U.S., Canada Headline Olympic Hockey Favorites

The NHL season gets put on a temporary hiatus at the end of this week. The focus of all hockey fans and most of the world will shift to Sochi, Russia as the 2014 Olympics begin. The tournament starts at 12:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, February 12 and concludes at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, February 23. Here is everything you need to know about the teams involved and some predictions about what will unfold.

GROUP A:Russia – The host team hopes to give the hometown crowd something to celebrate as this team is loaded up front with top-tier NHL talent, including Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk. What may be the team’s downfall is their defense, which is headlined by Andrei Markov and Slava Voynov. In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky looks to take the top spot with Semyon Varlamov as a quality backup.

Slovakia – The Slovaks are a talented team mixed with homegrown players as well as many NHLers. They will look to goalie Jaroslav Halak in between the pipes to keep them in close games. Their defense will be anchored by defenseman Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky, who is just recovering from a concussion. On offense, they hope that both Marian and Marcel Hossa can work with other NHL talent including Michal Handzus, Tomas Kopecky and potentially Marian Gaborik.

Slovenia – Featuring just one player from the NHL, Slovenia has its work cut out as they head to Sochi to face some of the top talent in the world. Forward Anze Kopitar is the lone NHLer who hopes to inspire his team to pull off an upset in the preliminary round against tough competition.

United States – After falling just short of their aspirations in Vancouver in 2010, the boys in red, white and blue look to add a gold medal to their repertoire this year. Anchored by veteran Ryan Miller in net, the Americans also boast a strong but young defense with guys like Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan Suter providing examples as perfect two-way defenseman. Up front, the United States looks to captain Zach Parise and the other veterans to help usher in five new forwards.

GROUP B:Austria – The Austrians are looked upon as one of the weaker teams in their group as they boast just three current NHLers. Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner look to bring their team chemistry from the New York Islanders to Sochi as they will be joined on a line by Michael Raffl. Thomas Pock also provides some NHL experience on the blue line for this young and inexperienced team.

Canada – The Canadians are viewed upon by most as the favorites to defend their gold medal; what’s not to like about this team? Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews look to help new members Jamie Benn, Matt Duchene and John Tavares adjust to international competition. The defense has only three returners and will rely on young defenders in Alex Pietrangelo and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Roberto Luongo is the starter in goal with Carey Price as a strong backup.

Finland – The Finnish turned many heads in 2010, taking the Bronze medal, and look to shock the world again. In goal, the team has two of the best netminders in the game in Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi. Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen are veterans on the blue line and hope to work with 19 year-old Olli Maatta. Up front, Teemu Selanne will play in his sixth Olympic games and is joined by talented forwards in Valtteri Filppula and Tuomo Ruutu.

Norway – After last Olympics, Mats Zuccarello earned a job in the NHL and has done an unbelievable job with the opportunity. With this year’s Olympics coming up, the world looks to see if they can find another Zuccarello on the team. Zuccarello, more affectionately known as “The Hobbit,” will lead a team of non-NHLers in a difficult group.

GROUP C: Czech Republic – The Czechs hope to capitalize in what is considered one of the easier groups in the tournament. With Ondrej Pavelec in goal, the defense for the Czechs includes Ladislav Smid and Marek Zidlicky, with former NHLer Tomas Kaberle joining them. Veterans Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and Milan Michalek hope to bring in Ales Hemsky and David Krejci into the mix.

Latvia – Former NHLer Sandis Ozolinsh will lead the Latvians into a group that is inexperienced and has little NHL talent. Ozolinsh is joined by young Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons who has been promising this season. The Latvians are not expecting to accomplish much in the Olympics and hope to play spoiler.

Sweden – After a Gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics, the Swedish hope to make their way back on the podium. Henrik Lundqvist will be the team’s anchor in goal as his play has picked up recently. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Erik Karlsson are two defensemen who can play two-way games for the team. The Swedes will also run up the scoreboard with the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, joined by talented wingers in Alex Steen and Henrik Zetterberg.

Switzerland – Goalie Jonas Hiller will get the start in goal for the Swiss, who look to pull off an upset and sneak their way past the preliminary round. They are sprinkled with NHL talent on the blue line, including Roman Josi and Mark Streit. Up front, Damien Brunner looks to continue his strong year alongside NHLer Nino Niederreiter.

There will be four teams that are far and away more talented than the others and will break through to the semifinals. These teams will be Russia, United States, Canada and Sweden. In the end, I think we will see Canada take their second straight gold medal with a victory over the United States. In a closely contested bronze medal matchup, the Swedes will squeeze out a victory over the hometown Russians.