The Winter Olympics officially begin today in Sochi, Russia as the torch will be lit, signaling the start of the mostly amateur tournament.
Where the lack of amateurs stand out the most, however, is in the sport of ice hockey. Each of the 12 nations represented in the three four team groups will have their NHL representation (some obviously more than others) trying to bring home one of the three medals up for grabs.
Yesterday, we gave you a primer for the sport and how it differs from its National Hockey League counterpart, getting you ready for our group previews.
Today, we begin with group A:
The USA team, put together by general manager David Poile, will be trying to get over the painful sting of what happened at the 2010 games, when Canada’s Sidney Crosby scored in overtime to send the Americans home with what can only be classified as a disappointing silver medal.
With a sketchy selection process that some feel was determined before the season even started, notables left off the roster include the Islanders Kyle Okposo, Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan and Phoenix’s Keith Yandle. The Americans head into Sochi carrying 14 forwards, 8 defensemen and 3 goaltenders.
Forwards : David Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel, T.J. Oshie, Max Pacioretty, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Paul Stastny, Derek Stepan, James van Riemsdyk, Blake Wheeler
BIGGEST STRENGTH : Speed. The Americans will have tons of it on a larger ice surface than back home in Canada and the United States. They have to use that to their advantage to spread out opposing defenses and really utilize the width of the ice from board to board.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS : Defense. Everyone was astonished that Yandle was left off the squad. Conversely, since his omission, his play in Phoenix has declined steadily. Jack and Erik Johnson, silver medalists in 2010 were also told to stay home. Faulk, Fowler, Martin and even Orpik are all huge question marks in this tournament.
SCHEDULE : Feb 13 (7:30am) Slovakia : Feb 15 (7:30am) Russia : Feb 16 (7:30am) Slovenia
PROJECTED FINISH : Bronze Medal
One of the scariest teams in the tournament, the Russians are built around dynamic offensive talent and can fill the net with pucks seemingly at will. If they can get the defensive support and goaltending, they could contend for the gold medal. We also get to witness the return of Ilya Kovalchuk, who left the NHL for the KHL last summer.
Never underestimate a team playing at home with a score to settle, that being a humiliating 7-3 defeat to team Canada in 2010 at the Vancouver games. Plus the uncertainty of what Vladimir Putin might have in store for them if they were to lose.
Forwards: Artem Anisimov, Pavel Datsyuk, Denis Kokarev, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nikolai Kulemin, Evgeni Malkin, Valeri Nichushkin, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Popov, Alexander Radulov, Sergei Soin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexei Tereshenko, Viktor Tikhonov.
BIGGEST STRENGTH : Offense. With what looks to a young and inexperienced defense, the Russians might have to outscore teams to win. The larger ice surface suits them more perfectly than any other team in the tournament.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS : Defense. As with their American counterparts, defense is going to hold the answer to Russia’s medal hopes. Not much experience back there after the Canadiens’ Markov and that can hurt them tremendously in the quarter-finals.
SCHEDULE : Feb 13 (7:30am) Slovenia : Feb 15 (7:30am) USA : Feb 16 7:30am (Slovakia)
PROJECTED FINISH : Fourth Place
Team Slovakia will not be able to survive in this group with USA and Russia. With the current tournament sending the three division winners plus one wild card team to the quarter finals with a bye, they will be playing a lower level one game elimination to even advance for a chance at a medal.
They do have some NHL talent on the roster, with Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara leading the way. However, Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky will not be participating, both due to injury. The Visnovsky news was very troubling for the Slovak general manager due to him now back playing with the Islanders. He planned to reach out to Garth Snow today about getting the Islanders GM to change his mind.
BIGGEST STRENGTH : Goaltending. Jaroslav Halak is more than capable of stealing games, especially when is playing at his highest level. Unfortunately, that has not been so this year with the St.Louis Blues and given his pending free agency status, his mind might not be 100% in this tournament.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS : Comparative talent level. There is talent on this team but comparative to the others in the group, not enough to compete in a 3 game round robin. Sure, they could surprise like the Americans did in 1980, but I wouldn’t count on it.
SCHEDULE : Feb 13 (7:30am) USA : Feb 15 (3am) Slovenia : Feb 16 (7:30am) Russia
PROJECTED FINISH : Eighth place
The most interesting development out of Team Slovenia was that Anze Kopitar was chosen to represent his country while his brother Gasper was not. Which is truly odd when you consider the team is coached by their father, Matjaz Kopitar.
In other words, when that is THE story, you unfortunately are not destined to have much success at the games.
Forwards: Bostjan Golicic, Ziga Jeglic, Anze Kopitar, Anze Kuralt, Jan Mursak, Ales Music, Ziga Pance, Tomaz Razingar, David Rodman, Marcel Rodman, Robert Sabolic, Rok Ticar, Jan Urbas, Miha Verlic.
Defensemen: Blaz Gregorc, Sabahudin Kovacevic, Ales Kranjc, Ziga Pavlin, Klemen Pretnar, Mitja Robar, Matic Podlipnik, Andrej Tavzelj.
Goaltenders: Luka Gracnar, Andrej Hocevar, Robert Kristan.
BIGGEST STRENGTH : Role. The only real strength Slovenia will have is coming in with no pressure and absolutely no expectations. They might be comfortable playing spoiler and coming up with an upset or two.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS : Experience. Only Kopitar has extensive NHL experience. That will definitely hurt in a group that is loaded with it otherwise.
SCHEDULE : Feb 13 (7:30am) Russia : Feb 15 (3am) Slovenia : Feb 16 (7:30am) USA
PROJECTED FINISH : Eleventh
We hope you enjoyed our peek at group A of the mens Olympic hockey tournament. Be on the lookout for group B and C previews coming soon from the great staff at Eyes On Isles.