The NHL takes off for two weeks as hockey fans around the world turn their attention to the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. For some fans, like Islanders fans, it’s a welcome break as they can watch some of the world’s best make up 12 international squads that will fight for gold.
Here, we will take a look at Group C.
The Czech team has a mix of NHLers and international players, but the experience up and down the roster will make this team a difficult out.
And let’s not forget everyone’s favorite ex-NHL player—who, shockingly, wasn’t busy when they called and asked him to suit up for his country—Petr Nedved. (OK, maybe he’s not your favorite ex-NHLer but just hearing Nedved’s name brings back memories of the mid-nineties. Ah, nostalgia).
The Czechs may not be the most fearsome team in the tournament, but they certainly have the players to win a couple games during the group stage. Heck, maybe even an elimination game.
Forwards: Roman Cervenka, Patrik Elias, Michael Frolik, Martin Hanzal, Ales Hemsky, Jaromir Jagr, David Krejci, Milan Michalek, Petr Nedved, Jiri Novotny, Ondrej Palat, Tomas Plekanec, Vladimir Sobotka, Jakub Voracek.
Biggest Strength: Experience. Elias, Jagr and Nedved have all played their fair share of Olympic hockey. With their Hall-of-Fame credentials and international résumés, leadership won’t be in short supply in the Czech dressing room. Or on the ice.
Biggest Weakness: Goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec is the only netminder with NHL experience on the roster, and he hasn’t exactly inspired confidence this season for the Winnipeg Jets. Pavelec currently owns a 2.97 GAA and a .901 SV% in North America; he’ll have to play out of his mind in Sochi to lead the Czech team to a strong showing.
Schedule: Feb. 12 vs. Sweden, Feb. 14 vs. Latvia, Feb. 15 vs. Switzerland
Projected Finish: Fifth place
Latvia earned a berth in the 2014 Olympics by winning Group D in the Olympic prequalification round-robin tournament; they faced Kazakhstan, France, and Great Britain in their group, going 2-0-1 to punch their ticket to Sochi.
Unfortunately for the Latvians, their feel-good story might soon be coming to an end. Without the pedigree of many of the other IIHF clubs in the Olympics, they’ll need a miracle to advance further than the initial elimination round.
Or even to win a game in the group stage.
Forwards: Armands Berzins, Martins Cipulis, Lauris Darzins, Kaspars Daugavins, Zemgus Girgensons, Miks Indrasis, Koba Jass, Martins Karsums, Ronalds Kenins, Vitalijs Pavlovs, Mikelis Redlihs, Janis Sprukts, Juris Stals, Herberts Vasiljevs.
Goalies: Kristers Gudlevskis, Edgars Masalskis, Ervins Mustukovs
Biggest Strength: Um, the letter ‘S,’ maybe? By my count—and admittedly, math isn’t my strong suit—there are only three players on the roster with either a first or a last name that doesn’t end with an ‘S.’ (No, I don’t know where I’m going with this one either.)
Seriously though, with only one NHL player on the roster—Buffalo Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons—every game in this tournament will be a struggle for this Latvian club.
Biggest Weakness: Talent. It seems harsh to say, but when looking at the roster, there isn’t the quality of player on the Latvian team that there is on a Canada or a Russia, for example.
The saving grace for Latvia this Olympics is that they drew arguably the easiest group, meaning…meaning, um…meaning they won’t lose every game 10-0. I guess.
Schedule: Feb. 12 vs. Switzerland, Feb. 14 vs. Czech Republic, Feb. 15 vs. Sweden
Projected Finish: Twelfth
The Swedish team boasts a deep lineup at all three levels: forward, defense, and goaltender. But I guess that’s what happens when a country fields a roster nearly entirely comprised entirely of NHL players.
Hockey fans in the United States will definitely recognize big names like Daniel Alfredsson, Gabriel Landeskog, Alexander Steen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karlsson, Daniel Sedin, and Henrik Lundqvist wearing the traditional yellow-and-blue uniforms in Sochi.
