Olympic Hockey Preview and Predictions [2014]

It never gets old.

Every four years, NBC, ESPN, and every other media outline breaks out the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” video as the Unites States Men’s Hockey team comes together to compete for a gold medal. The U.S. has achieved only two silvers since that golden run 34 years ago, so there really isn’t a whole lot else to celebrate when it comes to the Winter Olympics’ premier team sport. Still, that’s the goal each and every time the players pull on those “USA” jerseys, and once again this year the country’s sports eyes will be set squarely on the shoulders of the 23 men selected to represent American in Sochi. Will there be another “miracle” at the hands of the Russians? Will the host country finally exact revenge on the nation that helped end the greatest hockey dynasty ever? Will our neighbors to the north defend their championship from 2010 and finally play well on a foreign continent? Or will one of the other countries rise up and claim the mantle as the globe’s best hockey-playing group? With all of those questions, it’s time to delve into the column I enjoy writing the most and the one I wish I could write more often. Welcome to the 2014 Olympic Men’s Hockey preview!

Before we begin, allow me to delve a little more deeply into the three most interesting teams mentioned above:

Strength: Have you looked at the roster? This isn’t just a loaded roster of NHL players, this is a loaded roster of NHL superstars. There are guys who will be fourth-liners and healthy scratches that are the best or second-best players on NHL teams currently in position for a playoff berth (Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, and Patrick Marleau all come to mind as players who will probably not be part of the top-two lines for head coach Mike Babcock and are top-liners for playoff teams). This offense will be the single best unit of any team at the games, and as they showed in the quarterfinals against Russia four years ago, they can explode for upwards of 8 goals at just about any time.
Weakness: Shockingly, it’s probably still goaltending. As I wrote last month, Roberto Luongo was the biggest reason the Canadians captured gold on home ice in 2010, and will still be the position that dictates whether or not they can reclaim that podium spot. Carey Price is expected to see as much, if not more, ice time as the hero from four years ago, and one of them will have to match Luongo’s 2010 performance for Canada to remain the favorite.
Intangibles: Between Mike Babcock, Sidney Crosby, and Jonathan Toews, this is clearly a group that is led by guys who know how to win. Add in the pressure from their homeland to finally perform well somewhere outside North America, though, and the best storyline from the tournament might be analyzing which of the competing factors pressing on Team Canada will ultimately win out.

Strengths: Alex Ovechkin. Say what you want about Crosby being the best player in the game right now – and he probably is – but the most difficult player to stop for opposing teams? That award is far and away Ovechkin’s right now. He has 40 goals in the NHL season and has been waiting his entire career for this exact moment, and the chance to play the Olympics on home ice. Speaking of home ice… would you want to be the referee to make a decisive call against the Russians in this competition? Just remember that question as the playoff round begins…
Weakness: Like Canada, there is tremendous pressure on this group to perform well. They haven’t captured the gold medal since the final break-up of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team, and now finally have a team on paper, with Sergei Bobrovski solidifying the goaltending position, that could win it all. That’s not an easy weight to carry around for nine days.
Intangibles: Give a warm welcome back to Ilya Kovalchuk. The former NHL star who “retired” from the Devils abruptly in the offseason comes back to the international stage, bringing with him his wicked shot and playmaking ability. If he’s still the same player he was in New Jersey – and Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin are close to healthy – then the Russians could easily make a deep run.

Strengths: This will be, without any question, the grittiest team in the tournament. Comprised of a smaller, faster version of the tenacity that the 1996 U.S. World Cup of Hockey team used to win that tournament, the formula and mentality is still the same – wear down the opposition and take advantage of mistakes, especially late in the games. Ryan Miller will need to be similar Mike Richter from that ’96 team – or similar to his own self four years ago – to make sure the Americans stay close into the third period, but no opposing coach wants anything to do with a tie game with five minutes to go against this group.
Weaknesses: If Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane aren’t scoring, this will be a short run. Team USA isn’t loaded with goal-scoring snipers a la Russia, Canada, or even Sweden. Sure, guys like David Backes, James van Riemsdyk, and Zach Parise are all capable of lighting it up, but they’re not true “goal scorers” like Kessel and Kane. There’s a chance this offensive unit could turn cold, leading to a quick exit.

Intangibles: In a short tournament, sometimes team chemistry isn’t considered as important as pure talent, but I think that view is short-sighted. It’s the reason Chris Kunitz made Canada – specifically to play with Crosby. No roster, though, has a better unitive makeup than the Americans. Most of these guys are around the same age and came up through the American development program together, so there’s a familiarity within this locker room that probably isn’t as prevalent with other groups. That could mean something in a one-game elimination.

