With the 2014 Sochi Olympics set to start in a matter of days, we figured it would be a great idea to get ready a couple of guides to watching the games, starting with hockey. As hockey is one of the major sports represented (and the greatest sport in the world) we figured to dedicate one section to it. Here’s a breakdown of story lines, players to watch, and a few other important things.
On the men’s side, the last winter games set in Vancouver in 2010 featured a great tournament and one that saw Team USA fight all the way to a silver medal in an exhilarating gold-medal match against the heavily favored Canadian team. The game, which featured a game-tying goal by Zach Parise with 25 seconds left in regulation, was a nail-biter all the way until Sidney Crosby’s game-winner in overtime.
No doubt Team Canada expects to medal once again at the Sochi Olympics as they are considered one of the favorites early on. Team USA on the other hand is going into the tournament much like they did four years ago in Vancouver with many doubters, although another podium for them is not out of the question. The problem Team USA and captain Zach Parise will have to deal with, however, is the sheer amount of talent on some of the other heavyweights including Sweden, Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic.
The men’s competition starts on Feb. 12 and goes all the way until the gold medal game Feb. 23. Here’s a complete schedule listing. Just one thing to keep in mind, all times are for Sochi, which means those of us on the west coast are 12 hours behind (nine-hour difference for the east coast). I hope you have plenty of coffee ready to go for the next few weeks, especially for those who want to watch the final which is 4 a.m. Pacific.
Also, for those unfamiliar with the sport internationally, the game is played on a larger rink and the rules do not allow fighting, making for a much faster pace and less physical game than those in North America are used to seeing. This is one of the main reasons some sure-fire guys have been left of their respective squads. Here’s a quick breakdown of each of them.
Some top names from Russia include Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk along with a bunch of players from the Russian KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), known as the second-best hockey league in the world behind only the NHL. Offense is the name of the game for the Russian squad, although they do have some holes on defense. They may be able to cover some of that up though considering they have a great goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky who won the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s top goaltender last season. It will also be interesting to see how they fair under the pressure of home-ice.
The Slovaks are led by their captain and arguably the best defender in the NHL in Zdeno Chara. The 6’7” defenseman is even bigger on skates, but the fact he is playing on bigger ice may hurt him. Still, Slovakia might be one of those dark horses with a good mix of All-World talent in Chara and Marian Hossa while also boasting up and comers such as Tomas Tatar. Defensively they are much more solid than the Russian squad, and St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been great in net for them all season.
Slovenia brings to Sochi a squad with one NHLer in centerman Anze Kopitar, as well as a lot of pride with this being their first Olympic games for the ice hockey team. They are far and away the fourth team in this group, but that won’t stop them from knowing they belong.
The American side is very good from a depth perspective and are led by captain Zach Parise. This year the team focused on building a complete team rather than just filling it with All-Stars, thus a few big names were left out including Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks and Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes. Whether that pays off will be yet to be determined, but with the Americans possessing so few elite scoring threats, both snubs have to be questioned heavily.
Still, the US squad features two great goaltenders in Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller as well as San Jose’s own Joe Pavelski who is third in the NHL in goals right now and will center one of the team’s top two lines. Also on the roster are forward Patrick Kane and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter, who will anchor a strong defensive lineup that mixes offensively talented and shutdown defenseman alike.
The Austrian team is headlined by Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner along with the only other NHL player in Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl. Most other players come from the Austrian league, and will have trouble with the top-tier talent at the Olympics.
The early favorite of the tournament is led by the world’s best player in Sidney Crosby. Behind him is a plethora of skill and talent unmatched by any other squad, and that’s without guys like Martin St. Louis, Claude Giroux, and San Jose’s Joe Thornton on this year’s squad. There were quite a few questionable choices, but with such a high level of talent and a large pool to draw from, that was bound to happen. In fact, they could have easily made a B squad that could compete for gold.
