USA-Ice-Hockey-2013The 2014 Olympics are set to kick off in Sochi, Russia, in just a couple of months. That makes it a good time for us to start looking at the 12 teams competing in what should be a fantastic ice hockey tournament, one I am predicting to top even the Vancouver games.

This week, I bring you into Group A.

This seems to be the best of the three groups, and we already know anything can happen in these short tournaments. So, I won’t call it the “Group of Death” just yet, but this group does have three teams that could reasonably vie for the gold medal in Sochi.

Will Team USA once again come out 3-0 in group play and challenge for gold? Can Russia live up to the hopes of an entire host-nation? Can Slovakia once again shock the world and reach the semis in a crowded field? Will newcomer Slovenia shock any of these powerhouses?

My answers to all these questions are coming up, and don’t miss my Group B and C predictions in the coming weeks!

The tourney begins Feb. 8. Another reminder: this year’s tourney will be played on international-sized rinks instead of NHL-sized rinks, as was the case in Vancouver. That should give a slight edge to the European, but nowhere near as much as rink size helped Canada and USA in 2010.

Here's my preview of Group A.

4. Slovenia

Slovenia-Ice-Hockey-2013This is Slovenia’s first Olympic qualification, and they go into Sochi as huge underdogs in a very tough group.

With only one NHL player on their roster (most of their roster will be KHL, Swedish or German league players), the Slovenians will have trouble gaining any points at all in group play.

Los Angeles Kings superstar center Anze Kopitar (seven goals and 17 assists in 27 games) will lead Slovenia, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him playing upwards of 25 minutes per game. During the 2006 World Championships, Kopitar was tied for fifth in tournament scoring with three goals and six assists in six games.

Former Detroit Red Wings prospect Jan Mursak, currently with Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL, is the only other Slovenian with NHL experience. Mursak only played 46 games from 2006-2013, and spent much of his time in Grand Rapids, but he should at least help Kopitar with some of the burden. This year, Mursak has nine goals and seven assists in 29 KHL games for Amur.

Goaltending is always huge in tournaments, and Robert Kristan of Slovakia’s HK Nitra and NHL prospect Luka Gracnar of Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg will be a tough sell in a very talented field of goalies. Slovenia and head coach Matjaz Kopitar, father of Anze, will have a tough go but at least they will finally be on the world stage.

Bottom Line: The only way Slovenia (currently ranked 18th in the world) makes the medal round is by upsetting two teams. This will be a very tall mountain to climb even if Kopitar can take over a game, and the 20-year-old Gracnar can steal the show in net.

What Happened In 2010: Did not qualify. This is the first Olympic tournament for Slovenia.

Prediction: 0-3 in group play. They just won’t be able to hang in this group, which will be tough for any team to win. Slovenia just does not have the firepower or experience to win.

Captain Choice: Anze Kopitar…I know, what a shocker.

3. Slovakia

Slovakia-2014-Ice-HockeyNobody should be surprised by Slovakia in 2014 after finishing the 2010 tournament in fourth place.

Slovakia (currently ranked eighth in the world) is a sneakily solid team all the way through, and an upset against the United States or host Russia would not be completely out of the question for two big reasons: Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak.

Norris Trophy winner Chara can take on top forwards from any team, whether it is Patrick Kane for the United States or Alexander Ovechkin for Russia. If he has any trouble, Halak will be there to clean up.

Also on defense for Slovakia will be NHLers Lubomir Visnovsky (New York Islanders), Andrej Sekera (Buffalo) and Andrej Meszaros (Philadelphia), and KHL blueliners Dominik Granak (HC Dynamo Moscow) and Ivan Baranka (Salavat Yulaev Ufa). Backing up star goalie Halak will be Peter Budaj, who has been stellar in backup duties for the Montreal Canadiens.

Slovakia is strong up front, with Marian Hossa (Chicago), Marian Gaborik (Columbus), Michal Handzus (Chicago), Tomas Kopecky (Florida), Richard Panik (Tampa Bay) and Tomas Tatar (Detroit) leading the cast. Veterans Miroslav Satan (KHL’s HC Slovan Bratislava), Jozef Stumpel (HK Nitra), Martin Cibak (HC Spartak Moscow) Tomas Surovy (Dinamo Riga) and Branko Radivojevic (HC Slovan Bratislava) should also contribute for Slovakia.

