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Sochi 2014 Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Preview - Group C (CZE, LAT, SUI, SWE)

Like Group A, Group C is a formidable group, featuring two of the top four ranked teams in the IIHF rankings (Sweden, Czech Rep.), a Vancouver 2010 Quarterfinalist (Switzerland), and a perennial upstart in Latvia. It is sure to be an interesting grouping to watch and, though there are obvious favorites and a sure underdog, this is perhaps the most difficult-to-call of all groups in Sochi.

SWEDEN

NHL Participants: 24 (all but Jimmie Ericsson)
2010 Finish: 5th
IIHF Ranking: 1st

The Swedes are the top-ranked team in the World currently, and are the most successful nation in the history of Olympic ice hockey. They won the gold most recently in Torino 2006, but are coming off a disappointing Quarterfinal loss to Slovakia in Vancouver 2010, and are transitioning over to a new crop of emerging stars. Still, they are always one of the very best teams in international tournaments, and should figure to strike fear in the hearts of all opposition in Sochi.

FORWARDS (with expected lines): Steen-Backstrom-Eriksson ; Sedin-Zetterberg-Nyquist ; Landeskog-Berglund-Alfredsson ; Silfverberg-Kruger-Johansson ; Hagelin, Ericsson

The Swedish forward group, even without injured forwards Johan Franzen and Henrik Sedin, is an impressive one. It features a significant amount of top-line NHL talent, principal among which is Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg. This will be Zetterberg’s third Olympics, and he has been a catalyst in Sweden’s success in each of his prior appearances. He will line-up alongside fellow third-time Olympian Daniel Sedin, who will be without brother Henrik for the first time in their long careers. A few payers to watch on the fringes include Detroit Red Wings rookie Gustav Nyquist, who has been lighting up score boards in his first full season, and Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is a two-way star, and will be appearing in his first of what is sure to be many Olympics. And we would be remiss to not mention Washington Capitals star and Alex Ovechkin-wingmate Nicklas Backstrom, who figures to be the number one center of this stacked corps.

DEFENSE: Ekman Larsson-Karlsson ; Kronwall-Ericsson ; Edler-Hjalmarsson ; Oduya-Tallinder

Though this is the first Olympics of the NHL era that will not feature legend Nicklas Lidstrom on the Swedish blue line, the above groupings show that they will likely be just fine without him. Whenever your top pair is the duo of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson, you’re probably doing alright for yourself. Ekman-Larsson is one of the best young blue liners in the game, and is on track to rack in perennial Norris trophy nominations as best defenseman in the very near future. Karlsson, on the other hand, already has won his first Norris trophy, and the Ottawa Senators scoring star continues to get better. Behind these two dynamos, you have a respectable group teeming with depth, including Detroit Red Wings heavy hitter Niklas Kronwall, and two time Stanley Cup winner with Chicago Niklas Hjalmarsson. It is a group which should be considered among the very best in the tournament, and has no shortage of number ones and minute-munchers throughout.

GOALTENDERS: Lundqvist, Gustavsson, Enroth
The Swedes will again turn to New York Rangers star ‘King’ Henrik Lundqvist to be their guy in Sochi. This will be Lundqvist’s third Olympic games as Sweden’s starter, a run which has included the fantastic success of gold in Torino 2006. Lundqvist is still among the very best goaltenders in the game, and as such, gives Sweden a legitimate shot at winning, no matter the competitor. It will be interesting to see if he can rebound from a somewhat shaky performance in Sochi, particularly with such an overhauled defensive corps. Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth will battle for the back-up position, with whomever gains the spot likely getting a spot start against Latvia (and then nothing else)

BOTTOM LINE: It surely needn’t be said at this point, but never take the Swedes lightly. They won the World Championships in 2013, and are icing much the same team that took gold on home soil in that tournament. Factor in an infusion of youth into the line-up, particularly on their stellar back-end, and you have the makings of a favorite.

