||USA|
|Wed, Feb. 19||Game No. 4||12 p.m.||MSNBC|
|Date||Semifinal Round||Time (ET)||Live TV|
|Fri, Feb. 21||Game No. 1||7 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Fri, Feb. 21||Game No. 2||12 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Date||Medal Round||Time (ET)||Live TV|
|Sat, Feb 22||Bronze medal game||10 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Sun, Feb 23||Gold medal game||7 a.m.||NBC|
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
You May Also Be Interested In These Stories
for more features.