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Winter Olympics Men's Hockey: Group-by-group preview

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Alexander Ovechkin carries the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders in Sochi. (USATSI)
Alexander Ovechkin carries the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders in Sochi. (USATSI)

The men's hockey tournament is considered by Russians as the crowned jewel of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. It all begins Wednesday with enormous pressure on the host team and high expectations attached to the North American squads as well.

Though Vancouver offered one of the most exciting tournaments and exciting finishes in the NHL era of the Olympics, the 2014 Games offer a whole new level of intrigue. With the Winter Olympics on Russian soil for the first time, the home team figures to either be the tournament's most motivated team or will be crushed by the expectations.

Meanwhile, Sweden, the United States and Canada all seem to have the best chance among other teams to compete for gold along with the hosts.

It's going to be a fantastic two weeks of hockey full of twists and turns and the best action we'll see until the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway. Anything can happen at the Olympics, making for both compelling TV and terrific storylines

Here's a look at each of the three groups heading into the Olympics, which open Wednesday at noon ET with Czech Republic vs. Sweden.

NOTE: Teams listed in order of projected preliminary-round finish. Three key players not necessarily the best on their roster, but those that will be particularly important to their teams during the Olympics.

GROUP A

Russia

2010 Finish: Sixth

Three Key Players: Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin

Quick Preview: The Russian team will be one of the most skilled outfits in the Olympics, but questionable defense is a notable weakness. Goaltending could be a strong point whether it's Sergei Bobrovsky or Semyon Varlamov. If Russia scores like they should be capable of with such stars as Alex Ovechnkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and an ailing Pavel Datsyuk, and gets above average goaltending, they're going to have a chance. The immense pressure this team is under has to be a factor as well. They carry the heavy weight of a nation's hopes. Will it be too much to shoulder?

United States

2010 Finish: Silver

Three Key Players: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Phil Kessel

Quick Preview: The U.S. built a team on a foundation of speed and seems to have the offensive firepower to be able to score frequently in this tournament. Eight players have 20 goals or more on Team USA's roster this year led by Phil Kessel who is among the hottest scorers in the NHL coming into the Olympics. The goaltending situation, whether it is Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller between the pipes, is a strength for the U.S., and it will need to be. The U.S. is young on the blue line, but extremely mobile and will be a tough team in transition. The size this team boasts up front will also be a big advantage throughout the tournament. The U.S. doesn't match the depth of some of the other top teams, but it's not far off and is very capable of making a run at the gold medal.

Slovakia

2010 Finish: Fourth

Three Key Players: Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, Jaroslav Halak

Quick Preview: Recent injuries to Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky put a dent in Slovakia's depth, but this is a team that has beaten the odds before. With Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line and Marian Hossa leading a forward crop that includes exciting youngstars Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco, anything is possible, but it is an uphill battle. Jaroslav Halak will have to have the tournament of his life to keep the Slovakians in the hunt late. This team may have some extra motivation in 2014, though, as they play with the late Pavol Demitra in their hearts. He was the leading scorer for Slovakia at the 2010 Olympics and remains a favorite son of his home country even after his death in the tragic Lokomotiv plane crash. This is a team that lacks the depth of talent of others, but will be a tough out for whoever they face in the knockout stage.

Slovenia

2010 Finish: Did not qualify

Three Key Players: Anze Kopitar, Jan Mursak, David Rodman

Quick Preview: Slovenia may just be happy to be there. Knowing that even winning a single game would be a huge accomplishment, Slovenia is a team with nothing to lose. Highlighted by its brightest star in Anze Kopitar, whose father is the team's coach, the Slovenians will play with pride, but are unlikely to pose much of a threat. Jan Mursak has some North American experience and David Rodman was the team's leading scorer in Olympic qualifying, so they will be worth watching as well.

GROUP B

Canada

2010 Finish: Gold

Three Key Players: Sidney Crosby, Duncan Keith, Whoever's in net

Quick Preview: The Canadians should be the heavy favorites in Sochi as the defending gold medalist. The offensive fire power and the depth on defense make them the best team on paper. There's a good mix of old and young with this club, too, and they'll be fast. The most-talked-about position on this team, however, is goalie. Whether it's Carey Price or Roberto Luongo owning the net for much of the tournament, it's not a huge weakness, but goaltending is where Canada lags behind other countries. The only way Canada doesn't make it to the latter stages of this tournament is if it can't figure out a way through the traps that will be run against them on the big ice or the goaltending is laughably bad. It won't be a cake walk by any means, but this is the best team in the tournament on paper.