The true test for the Swedes will come against the big boys, likely in the Quarterfinals. They wilted against the Slovaks in Vancouver 2010, and were greatly disappointed to be unable to defend their Torino Gold Medal. Several returnees from that team will be out for revenge, so figure the Swedes to again be a factor in the Gold medal hunt in Sochi.

GROUP PREDICTION: 1st
OVERALL PREDICTION: Bronze medallist


SWITZERLAND

NHL Participants: 8 (Brunner, Niederreiter, Diaz, Josi, Streit, Weber, Berra, Hiller)
2010 Finish: 8th (lost in Quarterfinals to the United States)
IIHF Ranking: 7th

Once a nation of obscurity, known in the hockey world for their hosting of the annual Spengler Cup and little else, Switzerland is fast emerging onto the world stage as a legitimate hockey power. One could say that Vancouver 2010 was their coming out party, a tournament in which they took the Canadians to overtime in the group stage, beat the Belorussians in the Qualifications before succumbing in a valiant 2-0 QF loss to the Americans. Their true crowning achievement, though, has to be the silver medals they won at the IIHF World Championships this past summer. The medals were their first in the competition since 1935

FORWARDS: Hollenstein-Romy-Brunner ; Suri-Pluss-Niederreiter ; Ambuhl-Cunti-Wick ; Moser-Trachsler-Bieber ; Gardner, Bodenmann

In international tournaments, forward is generally the position where you see the bulk of a team’s world class talent. Not the case for the Swiss though, as the position is clearly their weakest. They feature no true game-breaking forwards, with their biggest scoring threat likely being young Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter. Oft-maligned in his first few years in the league, Niederreiter is finally experiencing a break-out season with the Wild, and looks primed to grow into the dynamic power forward he was expected to be when drafted. New Jersey Devils forward Damian Brunner is the only other NHL’er among the forward corps, and he is having an up-and-down season. Keep an eye on Denis Hollenstein, a scoring forward with Swiss League side Geneva. He has been one of the better young forwards to come out of the country in years, and is garnering a fair amount of interest from the European scouts of different NHL clubs.

DEFENSE: Diaz-Josi ; Streit-Vauclair ; Blindenbacher-von Gunten ; Weber-Seger

The Swiss defense features some intriguing names, the best among which is Nashville Predators youngster Roman Josi. Nashville head coach Barry Trotz has been effusive in his praise of the 22 year old this season, and he earned himself a long-term, big money contract extension with the Predators at the start of the season. He is a two-way dynamo, who can provide both an excellent power-play presence, and shut-down defensive awareness. His likely partner will be Vancouver Canucks d-man Raphael Diaz, who is a more conservative type than Josi, but has offensive prowess. Philadelphia Flyers veteran Mark Streit also presents an intriguing option on the defense corps, though his club season has been less than stellar. The Swiss love veteran blueliner Julien Vauclair, who has been on the national World Championship roster a record 12 times.

GOALTENDERS: Hiller, Berra, Stephan

There are some who argue that goaltender Jonas Hiller was the best player in the entire 2010 Vancouver Olympics, better than even tournament MVP Ryan Miller. Indeed, the images of him single-handedly carrying the Swiss to overtime against Canada, and to a Qualification victory over Belarus, helped solidify him as one of the best young goaltenders in the game. As the starter for the best team in the NHL in the Anaheim Ducks, he is as sure a bet as any in goal, and the most formidable weapon the Swiss have. Back-up goaltender Reto Berra of the Calgary Flames is unlikely to see much ice time, unless chosen to start against the Latvians.

BOTTOM LINE: The Swiss deserve respect. They have re-ignited a passion for hockey, with a grass-roots program of investment that culminated in a spectacular 2013 World Championship Silver medal. 

They don’t have the forward depth of Group C fellows Sweden and Czech Republic, but they have a formidable defense, and Hiller is as good a goaltender as most. If his performance in Vancouver is any indication, he represents a true game-breaking presence for the Swiss. Though they are extreme underdogs for a medal, there is no reason to believe that they are going anywhere but up from here on out.