And now, on to the actual tournament, which features an interesting format. There are twelve teams broken into three groups of four teams each for the preliminary round. Every team will make the playoff round, with four teams earning first-round byes into the quarterfinals. That means one second-place team will be able to avoid having to play four playoff games to win the gold – and that puts some major emphasis on the games between the top two teams in each group. Barring any major upsets, the winner of Russia-U.S. will win group A, the winner of Canada-Finland will win group B, and the winner of Czech-Sweden will win group C. After that, a goal differential tiebreaker may have to be used to determine which of the three second-place teams that lost the matchups outlined above will receive that final first-round bye – a tiebreaker I think will have a major impact on who wins this tournament.

Group A
Predicted results:
Thu, Feb 13 – Russia over Slovenia
Thu, Feb 13 – USA over Slovakia
Sat, Feb 15 – Russia over USA
Sat, Feb 15 – Slovakia over Slovenia
Sun, Feb 16 – USA over Slovenia
Sun, Feb 16 – Russia over Slovakia

Group B
Predicted results:
Thu, Feb 13 – Finland over Austria
Thu, Feb 13 – Canada over Norway
Fri, Feb 14 – Finland over Norway
Fri, Feb 14 – Canada over Austria
Sun, Feb 16 – Canada over Finland
Sun, Feb 16 – Austria over Norway

Group C
Predicted results:
Wed, Feb 12 – Sweden over Czech
Wed, Feb 12 – Switzerland over Latvia
Fri, Feb 14 – Czech over Latvia
Fri, Feb 14 – Sweden over Switzerland
Sat, Feb 15 – Sweden over Latvia
Sat, Feb 15 – Czech over Switzerland

So you may have noticed that I didn’t pick any major upsets here – Russia, Canada, and Sweden all win their groups, while the United States, Finland, and Czech Republic all go 2-1 to finish second. I think this is a very top-heavy tournament, and those six teams should all be considered locks for the quarterfinals, along with most likely Slovakia (who I think is better than the Czechs but didn’t get a good draw). I expect Austria and Switzerland to meet in the 8-9 game, while Norway, Slovenia, and Latvia draw the more difficult “power” teams in the qualification round. As a result, my bracket draws up like this:

1) Sweden
8) Switzerland
9) Austria

4) Finland
5) United States
12) Norway

2) Canada
7) Slovakia
10) Latvia

3) Russia
6) Czech Republic
11) Slovenia

My reasoning for seeding the teams as they are stems from the fact that Sweden, in my opinion, has the easiest draw, since the Czech team is an older team that isn’t as deep as they have been in years past, meaning they should have the easiest road to three wins. I could see Russia struggling with both the U.S. and Slovakia, and while those two should benefit from maybe forcing overtime or a shootout and get an extra point to help with seeding, that would in turn hurt the Russian seed. Canada should win their bracket fairly easily, too, and earn the two seed, but because Austria and Norway aren’t as good as Slovakia, I do expect the Fins to earn the last bye over the Americans.

From there, let’s assume that all seeds hold true in the first two rounds except for the Americans knocking off Finland. That would set up a semifinal round featuring the four teams I evaluate as the best in the tournament – Sweden vs. United States and Canada vs. Russia. While this draw sets up favorably for the U.S. squad, I just don’t see them hanging with Sweden on the bigger ice surface. Add in the Henrik Lundqvist factor – a guy who always plays well and is probably the only goalie in the tournament that I would consider better than either Miller or Jonathan Quick – and the Americans will fall short of the finals. Likewise, Canada would probably feel great about its chances against Russia in a do-or-die game after that 8-1 quarterfinal drubbing four years ago, but this time it’ll be the Russians with home ice, and a much better goaltender in Bobrovski in net, and I think Ovechkin scores a late goal to win it for the home team.

As anticlimactic as it might seem, Canada playing the Unites States in a “winner gets a medal, loser gets shutout” game would be must-see TV in my hockey-viewing book. Sure, I’d love to see that be the gold medal game, but I just can’t get around that this is Russia’s tournament to win. With that in mind, though, it pains me to have to write that I think the Americans miss the medal stand this time around. They are a very good, young team, and with Quick in next four years from now without any debate they should be considered the hands-down favorite in with in South Korea – you know, assuming the NHL players actually go in 2018 – but this isn’t their year.

Predicted Final Results
Silver: SWEDEN
Bronze: CANADA