The Canadians featured two players from the San Jose Sharks including winger Patrick Marleau and shutdown defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Marleau was most likely an add because of his ability to score and play solid two-way hockey form the wing, while Vlasic is an up-and-coming defensive defenseman, something that is becoming rare in today’s NHL. The defense is led by Duncan Keith and Shea Weber while offensively that list features Corey Perry, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf, and John Tavares. They have a strong shot to defend their gold, that’s for sure.
The Finnish squad has arguably the goaltending best trio in the Olympics, but unfortunately for them only one can be on the ice at a time. Still, with a stable including Boston’s Tuuka Rask and San Jose’s own Antti Niemi, scoring on Finland won’t be easy for anyone.
Add in the experienced guys such as Teemu Selanne who is in his sixth Olympics and Olli Jokinen to youngsters Olli Maatta and Jussi Jokinen and you have a team poised for the podium. They are definitely not favorites although they sit in the same segment of the rankings as the US do where they may not medal but are certainly expecting to. It definitely helps they got a pretty good group and are looking for at least 6 points in order to secure a top-four spot to reap the benefits of the bye.
Norway’s Mats Zucarello is the lone NHLer on the team although there are a few guys who have previous NHL experience. Norway has a better team than most would think including a few strong offensive weapons, one of which is Zucarello to go along with Patrick Thoreson. They may not be at the same level as others in the group, but look for them to possibly do some damage in the elimination stage against a team who ends up looking too far ahead in the Sochi Olympics.
Latvia is led by former NHL player Sandis Ozolinsh, a name many Sharks fans will recognize from back in the day. He was originally drafted by San Jose and still holds the team records for most goals and points in a season for a defenseman.
The Latvian team will have a lot of work to do and is not expected to go far, however this is the Olympics and crazier things have happened. Still, they will be in tough shape after the group stages and will have to dig deep to get anywhere in the elimination stages.
The Czechs will once again be led by Jaromir Jagr along with a host of other NHL and KHL players which includes Petr Nedved. Some other names include Tomas Kaberle, Patrick Elias, Ales Hemsky and David Krejci. There is definitely something to be desired on the defensive end and their goaltending is their biggest question mark, but they have an outside shot to make the top three in this tournament if everything goes according to plan for them.
While there has been plenty of talk about Canada being one of the early favorites in Sochi many seemed to have forgetten about Sweden. They boast immense offensive talent led by the Sedin Twins (Daniel and Henrik), Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson… the list goes on. That offensive talent is just as prominent on the blue-line with guys like Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The rest of the defense can hold their own as well, and with Henrik Lundqvist in net it’s gold or bust for the Swedes.
The Swiss are another dark horse after coming in second place in the 2013 IIHF Championships last year. Their style of smart, defensively sound hockey gives them a chance night in and night out, and with Jonas Hiller manning the net could be poised for the podium. They will still have an uphill battle though, especially in a group with Sweden and the Czech Republic which could hurt their chances in the second stage of the tournament.
On the women’s side both Team USA and Team Canada have a bitter hate for each other and are the two clear-cut favorites for gold at the Sochi Olympics. And when I saw bitter, I mean “we hate your guts and are willing to beat you to a bloody pulp so you can’t play hockey anymore,” which is pretty much unheard of at the international level. Just look at the video below.
This was not the first time this has happened either, and I wouldn’t be totally surprised if something similar happens again.
Meghan Duggan leads the US team as captain with four goals in five games during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics under her belt. Anchoring the blue-line is Megan Bozek who was almost a point per game player (47 goals, 99 assists, 146 points in 157 games) through her four-year college career at the University of Minnesota.
The women’s competition starts earlier than the men’s, on Feb. 8, and their two medal games are on Feb. 20. Also, it features only eight teams rather than the 12 in the men’s tournament.
Both the men’s and women’s teams should fair well in the tournament, although the men’s side has a bigger hill to climb due to stiffer competition. Still, both squads have a shot at gold although for the women’s side anything but will be a failure. Either way, be sure to support team USA (or whoever you root for) as well as your four San Jose Sharks Olympians in Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Antti Niemi.