Bottom Line: For Slovakia to reach the medal round again, head coach Vladimir Vujtek will need great goaltending out of Jaro Halak. Halak has played very well for the Blues this year (14-3-2, 2.12, .915), and will be looking to solidify himself in Slovakian history by winning gold on the world stage. Hossa (11 goals and nine assists in 23 games) and Gaborik (five goals, six assists in 17 games) should be right near the top of the tournament in scoring, and, if split up, will give Slovakia two formidable scoring lines. Gaborik is currently out with a sprained knee, but should be back in plenty of time for Sochi.

What Happened In 2010: Slovakia lost in the Bronze Medal Game to Finland, 5-3. They almost surprised a lot of people before that, narrowly losing to Canada in the semifinals. They finished group play with a record of 1-1-1, and were grouped with Latvia, Russia and CzechRepublic. Slovakia beat Russia in a shootout during group play.

Prediction: 1-1-1 in group play. Expect Slovakia to make the quarterfinals of knockout round, but I don’t see them making the same Cinderella-type run they made in 2010.

Captain Choice: Zdeno Chara

2. Russia

Russia-2014-Ice-HockeyHost nation Russia is slightly favored to win Group A over Slovakia and the United States, but it will not be easy. It is no real surprise they are favored, even with a very young and talented Team USA expected to make a serious push.

But Russia has three legitimate superstars in Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Ovechkin, who is on fire right now for the Washington Capitals. All three have had superb seasons so far, and Ovechkin (21 goals, eight assists in 25 games), Malkin (seven goals, 28 assists in 28 games) and Datsyuk (12 goals, 11 assists in 24 games) will give Russia one of the top offensive units in the entire field.

Also expected to make the team in talented group of forwards are Alexander Semin (Carolina), Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto), Artem Anisimov (Columbus), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis), Andrei Loktionov (New Jersey), and former NHL superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who moved to SKA St.Petersburg of the KHL this season. Other KHLers expected to make the team are Alexander Radulov (CSKA Moscow), Viktor Tikhonov (SKA St. Petersburg), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Traktor Chelyabinsk), Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk) and Alexander Perezhogin (Avangard Omsk).

Andrei Markov (Montreal) and Slava Voynov (Los Angeles) will be the top power play blueliners for Russia. Sergei Gonchar (Dallas) and Fedor Tyutin (Columbus) will add some offense from the point, while Anton Volchenkov (New Jersey), Alexei Emelin (Montreal) and Dmitry Kulikov (Florida) will be three of the top stay-at-home defensemen for Russia. One of the last five guys named will likely be a healthy scratch.

In goal, Russia probably has their best tandem in a long time, as defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus) and Semyon Varlamov (Colorado) will be battling for playing time. Varlamov always looked like the next great Russian goalie, but “Bobbo” came out of nowhere last year to take top NHL goalie honors.

This year, both have been good, but Varlamov (13-6, 2.13, .933) has outplayed Bobrovsky (9-11-2, 2.81, .906). As long as both are healthy come February, defensive-minded head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov has a good problem on his hands. In a pinch, Evgeni Nabokov should be the third man in.

Bottom Line: Ovechkin is the most exciting player in hockey right now, and playing in front of a home crowd for the entire tournament will make him that much better. But the X-factor will be Sergei Bobrovsky, who needs to stay consistent over the entire tourney for Russia (ranked third in the world) to have a chance at gold. I see them making the semi-finals at the very least, so I am picking them to make the medal round out of Group A.

What Happened In 2010: Russia lost to Canada in the quarterfinals, 7-3. They finished group play at 2-0-1, losing only to Slovakia in a shootout. Along with Slovakia, Russia was also grouped with Latvia and CzechRepublic.

