No, really, this is real. I know we make a lot of jokes here and it's hard to take me seriously, but gosh darn it, I'm going to make some real predictions as to how the groups will end and who will medal. I might make some jokes here and there, but I'm putting it on the line here. This is what I think will happen in men's ice hockey at the Sochi Olympics.
Group A (Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, USA)
This is going to be a tough group for the Americans to get their feet under them. Slovakia has a lot of NHL talent, but also a good deal of players in the KHL. In fact, there is a KHL team in Bratislava. Slovakia plays the Americans first, and they may just have the extra legs to pip the USA in game number 1. Slovenia is clearly the weakest team of the bunch, and Russia, on top of their talent level, has home ice. It should be noted that the point system makes every game worth 3 points. 3 for a regulation win, 2 for an OT/shootout win, 1 for an OT/shootout loss and 0 for a regulation loss. That said, here is what I am predicting for group A. Russia 8, Slovakia 6, USA 4, Slovenia 0
Group B (Austria, Canada, Finland, Norway)
What did the Canadians and Finns do to deserve this lot? Austria may make waves for having Thomas Vanek on their side, but the rest of the team, essentially, spends their time playing in the Austrian domestic league. Norway has even less pedigree, but are often a tough out in the Olympics. Canada and Finland are clearly the class of the group and very nearly the class of the Games. It's going to come down to how hard Canada and Finland want to play each other. The Canadians are better offensively, while the Fins are renowned for their defense. I think Finland is dealing with some key injuries, however, and Canada's aggression will decide the group. Canada 9, Finland 6, Norway 2, Austri
Group C (Czech Re
public, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland)
If there is a surprise in the group stage of the Olympics, it will be in this group. Both the Czech's and Swedes are seasoned veteran's of the Olympics, but time is no longer on their side. I think some of Sweden's injuries may end up helping them, with fresh faces like Gustav Nyquist stepping into the lineup and giving them some energy. I like Latvia's chances for making some waves in the group, with a decent number of NHL and KHL talent, as well as a little bit of youth on their side. The Swiss feature a goalie in Martin Gerber who used to play in the NHL, and likely won't be an easy out. Look for a surprise or two out of this group. Sweden 7, Czech Repulic 5, Latvia 5, Switzerland 1
With those point totals, the group winners and Finland would get a pass into the quarterfinals. But what of the other contests from the qualification round?
Seeds 8 and 9, which would somehow be the US and Norway (two teams after my own heart, thanks to citizenship and ethnicity), with the winner moving on to face Canada. Unless the Americans look really, really hard at the game ahead, they should wipe out Norway without a problem.
Slovakia the 5th seed would take on Slovenia, the 12th seed. Slovenia had a rough draw, in that they took on the three best teams in their group. Of the last place teams, it could be argued that they had the best player in Anze Kopitar. Still, the most difficult thing for Slovakia will be explaining the fact that Slovakia and Slovenia are indeed different countries.Slovakia would move on to face Finland.
The 6th seed Czechs will also be able to move on. At least, I hope they would be able to. They would have a rematch with the Swiss under this scenario, and I have a tough time seeing such a veteran squad exposed in this kind of situation. They would move on to square off against Sweden.
In what may be one of the more intersting qualification matchups, the 7th seeded Latvia will square off with the 10th place Austria. Latvia has a better team, but I think in a big game, the better player, in this case Thomas Vanek, will make the biggest plays and make the difference. I expect Austria to take the final spot in the
#1 Canada somehow got the worst draw of the bunch, and somehow, the Americans can't catch a break. Without the passion of a medal game, and a terrible draw, I think the United States are going to leave the Sochi games without a medal.
I really think Slovakia is a sleeper in these games, made better by the fact that they don't have to funnel the offense through Marian Gaborik. I like the mix of KHL and NHL players that Slovakia has, and frankly, I like their roster a lot more than I like #4 Finland's. The Finns have great experience, but at their age, their best skill at this point is their goaltending. I think Slovakia wins this.
Another game between two creaky teams. The Czechs and #3 Swedes have a chance to improve on their performance from Vancouver in a rematch. I think it will come down to the blue line and netminder, and I think the Swedes outclass the Czechs in this regard.
In the final quarterfinal match, we have Austria and #2 Russia. The Russians can be defeated by a team with a smart set of forwards that can expose an inferior defense. The Austrians are not that team. Russia moves one step closer to a medal.
Canada is the most complete team of the tournament. They are also going to be severely tested by back to back games against the US and Slovakia. I think Canada will win this game, but at the same time, I think they will be nicked up for the Gold Medal Game.
I think this is the game where the pressure gets to the Russians. They will be facing with a now fully meshed Swedish team, one that is full of smart, veteran forwards and backed by one of the best netminders in the world. In an upset, I will pick the Swedes to get to the Gold Medal Game.
So that brings us to the final two games. I've said what there is to say about my expectations for these teams (which will ultimately be wrong) so here are some quick picks. The Medal Games won't be as close as one would hope. Russia will be trying like hell to get a medal, and will smite the Slovaks, giving them 4th place for the second time in a row. Going for gold, the Canadians are the class of the world. I just don't see them losing when it really counts.