GROUP PREDICTION: 2nd
OVERALL PREDICTION: Quarterfinalist


CZECH REPUBLIC

NHL Participants: 17 (Elias, Erat, Frolik, Hanzal, Hemsky, Jagr, Krejci, Michalek, Palat, Plekanec, Voracek, Gudas, Michalek, Roszival, Smid, Zidlicky, Pavelec)
2010 Finish: 7th (lost in Quarterfinals to Finland)
IIHF Ranking: 4th

The Czech Republic are always a respectable outfit come Olympic time, having won one of the four gold medals of the NHL era (Nagano 1998), along with a Bronze medal in Torino 2006. They still feature many of the stars of yesteryear, and will rely on a tried and true roster, with a few fresh additions, in Sochi.

FORWARDS: Jagr-Plekanec-Cervenka ; Voracek-Krejci-Palat ; Nedved-Elias-Michalek ; Frolik-Hanzal-Hemsky ; Erat, Novotny

The Czech forward group is a formidable one, led by ageless legend Jaromir Jagr, starring in his fifth Olympic games. The 42 year old is experiencing a renaissance year with the New Jersey Devils, where he leads the team in points, and is currently in the top-40 in league scoring. He figures to be the captain, and leader, of the Czech outfit. There is plenty of strength down the middle, including Boston Bruins star David Krejci, and Montreal Canadiens veteran Tomas Plekanec. Both featured in Vancouver 2010, and are back as key cogs in the Czech attack. Young blood on the team includes Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers, who is having an excellent year for his club, and Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Ondrej Palat, who is an outside contender for Rookie of the Year. Overall, though it may not have the top-end consistency of some of the bigger contenders, the Czech forward group is respectable, and should give them more than enough punch up-front.

DEFENSE: Roszival-Z.Michalek ; Zidlicky-Kaberle ; Smid-Gudas ; Krajicek-Barinka

The Czechs lack some of the defensive depth of past Olympics, and will rely heavily on familiar faces. Their number one defenseman is probably Chicago Blackhawk Michal Roszival, who has experienced a career renaissance in the last year and a half, and is a potent shut-down force. He will form a stay-at-home pairing with Phoenix Coyote Zybynek Michalek, making his second Olympic appearance. Former NHL’er and current KHL star Tomas Kaberle will be one to watch, particularly considering the respectable year he is having in his first campaign in the Russian league. Tampa Bay Lightning youngster Radko Gudas is leading the league in hits for a second consecutive season, and is a threat for the big one every time he steps onto the ice.

GOALTENDERS: Pavelec, Salak

The Czechs will look to Winnipeg Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec as their starter, in his first Olympic appearance. Pavelec will confuse no one for the glory days of Dominik Hasek, as he is going through a second consecutive rough season with his club. It is quite possible that he is getting the start based on NHL pedigree, as expected back-up Alexander Salak is putting up outstanding numbers with KHL side St. Petersburg. If there is any kind of slip in Pavelec’s performance, you can figure that Salak will be in net faster than any other back-up in the tournament.

BOTTOM LINE: The Czechs are in that group with Slovakia, Finland and Switzerland of ‘second-tier’ contenders. They weren’t at all impressive in Vancouver, and are looking to recapture the glory days of medals in Torino and Nagano. 

Their roster is littered with talent, including a forward group with features four more-than-capable centers, and a game-breaking Olympic veteran in Jagr. Their defense is solid, if unspectacular. Perhaps their biggest question mark lies in goal with Pavelec, and that is where the presence of Salak could prove to be a blessing. 

The Czechs will certainly compete in every game they are in, though it is up for debate whether this is the kind of mix that can elevate them into the pantheon of contenders with the Russians, Canadians, Swedes and Americans. As it stands, they are an outside shot at a medal. They will need help, and also to find chemistry and peak at just the right time.