On paper, Sweden occupies the enviable position of Group C favorite, mostly because of its star power throughout the lineup. But, the games aren’t played on paper; and we’re glad that they aren’t.
Forwards: Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Backstrom, Patrik Berglund, Jimmie Ericsson, Loui Eriksson, Johan Franzen, Carl Hagelin, Marcus Johansson, Marcus Kruger, Gabriel Landeskog, Daniel Sedin, Jakob Silfverberg, Alexander Steen, Henrik Zetterberg
Biggest Strength: Defense. And when I say “defense,” I kind of mean “offense.” Just bear with me for a second.
Sweden’s blue line features some of the NHL’s top defensemen in Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson, and Niklas Kronwall. But those players aren’t known only for their ability to make life difficult on opposing forwards below the hash marks.
The transition from defense to offense on a given play likely won’t occur as quickly for any other country as it will for Sweden. Combine Kronwall’s hitting with Karlsson’s puck carrying and Ekman-Larsson’s shot and the Team Sweden odd-man rushes basically start themselves.
Biggest Weakness: Assumption of victory. (Remember, these games aren’t played on paper.)
If the Swedes have one thing they’ll have to overcome—at least, in the group stage—it’ll be the false belief that they can coast through their first three games and breeze into the elimination round as the top-seeded team from Group C.
While the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Switzerland aren’t exactly international hockey heavyweights on par with Canada, Russia, or the United States, they can certainly pose a threat to Sweden in the early going if the Swedes look past them.
Schedule: Feb. 12 vs. Czech Republic, Feb. 14 vs. Switzerland, Feb. 15 vs. Latvia
Projected Finish: Silver
Team Switzerland has greatest possibility for Isles fan schadenfreude, since former New York Islanders Nino Niederreiter and Mark Streit will take to the ice in Sochi wearing the red-and-white Swiss sweaters.
Which isn’t to say that Islanders fans will be rooting against the Swiss club wholeheartedly, but seeing Switzerland fail to succeed wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world as far as Long Island residents are concerned.
Aside from Niederreiter and Streit, Switzerland boasts some more NHL talent in the form of Damien Brunner, Rafael Diaz, Roman Josi, and Jonas Hiller. And with Hiller—and his 25-9-4 NHL record this season—in net, the Swiss could be the surprise team of Group C.
Forwards: Andres Ambühl, Matthias Bieber, Simon Bodenmann, Damien Brunner, Luca Cunti, Ryan Gardner, Denis Hollenstein, Simon Moser, Nino Niederreiter, Martin Plüss, Kevin Romy, Reto Suri, Morris Trachsler, Roman Wick
Biggest Strength: Stealth. Flying under the radar heading into Sochi—not considered a gold medal threat by oddsmakers—might work to Switzerland’s advantage in this tournament.
There are no superstars on the roster, no big names with global marketing power; but, that doesn’t mean there aren’t capable players on this club.
With Sweden and the Czech Republic vying for the top spot in the group according to general perception, the Swiss might be able to sneak out of the group stage with a couple of wins if things break the right way for them.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of firepower. If the Swiss are going to make a dark-horse medal run, they’ll need to overcome a potential scoring issue. Without names like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, or Anže Kopitar on their roster, Switzerland will likely have to rely on stellar goaltending from Hiller.
Because without a clear-cut offensive star, the Swiss will likely have trouble scoring. Which is kind of important in hockey.
Schedule: Feb. 12 vs. Latvia, Feb. 14 vs. Sweden, Feb. 15 vs. Czech Republic
Projected Finish: Seventh
That wraps up our 2014 Winter Olympic Hockey preview. Enjoy the games, everyone.
Follow me on Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) so we can talk about how John Tavares being a winger on Team Canada’s third line means that life is unfair for literally all of the other countries in this tournament.