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Faceoff with Steve and Mike: Making sense of the Olympic hockey format and who’s taking gold?


Will Crosby lead Canada to a second-straight gold medal in Sochi?
 

We've taken a look at the US Olympic hockey roster ad nauseum already, and there's still a month to go until the Opening Ceremonies. On Tuesday, the other 11 nations competing for hockey gold in Sochi announced their 25-man rosters, finally giving us something else to talk about.

Shortly after the seemingly six-hour struggle that was Hockey Canada's announcement, Jeff and Derek here at Puck Drunk Love broke down each roster and gave you some insight on what to expect from each team competing. 

Adding to that now, Steve and Mike thought it'd be a good idea to take a glance at the tournament from the group perspective. Here are the groups, along with what you might expect from each one, a breakdown of the unconventional tournament format and some medal predictions for the sake of us looking silly in six weeks' time: 

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Group A: Russia, Slovakia, United States, Slovenia
Group B: Finland, Canada, Norway, Austria
Group C: Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Lativa 

Mike Salerno: I don't know about you Steve, but February 9 can't come soon enough. This tournament is going to be something special, and with the distribution of hockey superpowers across the three groups, there's no telling who will come out on top.

As the World Juniors just taught us once again, anything can happen in a short tournament. But looking ahead, what group catches your eye the most roughly at the moment?

Steve Lepore: Group A is going to be more difficult than I bet a lot of Americans think. Sure, Slovenia is probably an automatic win, but who's to say Team USA or Russia or Slovakia doesn't play a lazy one while Anze Kopitar just goes for broke at some point? Probably not, but I'd perversely enjoy seeing that happen. Slovakia will probably play spoiler for somebody, but I'd still be surprised if the Americans or Russians didn't get one of the automatic byes out of this group.

Group B should be a cake walk for Canada and, to a lesser extent Finland. Maybe Mats Zuccarello and the Norwegians have it in them to do something? But I'd be surprised if you didn't see at least two wins and two byes for Finland and Canada from this group.

Group C is actually the really interesting one to me, and not just as a Sandis Ozolinsh aficionado (he's somehow in this tournament!). I think Switzerland is the "non-power" team with the best chance to make a little noise in this tournament. I believe it even more after looking at the Czech roster, and even more after seeing Jan Hejda snubbed. With Sweden the heavy favorite, I think there's a way to second place and maybe a quarterfinal bye in this group for the Swiss, and I think it'll be the group to watch.

Salerno: Sandis Ozolinsh and Petr Nedved are olympians but Claude Giroux and Bobby Ryan aren't. What a world. 

Finland is the team I'm most interested in. After winning gold in 2011 at the World Championships and last week World Juniors, how far away are they from being considered an elite hockey country? You could argue their roster has two of the top five goaltenders in the world, and they're not even bringing Pekka Rinne. Trouble is, you can only start one of them. 

I agree that the extra bye–we'll get to this weird tournament format in a bit–will come from Group B, but how far the Finns can go in the knockout round is something I'll be watching very closely.

While Kopitar is certainly capable of taking over a game, I think Slovakia concerns me more as a sleeper team in Group A. When thinking about the international game, special teams is always an important factor. With a power play that boasts names like Chara, Hossa (the good one) and Gaborik if healthy, Slovakia could surprise one of the heavyweights in that group.

I could see Switzerland making some noise in Group C as you said. Jonas Hiller is playing maybe his best hockey of his career, and is totally capable of stealing a game or two. But I agree, Sweden should have little problem finishing atop this group.

So after we get through the group stage, it's on to the qualification round where eight teams will do battle for a chance to take on the four countries who received byes. After that, it's on to the quarterfinals, where most of the heavy hitters will be waiting.

With this much at stake and expectations running high, someone's destined to disappoint. Of the tournament favorites, who do you think will bow out first?

Lepore: I don't know about you, but as a student of history, you can sort of start to smell whenever a US team is doomed. 1998 may not be a prime example, but 2006 you could tell just from the roster that it'd be an uphill climb, and certainly anytime they took the ice against a superior team.

2002 and 2010 were fairly drama-free years leading up to those tournaments, and they ended in (relative) success for USA Hockey. Between the expectation of competing for gold, the injuries the various netminders have suffered throughout the season and the gut-punching Burnside and Allen articles, something smells like broken hotel room chairs for Team USA.

It wouldn't shock me if they were stuck with a fifth or sixth seed (the tops of the non-bye teams), squeaked past one of the dregs of the tournament in the opening knockout round, and then got their asses handed to them by one of the other elite teams.

Maybe I'm wrong, but as a follower of USA Hockey, it just seems like this team is set up for a real setback in Sochi. What say you? Who's your bracket buster on the wrong side?

Salerno: I too have tried to remain optimistic on the Americans' chances in Sochi, but I've found myself wondering about the after-effects of those two articles giving us a deeper look inside the process of selecting Team USA. However, like I explored last week, a poor showing in Sochi does not necessarily mean it's a huge setback for USA Hockey overall.

Another potential disaster waiting to happen also resides in Group A, with the host nation. In fact, the group stage matchup between the US and Russia will likely go a long way to proving one of us right. There is a good chance that the loser of that game will be slotted into that top spot in the qualification round, making their road to a medal significantly harder.

Take out all the extracurriculars surrounding the tournament itself for a moment. When you get down to it, Russia's situation in net may be the most precarious of any team with realistically hoping to medal. While Varlamov has had a strong season for Colorado amidst problems at home, he's far from a sure thing against teams like Canada and Sweden.

One other potential issue for the Russians is the idea of combining two leagues on one bench. While I doubt Ilya Kovalchuk has lost a step, it wouldn't be a stretch to consider the average skill of a KHL game far inferior to that of the NHL. I think that could manifest itself in pressure situations late in games, when the intensity is at it's very highest. The depth of this team will be tested, and I'm not so sure it's up to the challenge.

Then let's add in all those arbitrary things, such as pressure on the host nation to deliver gold, and you may find some Russian players–who have spent years pining for a chance to play in front of friends and family–running for the exits, dodging rotten tomatoes on the way.

Lepore: I'm with you there. Honestly, the team that's risen most stock-wise in the past month is Canada. Luongo and Price have been fine this season and sure, they could show up in Sochi and have Canadians wondering if Now Is Really The Time For Mike Smith… I'm less concerned than I was in August, or in November, when people were joking-but-maybe-not-really about whether or not Marty Brodeur would accept an invitation.

They've got a solid 'D', and enough offense for two teams. I do wonder if maybe they're relying too much on a notion of chemistry, but there's nothing theoretically that bad about their roster. Right now, I've got Canada for gold, silver for Sweden, and the US still somehow managing a bronze.

Salerno: Oh I never thought Canada's stock fell even a bit. Even without Thornton, Giroux, Couture and St. Louis, they boast the scariest collection of talent in recent memory. I can't wait to watch Matt Duchene on the international-sized rink. This could be his coming out party.

It would be somewhat foolish to not pick them to at least reach the gold medal game, but when they get there I expect a Sweden team, who might have the most balanced blue line in the tournament, to take them down in a one-goal game.

I too have the Americans reaching the bronze medal game, but falling to Finland. While I'm not sure which of Rask or Niemi will carry the load for the Suomi, I don't think it matters much. Either could make a case for tournament MVP, and their play in this game will prove it.

There you have it, folks. Remember to check in with Puck Drunk Love for all things Sochi leading up to and during the 2014 Winter Olympics.

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