February 12, 2014

Swedes, Russians challenge Canada colossus


Bruins Patrice Bergeron (left, with Team Canada in 2010) and Zdeno Chara, middle, represent two of the major challenges to Team USA in the 2014 Olympic tournament, as do Team Sweden and Ranger Carl Hagelin, right. (Getty Images)
 

Here’s a look at Team USA’s 11 competitors in Sochi, alphabetical by group. The U.S. team is in Group A.

Group A

Russia

2010 result: Sixth

Strengths: The Russians have fistfuls of firepower at the forward position, led by the last two winners of the Hart Trophy in Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, alongside Red Wings forward/stickhandling magician Pavel Datsyuk. The perks of being the host nation can’t be discounted, either.

Weaknesses: They’ve got solid NHLers on D (Andrei Markov, Slava Voynov) and in net (Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov), but they don’t stack up in either department to the other perceived contenders. Furthermore, the Russians could be facing crippling pressure if they get off to a slow start in group play from local fans and media.

Prediction: The big ice should benefit the Russians, who are looking to reach the podium for the first time since 2002 in Salt Lake City. If their star forwards bring their A game, it’s hard to imagine that drought continuing.

Slovakia

2010 result: Fourth

Strengths: It might not be an abundance, but the Slovaks do have their share of elite talent with a pair of first-line wingers (Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik), a top-flight defenseman (Zdeno Chara) and a goaltender who has shown he can rise to the occasion in Jaroslav Halak. Leadership and experience, and the proximity to Sochi, should behoove the team as well.

Weaknesses: All 14 Slovakian NHLers made the squad, meaning there are 10 players from European leagues on the roster who haven’t faced the elite level of skill they’re going to see from the likes of Canada and the United States. Getting lumped into Group A with the Russians and U.S. doesn’t help matters, either.

Bruins connection: Chara will be sporting the ‘C’ again. His first crack at captaining his country went better than expected, and he’ll look to repeat that feat in pursuit of his first Olympic medal.

Prediction: The Slovaks aren’t as talented as they were in the Vancouver Games, and their cornerstones aren’t getting any younger. It wouldn’t be a shock to see them put some scares into the favorites, but expecting more than that would be a reach.

Slovenia

2010 result: Did not play

Strengths: The first-line center of a recent Stanley Cup champion is a nice asset to possess, as that’s what Slovenia has in Kings pivot Anze Kopitar, who can be the setup man or make things happen on his own.

Weaknesses: The list of current NHLers begins and ends with Kopitar. In a strange twist, Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, is head coach, but his other son, Gasper — who recently left Europe to join the Kings’ ECHL affiliate — didn’t make the squad.

Predictions: This tournament will be a proud moment for the Kopitars and their countrymen, but they’re bound to get knocked around by fellow Group A members Russia, the U.S. and Slovakia.

Group B

Austria

2010 result: Did not play

Strengths: If one of them is capable of shifting to center, the Austrians could form a pretty potent top line featuring Islanders Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner, along with Flyers rookie Michael Raffl. Unfortunately, there aren’t any household names on the back end, but UMass product Thomas Pock is a seasoned veteran who played in over 100 NHL games.

Weaknesses: Bernhard Starkbaum, the presumed No. 1 netminder, had a 3.74 goals-against average in last year’s World Championship and doesn’t have a great playoff track record during his pro career in Europe.

Prediction: Austria should be able to hold off the Norwegians and nail down third place in its group, but simply qualifying for the tourney will be this team’s biggest achievement.

Canada

2010 result: Gold medal

Strengths: The Canadian roster is so stacked that you’d simply be playing devil’s advocate if you tried arguing it’s not the most talented team in the tournament. The defending champs should prosper from killer chemistry, with plenty of NHL linemates (Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp) expected to be united on the ice in Sochi.

Weaknesses: The only question mark for this club remains between the pipes. Will Roberto Luongo, who backstopped Canada to 2010 glory, get the nod again, or is Montreal’s Carey Price going to take over?

Bruins connection: After playing a small yet pivotal role during the Vancouver Games, Patrice Bergeron will be looking to help Canada win gold again. The B’s multitalented center will be counted on to win faceoffs and kill penalties.

Prediction: With a juggernaut offense and a defense full of NHL All-Stars, I’m not sure if it matters who’s in net for the Canadians. Anything can happen in a short tournament, but their dynamic depth will be nearly impossible to contend with.

Finland

2010 result: Bronze medal

Strengths: They say great goaltending wins championships. That bodes well for the Finns, who have a glut of grade-A netminders on their roster in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.

