By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There are 12 teams in the Olympic ice hockey tournament, but don’t believe for a second that Switzerland, Norway, Latvia, Austria or Slovenia have any chance of advancing to the medal round.
However, there are seven strong teams that have dreams of picking up a medal. Here’s how they break down:
Russia: The home team is motivated to show the world that it can dominate on its home ice. It’s been years since the former Soviet Union has been the dominating bear on the international scene, but with the tournament on its home ice, there will be no excuse for losing.
Alex Ovechkin has been pointing to this tournament since the Russians were dumped in 2010 in Vancouver. He has the opportunity to play with Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, so Ovechkin has to realize that he doesn’t have to do it all by himself.
Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk also adds to the firepower, while Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky give the Russians two potential standouts in goal.
If the team has any weakness, it’s on the blue line. Keep your eye on Ilya Nikulin, who is perhaps the team’s best defenseman.
Canada: The Canadians think it’s their birthright to dominate all hockey competitions. Any time the Canadians lose in international competition, some of the flag wavers up north want to open an investigation.
Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron lead the way up front, and it’s hard to have problems with a defense that is anchored by Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty. However, the goaltending is suspect. Look for Carey Price and Roberto Luongo to divide the time, and both could be disastrous.
United States: When it comes to hockey, the good old USA is often overlooked. While the American produced two of the greatest hockey performances in 1960 (yes, I’m going there) and 1980, Team USA is often looked at as a bunch of overachievers compared to the Canadians and the Russians.
However, the combination of Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel should be able to fill the net, while Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller give the American a much stronger goaltending duo than the Canadians.
Sweden: The Swedes are one of the most highly skilled and fastest teams in the tournament, but they may lack the physicality needed to compete with Canada, the United States, Russia or Slovakia.
In previous Olympics, the Swedes had perhaps the great equalizer in Nicklas Lidstrom, but he retired two years ago. Erik Karlsson is a marvelous offensive defenseman, but he makes a boatload of mistakes in his own end. Henrik Lundqvist has worn the title of the best goaltender in the world for several seasons, but he has not been on top of his game this year.
Finland: This team would have a great chance to win if it hadn’t been done in by injuries. The Finns have lost Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, and that’s a huge blow for a team that does not have a lot of star power on offense.
The key to the Finns surviving is their play on the defensive end. They probably have the best duo of goalies in the tournament in Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi, but they may find themselves under siege because they lack stellar offensive players.
Slovakia: A look back at last year’s Stanley Cup Final revealed that the key to beating the Boston Bruins was taking the puck right at huge defenseman Zdeno Chara and making him work every second he is on the ice. That will be the gameplan in this tournament, because if Big Z is allowed to bang bodies and bomb away with his huge slap shot, the Slovakians could be a force.
Chara’s best buddy on the team is Blackhawks superstar Marian Hossa, who has been hot lately and could carry the team. Hossa’s brother Marcel is also a solid offensive player.
Czech Republic: This is a longshot team that could cause a lot of problems. Players like Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, David Krejci and Tomas Plekanec all have an array of moves that could result in goals by the bunch.
The Czechs will need to score, because their goaltending with Ondrej Pavelec is shaky at best.
1. Russia – Despite the pressure, the home team gets its glory.
2. United States – Once again the bridesmaid.
3. Sweden – Too skilled and too determined.
4. Canada – Woe, Canada or No, Canada. Take your pick.