GROUP PREDICTIONS: 3rd
OVERALL PREDICTION: Quarterfinalist


LATVIA

NHL Participants: 2 (Girgensons, Gudlevskis)
2010 Finish: 12th (lost in Qualification Playoff to Czech Republic)
IIHF Ranking: 11th

The Latvians make a fourth consecutive Olympic appearance, and though they have yet to build on their tournament-best 9th place performance in the 2002 Games, they always provide a respectable level of competition for the contenders. Just ask the Czechs, whom they took to Overtime in the Qualification playoff in Vancouver 2010.

FORWARDS: Darzins-Sprukts-M.Redlihs ; Karsums-Girgensons-Indrasis ; Kenins-Vasiljevs-Daugavins ; Pavlovs-Stals-Cipulis ; Berzins, Jass

The Latvian forward corps is actually deceptively strong, and features 6 players with at least a game of NHL experience, and many who are prominent in the KHL. The lone current NHL’er on the roster is Buffalo Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons, who is putting up solid numbers in his first full professional NHL season. Girgensons is considered a big-body shut down center, but he will certainly be relied upon for goals on the shallow Latvian roster. KHL forward Mikelis Redlihs figures to be the team’s most potent offensive star, unless you count former NHL’er Kaspars Daugavins, who has been largely a disappointment in his first full KHL season. Overall, this is a group which should be considered as being a slight tier above the likes of Norway, Austria and Slovenia, though certainly not anywhere nearing the mid-tier contenders.

DEFENSE: Bartulis-Kulda ; Ozolinsh-K.Redlihs ; Pujaks-Rekis ; Sotnieks-Freibergs

Do not adjust your screens, that is indeed the same Sandis Ozolinsh who patrolled NHL blue-lines from 1992-2008. At 42 years of age, he is back for one last kick at the international can. He will likely be the Latvian captain, and though he is a shell of the solid player he once was, he is still putting up respectable numbers with KHL side Dinamo Riga. The top pairing for the Latvians will feature former NHL prospects Oscars Bartulis and Arturs Kulda, both of whom feature prominently on their KHL sides. These are two young, but impressive, defenders, and they will be taxed in match-ups against the top forwards of Sweden and the Czech Republic, among others.

GOALTENDERS: Gudlevskis, Masalskis

Young Kristers Gudlevskis technically plays for AHL side Syracuse Crunch, but his call-up to the NHL side Tampa Bay Lightning for two games prior to the Olympic break serves notice that he is a formidable NHL prospect. He figures to be the incumbent for the Latvians, considering his excellent performance for them at the 2013 World Championships. Though he has been far from impressive for the Crunch on the season, he at least has a better pedigree than the starters for some of the lower-tier competitors

BOTTOM LINE: The Latvians have always been a nation that has embraced hockey, and they are also the only nation outside of the ‘Big 7’ to be present at four consecutive Olympic Games. They have finished last in both 2006 and 2010, but their roster figures to be much more respectable this time around.

Much of the Latvian performance will be dependent on a few players, including their big defensive duo of Kulda and Bartulis, and their limited scoring options in Redlihs, Girgensons and Sprukts. They will be hard pressed to beat any of the formidable opponents in their Group, but if their performance in the Qualification Playoff of Vancouver 2010 tells us anything, it’s that they are not a team to be taken lightly on any night.

GROUP PREDICTION: 4th
OVERALL PREDICTION: First-round exit
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Sochi 2014 Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Preview - Group C (CZE, LAT, SUI, SWE)

Like Group A, Group C is a formidable group, featuring two of the top four ranked teams in the IIHF rankings (Sweden, Czech Rep.), a Vancouver 2010 Quarterfinalist (Switzerland), and a perennial upstart in Latvia. It is sure to be an interesting grouping to watch and, though there are obvious favorites and a sure underdog, this is perhaps the most difficult-to-call of all groups in Sochi.

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