Finland

2010 Finish: Bronze

Three Key Players: Tuukka Rask, Petri Kontiola, Teemu Selanne

Quick Preview: Finland may be glad it is the goaltending capitol of the world right now as they have the best trio in the Olympics. They'll need Tuukka Rask to be great in this tournament to have any chance. Losing Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu in the span of 24 hours hurts the scoring depth badly. It puts a lot of responsibility on KHL forward Petri Kontiola to shoulder a heavy offensive burden, while veterans like Teemu Selanne, Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo will have to lean on their experience to help the always scrappy Finns compete. This squad is in tough to be in the mix for gold, but they've seemingly always found a way to hang in to the late stages of these Olympic tournaments.

Norway

2010 Finish: Tenth

Three Key Players: Mats Zuccarello, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Patrick Thoresen

Quick Preview: The Norwegians may have an honest shot at improving on their 10th-place finish from Vancouver. Mats Zuccarello has really come into his own as an NHL player and could be a good source of offense along with 2010's top scorer Patrick Thoresen. The goaltending will obviously be key as well as Norway goes with a very young trio of Lars Haugen, Lars Volden and Steffen Soberg. Norway should be happy if they can get into a favorable qualifier and maybe sneak in the backdoor to the quarterfinals. It's a tall order, but they have a lot of top-level international experience on the roster this time around and will have their eyes on an upset.

Austria

2010 Finish: Did not qualify

Three Key Players: Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner, Michael Raffl

Quick Preview: The best Austria could likely hope for in this tournament is an upset over Norway in the preliminary round, but that may be asking a lot. They do have some proven NHLers including Thomas Vanek, who will likely play a ton up front. Austria's accomplishment came in just making the Olympics, so anything else at this point is a bonus. Expect them to get a big boost from having Vanek and Michael Grabner in the lineup, which is something the Austrians don't often have the advantage ofin international tournaments. It still probably will be a tough couple of days for this club.

GROUP C

Sweden

2010 Finish: Fifth

Three Key Players: Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson, Nicklas Backstrom

Quick Preview: Looking to erase a disappointing fifth-place finish in 2010, the Swedes will have to go for gold without Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen, which represent two big veteran losses. That said, Henrik Lundqvist has the potential to steal some games for this team and he has a solid defense in front of him. There's skill and speed throughout the lineup, making Sweden one of the top competitors for the gold medal in 2014. They'll need a few of the younger players to step up to fill the void left by Sedin's offense in particular, but this roster is built with the ability to succeed on big ice. They'll be dangerous, especially if Lundqvist has his best.

Czech Republic

2010 Finish: Seventh

Three Key Players: Jaromir Jagr, David Krejci, Ondrej Pavelec

Quick Preview: The Czechs have a lot of experience on this team, but there is valid concern that they left too much offense home by not adding Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata to this roster. They'll lean on old standbys Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved some, but will need to get a lot out of younger players like Jakub Voracek, David Krejci and Martin Hanzal. The biggest factor in the Czechs' competitiveness, however, is goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who has been less than stellar in the NHL this season, though has shown some moderate improvement after a coaching change in Winnipeg. Will they have enough scoring to get by? It's a big question and they have to answer quickly with the opening game against Sweden.

Switzerland

2010 Finish: Eighth

Three Key Players: Jonas Hiller, Roman Josi, Nino Niederreiter

Quick Preview: The Swiss could be one of those teams that is underestimated and pulls off a few surprises. After advancing all the way to the gold-medal game at the last IIHF World Championship, the Swiss have some momentum and they'll have a better roster in the Olympics (though so will everybody else). Jonas Hiller is the X-factor as he has been playing solid hockey for the NHL's best team this season. Meanwhile, Roman Josi was a star at the Worlds last year and is budding into a terrific NHL defenseman. There will also be a lot of responsibility placed on the shoulders of the promising Nino Niederreiter, who also stood out in last year's World Championship. The Swiss will need some stellar goaltending and a lot of luck to make a deep run, but they should at least be a tough out once the tournament goes to the knockout stage.

Latvia

2010 Finish: Twelfth

Three Key Players: Zemgus Girgensons, Sandis Ozolinsh, Kristers Gudlevskis

Quick Preview: Led by Buffalo Sabres interim head coach Ted Nolan, Latvia is up against a tough task in Sochi, but they have some young talent to lean on. They'll also be hoping for some guidance from experienced stars such as Sandis Ozolinsh, who will play in his third Olympics and has remained solid in the KHL with Dynamo Riga. It will be interesting to see how much they lean on Tampa Bay goalie prospect Kristers Gudlevskis, who did well in World Championship play last year. Getting past qualifying would be a surprise, but Latvia has a fair amount of international experience on this roster.

 
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