Weaknesses: Finland’s welcoming a good number of first-time Olympians, including youngsters Mikael Granlund and Olli Maatta, but a few of the elder statesmen who have been key cogs in years past are no longer the players they used to be — chief among them being Teemu Selanne.

Bruins connection: Rask is expected to be the No. 1 netminder in his first Olympic foray. He proved he can thrive on the big stage last spring, helping Boston advance to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Prediction: The Finns might have the best goaltending in the bunch, but I’m not sure that’s enough to overcome an aging and not overly spectacular defensive corps, or a lack of a prime-time goal scorer up front.

Norway

2010 result: 10th

Strengths: The Norwegians have just one NHLer on their roster, but he’s a pretty darn good one. Undersized forward Mats Zuccarello, who ranked second on the Rangers with 35 points through 50 games, should be able to take advantage of all the open ice in Sochi and make a big impact on the scoresheet.

Weaknesses: There simply aren’t enough proven commodities in the lineup for the Norwegians, who lost by a combined score of 14-1 in their games against the U.S. and Canada in 2010.

Bruins connection: Lars Volden, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL draft by Boston, is among the three goalies on the roster. He had a 6.12 goals-against average in two games at the worlds last year.

Prediction: Norway will again have to take a beating from the Canadians in group play. Outside of a slight possible upset over Austria, their odds of winning even one game are slim.

Group C

Czech Republic

2010 result: Seventh

Strengths: The Czechs will be powered by an array of familiar names up front, with a nice balance of experienced vets (Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Elias) and talented newbies (Ondrej Palat, Jakob Voracek). Their D isn’t flashy, but it has a decent blend of toughness (Radko Gudas) and power-play prowess (Marek Zidlicky).

Weakness: Ondrej Pavelec is the cream of the crop between the pipes, and that’s not a good sign, based on his poor career numbers in the NHL for the Jets. He’s fared well in the World Championship, but that’s against far inferior competition than the Olympics.

Bruins connection: David Krejci will partake in his second Olympics, likely centering the top line. Krejci’s proven remarkably clutch during Boston’s two runs to the Stanley Cup Final and will be counted on to do the same in this tournament.

Prediction: The Czechs should finish in the top two in Group C behind Sweden, but from there they’ll have to get Pavelec to take his game to another level and production from their nucleus of 40-somethings to do any damage.

Latvia

2010 result: 12th

Strengths: Longtime NHL defensemen Sandis Ozolinsh, 41, will lead a squad that features 20-year-old Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons and a pair of former Bruins in Kaspars Daugavins and Martins Karsums up front. Kristers Gudlevskis should see time in net after an impressive start (10-5-2, 2.48 GAA) in his rookie season with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.

Weaknesses: Like many of their European brethren, the talent dropoff from the teams with a legitimate chance to medal to ones like Latvia is incredibly significant.

Prediction: Girgensons has a bright future but he hasn’t reached the point where he could carry a team, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have the supporting cast around him to make Latvia anything more than an afterthought.

Sweden

2010 result: Fifth

Strengths: The Swedes are blessed with an overflowing amount of skill up front. From slick setup men (Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom) to gifted goal scorers (Henrik Zetterberg, Alex Steen), Tre Kronor will have no trouble finding twine.

Weaknesses: Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t been his Vezina-worthy self for the Rangers this season and is a bit of a concern going in. Furthermore, the Swedes have a number of players who have battled injuries this season.

Bruins connection: Speaking of Swedes who have been banged up, first-year Bruin Loui Eriksson — who’s suffered two concussions in 2013-14 — will be skating in his second Olympics. He scored three goals in three games in Vancouver.

Prediction: The Swedes have a fairly easy go of it in group play, setting themselves up nicely. They’ll have to beat one of the other three powerhouses if they want to medal. Lundqvist’s play will decide how high they can climb up the podium.

Switzerland

2010 result: Eighth

Strengths: The Swiss have more NHL talent than they did four years ago, thanks to the blossoming of youngsters such as Nino Niederreiter, Damien Brunner and Roman Josi. They’ll be riding an uber-confident Jonas Hiller between the pipes, as the Ducks netminder was 23-5-4 through 33 games.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, Niederreiter and Brunner are the lone NHL forwards in this group. Keeping up with the offensive pace of Group C foes Sweden and the Czech Republic will be a tall task.

Prediction: Switzerland’s D and goaltending will keep them in games, but they’re going to be spending more time in the defensive zone than the attacking one on most nights.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ

Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com