Good day, hockey fans.
The way I see things, there are five teams – Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States – that legitimately can win the gold medal in the Men’s Olympic hockey tournament. Finland is probably the weakest of those five teams, though I wouldn’t completely count them out.
And then there are the other four.
Let’s be honest, here. Any of these teams could win it all. Canada has overwhelming talent; the Russians can score like no other team in this event and will be playing as though their lives depend on it; the Swedes are deceptively good and display no apparent weakness; and the American team is better than you think, fast and equipped with strong goaltending.
So, who does one pick?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Picking these tournaments is so difficult. It’s basically where hunches, logic and luck intersect.
So, here’s what I like and don’t like about the big boys. Predictions at the end.
CANADA – Most consider them the favorite, and for good reason. John Tavares is their fourth center, for God’s sake. That’s pretty scary. They’ve done it before, they showcase the world’s greatest hockey player, and their depth is unquestionable.
But there are problems. Would you trust Carey Price in a big game? How about Robert Luongo? OK, Luongo won the gold four years ago. True. But was he great that game? Did he look comfortable? Could you see him doing it again? Goaltending is a huge problem for the Canadians, in my view. I don’t trust either of these guys, and Mike Smith doesn’t figure to get a chance.
Plus, like the U.S., Canada doesn’t have a good history of winning on bigger ice surfaces.
Given the big ice surface, and how important special teams figure to be in such an even tournament, Canada should be utilizing P.K. Subban. Instead, Drew Doughty will run the power play along with Shea Weber. I have no problem with those two – both are terrific – but Subban is a better power play artist and would be more dynamic on the big ice. It’s a mistake if he doesn’t play.
On paper, an awesome team. But there are questions.
RUSSIA – No matter who you’re cheering for, you’ll surely agree that no team will be more interesting to watch than Russia.
This team is blessed with talent, conflicted by its personalities and perhaps united – or divided – but the extraordinary pressure it is under. In 2010, their Olympic performance was embarrassing. No one knows what to expect this time.
Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are Russia’s best players. They’ll play together. Will they thrive? No one knows. I suspect Malkin may defer too much to Ovechkin at times, which isn’t a good thing. Malkin is at his best when he is clearly the best player on the ice, so I’m not sure that I like this duo together as much as everyone else. But maybe I’ll be proven wrong. The fact that Ovechkin and Malkin possess a really complex relationship doesn’t help the matter. Or maybe it does. I just don’t know about this team.
I don’t particularly like Russia’s defensive group, though Sergei Bobrovski between the pipes is intriguing.
Could they win it all? Oh yeah. Could they implode? Oh yeah.
FINLAND – I include Finland in the list of contenders because of the great Tuukka Rask. In case you missed last season’s Eastern Conference final between the Penguins and Bruins, I’ll let you know that Rask played some of the most magnificent goal that any of us have ever witnessed. It was a remarkable performance, and while there may have been some luck involved, let’s take nothing away from Rask. He is among the greatest goalies in hockey and has proven capable of entering “the zone.” And when he does, you don’t beat him.
That said, I don’t love Finland’s chances. They always play good team defense and will again, I’m sure, but there isn’t a ton of talent up front. I just don’t see them matching the offensive work of the other four teams mentioned in this space.
Still, Finland is the team nobody really wants to play. The Fins possess a strong international history and a seriously strong goaltender.
A factor? Sure. A dark horse? Yeah. Winning a medal? I’m thinking it’s unlikely.
SWEDEN – Good luck finding a weakness here. Seriously.
Sweden hasn’t received a significant amount of buzz entering this tournament, and that might be a mistake. This team is so skilled, so steady, so impressive on paper. Henrik Lundqvist will be Sweden’s goalie, which is a pretty good place to start. He isn’t having his best NHL season, but the guy is terrific and has plenty of international experience.
Do the Swedes have some issues to contend with?
Nick Lidstrom is retired, and that takes away a historical edge. I like their blue line, but it’s not without possible problems. As great as Erik Karlsson is – and I truly do love watching him play – could he be a defensive liability in a tournament where one mistake could cost you a medal? Absolutely.
Sweden isn’t the youngest team, either. Many of its important players – Daniel Sedin, Lundqvist, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson – are on the wrong side of 30.
The Swedes aren’t an old team, but they won’t win because of young legs.
I really, really like this team. Definitely a worthy medal contender. Will losing Henrik Sedin have a negative impact on his twin brother? Could be a big deal.
UNITED STATES – What an intriguing team Dan Bylsma has at his disposal.
One must assume the goaltending for the United States will be excellent, no matter if Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick is between the pipes. I’d be comfortable with either one, though I believe Miller will ultimately be the guy chosen. He was great four years ago in Vancouver, has been great behind an awful Sabres team this season and probably has earned the opportunity to fight for the gold medal once again.
I love a lot of things about this team. The Americans don’t possess the best centers or blue line, but they do showcase the finest wingers in the tournament. Consider this list: Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, Max Pacioretty, Dustin Brown, T.J. Oshie, JVR, Blake Wheeler…holy crap, that’s a great group. Speed, grit, scoring – it’s all there.
I like the blue line, too. Ryan Suter was made for this tournament. Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Paul Martin? See any weaknesses there? Neither do I.
America’s problem is at center. There’s not a ton of offense there. Either Ryan Kesler or David Backes need to score. They can, but defense is what they do best.
It’s a very well rounded team.
OK, enough is enough. You want predictions? They aren’t confident once, by any stretch. But here they are.
GOLD MEDAL – United States
Am I being a homer? Maybe a little. But in all honestly, I love this team. It’s an exceptionally fast team, built for big ice, and the goaltending will be spectacular. It’s also a hungry team. What happened four years ago still hurts a lot of these guys. There is something to be said for that kind of motivation. When all looks so even, pick your home country. Right?
SILVER MEDAL – Canada
I think Canada will be undefeated headed into the Gold Medal game. They’ve found themselves in a very comfortable group, and the talent is pretty overwhelming.
I do believe, however, that the United States matches up well with Canada. Sidney Crosby doesn’t like playing against Backes. Look it up. Kesler could drive him nuts, too. Sid’s the best player in the world, but it will be tough for him to dominate against the Americans given how they are built.
And I’ll take Miller over Luongo/Price any day.
BRONZE MEDAL – Sweden
A really strong team that could beat anyone. But I don’t think they’ll pull it off. Still, a team very much worthy of a medal.
FOURTH PLACE – Russia
If they get to the gold medal game, they’re not losing. But I don’t think they’ll make it that far. I know how talented they are. I also know they don’t have much depth and that playing under the kind of pressure they’ll feel is nearly impossible.
FIFTH PLACE – Finland
I say Finland makes it to the quarterfinals but simply doesn’t have the firepower to beat the big boys.
I fear many will disagree. Hey, it’s not easy. But those are my picks. Let’s enjoy the tournament. It should be something very, very special, no matter who you’re rooting for and no matter who wins.