Hockey in Sochi: Previews and Expectations

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4384953527_d21c16e055_oVancouver’s Olympic Hockey Tournament in 2010 ended with an overtime, gold-medal clinching goal from Canada’s Sidney Crosby. The puck blew past the United States’ goalie, Ryan Miller, whose fantastic play had propelled a relatively unheralded United States team into the gold medal game. With the seemingly destined-for-gold Canadian team, the Russian team with overwhelming home-ice advantage, and an American team with a dearth of returning players and inexperienced defense, along with an apparent inability to succeed outside the friendly confines of North America (no medals dating back to 1972), the upcoming hockey tournament in Sochi certainly has the potential to be every bit as exciting as the 2010 games.

Canada is widely considered to be one of the huge favorites to win the gold medal.  Their team has eleven players with gold medals, and several Stanley Cups along with a myriad of other awards including MVPs and scoring champions. Canada’s biggest liability is goaltending.  The team’s first goalie, Carey Price, has a habit of coming up small in big games. His NHL playoff record is an abysmal nine  and seventeen; by no standards are these the stats of an “elite” goaltender. If Carey fades under Sochi’s bright lights, he is backed up by an aging Roberto Luongo and Phoenix’s Mike Smith. Luongo was one of Canada’s netminders for their medal run in Vancouver, but he now has four more years of NHL wear and tear, compounded by the extremely hostile environment that will be ever-present in Sochi. Goaltending issues may be outweighed by the excellence of Canada’s offensive and defensive core, with household names like Stamkos and Crosby headlining the deep roster (Here’s how good Canada is: Claude Giroux, arguably one of the best players in the NHL, was left off, as was Logan Couture, a rising star, and Martin St. Louis, a league veteran and perennial All-Star). Depending on how Stamkos’ injury progresses, Giroux or St. Louis could easily end up on the final roster.

The American team is in a similar situation to that of 2010, but with a different cast of characters. Previous to the Vancouver games, the United States seemingly had no chance to even come close to competing with Canada.  However, the Americans played at a very high level and came very close to winning a gold medal. This team is expected to have a good chance at medaling, but gold seems to be out of reach. With Canada, Russia, and Sweden in the mix, getting to the silver and gold medal game will be extremely tough. Bronze is more conceivable, but America’s young blue line will have to play well and the offense will have to really click if they want to succeed. America’s selections for the team had some surprises.  For example, Jack Johnson (whose nickname is “Captain America” and seemingly was a lock for an Olympic team selection) was left off the roster, as was Bobby Ryan, an electric scorer hailing from Cherry Hill, New Jersey and playing a prominent role on the Anaheim Ducks, one of the top teams in the NHL. The American team boasts returning offensive stars in Paul Stastny, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, and Zach Parise, as well as defenseman Ryan Suter and netminder Ryan Miller, who will probably serve as a backup to Los Angeles’s Jonathan Quick.

Russia’s team has two major advantages: home-ice advantage throughout the tournament, and an offense with no ceiling. Russia’s blue line is nothing to boast about; few, if any defensemen are household names. But with Alexander Ovechkin (playing out of his mind this season), Kovalchuk (recently retired back to Russia), Datsyuk (still good, despite being seventy years old), and Evgeni Malkin (Sidney Crosby’s take on Michael Jordan’s Scottie Pippen), the Russian front line is just as if not more formidable than Canada’s terrific lineup. The fact that the Olympics are in Russia doesn’t hurt this team’s chances either. The Russian fans will be rabid, and it will certainly be a hostile environment for both Canada (remember the Summit Series and Valeri Kharmalov’s shattered ankle?) and America (no way to forget the “Miracle on Ice”).  Russia is undoubtedly capable of medaling.

Sweden captured the last World Championship Gold Medal, and are now favorites to medal in the Olympics. One big concern for the Swedes is Henrik Lundqvist’s age, but he is still a very, very serviceable goaltender. Otherwise, Sweden has a solid offense and very good defense, with an excellent core built around Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Backstrom, and the Sedin twins. The Swedish team is full of NHL players, with a decent mix of experience and youth. It is definitely a contender for any of the three medals, depending on Lundqvist’s play in net.

These Olympic games are shaping up to be very interesting. Given the dearth of superstars in the American Olympian ranks as a whole, other than retreads like the Shaun White and Apolo Anton Ohno, we could see the rise of a new face of the American Winter Olympics.  With the distinct possibility of Chechen terrorist attacks, who knows what could happen in these Olympic games?  But we know one thing for sure: there is going to be some epic hockey when February comes in Sochi.

 

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