Prediction: 2-1 in group play. I’m banking on Russia to make the semifinals, but with so many tough teams, I wouldn’t be shocked if they fell short and finished with the bronze. And if they run into Team Canada or Team USA in the quarterfinals, it may spell doom for host Russia. The biggest question is can Russia win with the expectations of the host supporters? I cannot see them making the Gold Medal game, but would not be shocked if they “upset” somebody to get there.

Captain Choice: Ilya Kovalchuk

1. United States

USA-Hockey-2014Team USA is now four years removed from a heart-stopping Gold Medal Final against Canada, and are itching for another shot at their northern rivals. But to get there, they must go through Slovenia, darkhorse Slovakia and host Russia in group play.

They stand a good chance with the depth they have in all areas of the game. Granted, they are no Team Canada, but nobody has that type of talent pool.

But up front, Team USA is as strong as any other team, as Patrick Kane (Chicago), Bobby Ryan (Ottawa), Ryan Kesler (Vancouver), Dustin Brown (Los Angeles), Joe Pavelski (San Jose), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk (Toronto), David Backes and T.J. Oshie (St. Louis), and Zach Parise and Jason Pominville (Minnesota) will form an extremely talented group of scorers. Paul Stastny (Colorado), Kyle Okposo (New York Islanders), Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal), and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg) will most likely be the players competing for the final spot or two.

Team USA also has a solid defensive unit, led by Ryan Suter (Minnesota). Jack Johnson (Columbus), Keith Yandle (Phoenix), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg) and Erik Johnson (Colorado) are virtual locks, but the sixth and seventh defenseman will likely be a battle between Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis), Cam Fowler (Anaheim), Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin or Rob Scuderi (all of Pittsburgh), or rookie NHLers Torey Krug (Boston) or Seth Jones (Nashville), who have both really impressed with their clubs. Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg) likely would have been in the mix if he hadn’t missed time with a neck injury.

In goal, it would be hard to see a reason to replace Ryan Miller, who was the MVP of the tourney in Vancouver. Miller should be the starter, even with the horrendous year Buffalo is having. Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup winning goalie Jonathan Quick is a lock as at least the backup, and would surely see time if Miller flounders in the first game or two.

But who does Team USA select as their emergency goaltender? The shortlist is down to Cory Schneider (New Jersey), Ben Bishop (TampaBay), Jimmy Howard (Detroit), and last-chance veteran Tim Thomas (Florida) for the third spot. Two guys could be called upon if Quick does not return from his injury by Christmas, as currently predicted.

Bottom Line: Team USA, currently ranked sixth in the world, is a young and talented team with the ability to win the gold medal. They also have a head coach in Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh) who can win. Players like Kane (16 goals, 14 assists in 28 games) and Kessel (14 goals, 10 assists in 27 games) bring the team great speed and skill, while players like Ryan (13 goals, 12 assists), Parise (11 goals, 12 assists in 27 games) and van Riemsdyk (12 goals, eight assists in 25 games) will pack a scoring punch as well. Team USA will be one of the tougher teams to play against, with the gritty play of Brown, Backes and Kesler. Defense and goaltending will also be huge for USA, and I expect Suter (and likely Byfuglien) to play about 28 minutes per game. Miller (5-15, 3.05, .918) and Quick (10-5, 2.35, .905) are two of the best in the world, but about four other teams can say the same about their tandem. USA is in the top four in every department, and is right near the top in goaltending and both sides of special teams. Penalty killing forwards Backes, Kesler and Brown should pay huge dividends for head coach Bylsma. Team USA will name their team during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2014.

What Happened In 2010: Won Silver Medal. Team USA lost to Team Canada in overtime of an epic Gold Medal game, their only loss of the tournament. USA went 3-0 in group play, defeating Canada, 5-3. Along with Canada, Team USA was grouped with Norway and Switzerland.

Prediction: 3-0 in group play. Team USA stands a great chance of reaching the Gold Medal game once again, and I am taking them to make it that far in Sochi. I am not so sure they can defeat a ridiculously good Team Canada, but will be poised to win their first gold since 1980.

Captain Choice: David Backes

[tps_footer]Written by Marc Skipper[/tps_footer]


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