Previously we wrote an article containing early predictions for the Men’s Olympic Hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This is a continuation of that topic, exploring the strengths and weaknesses or the nations in Group C: Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland, and Sweden.
Ever since winning an upset Gold Medal over fierce rival and former military occupant, Russia, at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, the Czech Republic has been striving to find that magic again. Granted, the 1998 team was chock full of NHL stars and future Hall of Famers like Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Roman Hamrlik and Petr Svoboda, but the current team also has some pretty good depth, notably, the 41 year old Jagr, who is the only remaining member from that gold medal team.
Goaltending has taken a severe blow, and expected starter Tomas Vokoun has been sidelined with a potentially career-ending medical condition. The Pittsburgh Penguins netminder has been battling blood clots for years, but this time might put an end to his playing days. That leaves Ondrej Pavlec and Michael Neuvirth as the probable 1 & 2 goalies for the Czechs. Neither of the pair has been outstanding this season, and aren’t the most reliable in big game situations.
The Czechs do have good defense though, and these puck-moving D men are pretty good at clearing out the front of the net as well as starting the offensive rush. Tomas Kaberle and Zbynek Michalek are likely to be the top pair, and the remaining 4 are all NHL caliber defensemen. Gaining the zone against this team won’t be easy and one assumes that if the goaltending is decent, scores will be low against them.
There are a handful of Stanley Cup winners in the forward corps, but many of them won Cups in their younger days. While not intimidating like Canada or Russia, the Czech forwards play a very steady style of play that is low on errors, and high on mechanics. If this team can play with some chemistry, they have a shot at being in the top two of Group C.
Aside from Norway, Latvia is the only squad without an NHL player on their roster, which doesn’t say much about their chances. Probably the weakest competitor not only in their bracket, but in the whole tournament, Latvia will really have to fight so as not to be the punching bag for everybody else. Although each group has one team that isn’t expected to win a game, Latvia has the unenviable role of playing in group C, where all 4 teams have players who are used to playing on International sized rinks. The USA and Canada could falter in their first games if they aren’t ready for the big ice, since both play a physical style game that thrives in NHL rinks. Latvia has never finished higher than 9th, and was dead last in the past two Olympics (Turin and Vancouver).
The Detroit Red Wi…. I mean, Team Sweden is definitely in the running to be in medal contention this year, and it’s in large part to the members they have wearing the Winged Wheel in the NHL. Henrik Zetterberg, captain of the Red Wings, will likely captain Team Sweden and its very powerful roster. Joining Zetterberg from Detroit are Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Johan Franzen, and Gustav Nyquist. Notably absent is recently acquired Red Wing, Daniel Alfredsson, who may be too old for this youthful crew. Defense and goaltending for this squad are stellar. Henrik Lundqvist is surely the starter, and backups could be Viktor Fasth, Jonas Enroth or Robin Lehner; any of which would be up for the task. The D pairings are stocked with speed, size and skill. There is no doubting that Kronwall is one of the most physical D-men in the tournament, but he’s not the only guy who can throw the body around.
The Swedish junior system is quickly becoming one of the best in the world, and the young talent they have coming up is outstanding. Colorado Captain Gabriel Landeskog is fast, and when paired with guys like Niklas Backstrom and the Sedin Twins, the Yellow and Blue will be dangerous. Sweden is likely the favorite out of Group C, and also a contender for gold.
The Swiss were a surprise to many teams who had written them off in 2010, pushing Canada to overtime and barely losing 2-0 (empty netter) to the United States. The main reason was MVP goaltending from Anaheim Ducks’ Jonas Hiller, who stole the show and really made a name for himself. Hiller is back, but he’s now on the radar for the other nations. Outside of Hiller, goaltending is weak, and the D isn’t overly helpful either. Other NHLers on the squad include Roman Josi, Damien Brunner and Philadelphia Flyer Mark Streit. No longer the write-off, the Swiss will have to put the pedal down to keep up with these strong teams. They haven’t medaled since 1948, so don’t expect it to happen this year, but they could spoil the party for one of the favorites during round-robin play.
With the rosters yet to be finalized and wild NHL and KHL seasons in play, there could be major changes before the Olympics start. One thing is for sure; Olympic hockey is fantastic, and we’ll be in for one of the best tournaments hockey fans have ever seen.
Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. When he’s not watching hockey he’s doing research for CJ Pony Parts or spending time outside with his family. Scott will posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington