As the opening ceremonies ignite in Sochi this week, hockey fans across a dozen nations will find themselves biting their nails as their country battles to bring home the coveted Olympic gold medal. Each country has sent their best and even the weaker squads will fight bitterly for a chance to reach the podium. Nevertheless, there is clearly an established upper echelon among the national hockey teams, and within this elite club the competition promises to be incredibly stiff. Who has the best shot at gold?
Russia has assembled a powerful, high-octane roster that will be out for blood to avenge their quarterfinal loss to Canada in 2010 and win gold on home ice. Alexander Ovechkin leads the way on offence and is backed by the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin. Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Semin headline a solid group of secondary scorers. Russia's team will undoubtedly be dangerous, but what they possess on offence, they lack on defence. There are not many A-list players among their rearguards, while the goaltending tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov is talented but young. If the Russians cannot overwhelm their opponents with a quick-strike attack, their defence is liable to break under pressure. As a result, Russia may only be a sleeper pick to get on the podium this time around.
Sweden is a perennial contender when it comes to international hockey and their Sochi squad is not to be underestimated. Their forward corps includes Henrik Zetterberg, Gabriel Landeskog, Nicklas Backstrom and the infamous Sedin twins — all of them star players in the National Hockey League. Their blueline will be patrolled by Erik Karlsson, Alexander Edler and Niklas Kronwall, also established NHLers. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist is among the best of his kind. Versatile in any situation, the Swedish roster should be a lock to win at least bronze and could very well do better.
The United States took silver in Vancouver 2010, and they are once again an undisputed threat. Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel provide boatloads of explosive offense, while David Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler and James van Riemsdyk are just a few of many awesome secondary scorers. Defenders like Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan Suter will be tough to contend with, and even if they are beaten, one still has to face some of the best netminders in the tournament. Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller and Jimmy Howard are elite, each with the ability to take over entire games. The American roster is absolutely lethal, second perhaps only to one nation.
Canada. No country has a deeper, more expansive pool of hockey talent than Canada. As a result, head coach Mike Babcock is blessed with a platinum mine of options on both sides of the puck. Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews on offence. Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, Drew Doughty, Jay Bouwmeester and P.K. Subban to defend the blueline — and score from it too. Canadian goaltending may be a little weaker than its American counterpart, but with Carey Price, Robert Luongo and Mike Smith, weak is a relative term. The Canadian juggernaut is a force to be reckoned with, capable of adapting to any opponent. On paper, the gold medal is theirs to lose.