Olympic Hockey 2014: Sleepers with Best Chances to Win Gold in Sochi
Although only a few countries have seen much success in hockey at the Olympics, this year's tournament is wide open.
Canada and Russia remain the favorites, with loaded rosters and plenty of experience playing at this level. Sweden also has a strong chance of coming away with gold after winning in 2006, while the United States is hoping to improve upon its silver medal in 2010.
Of course, the 1980 Olympics proved that major upsets are possible when the United States came away with a gold medal during the "Miracle on Ice" run. It is unlikely anything will match this level of surprise, but a few squads are capable of shocking the world with a deep run in Sochi.
These countries are likely hoping to just medal, but winning gold is still a solid possibility for each of them.
Few teams enter the tournament with as much mystery as the Czech Republic. The squad chose a number of young, unknown players instead of those established in the NHL, which has puzzled many, including Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley, via Roger Millions:
Bob Hartley says "Czechs must be very good team. They will win the Olympic Gold Medal. Any team that can keep Jiri Hudler off it must win.— Roger Millions (@RogMillions) January 6, 2014
The list of local stars includes forwards Roman Cervenka and Jiri Novotny, two players who had short stints in the NHL before returning to more success in the KHL. While the Russian league does not have as much elite competition, these players will be more suited to handle the international style of play.
The open-ice game might be tough for teams such as Canada and the United States to adjust to, but the Czech squad will have no problem.
Additionally, any experience lost with these players is gained with the veteran presence of Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved and more. The roster decisions could end up haunting this group in Sochi, or it could end up being a genius move to get the team its first gold medal since 1998.
No matter who plays in goal for Finland, it will be tough for opponents to score. Tuukka Rask has had an outstanding year for the Boston Bruins, while Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen could also handle the role.
Even with a defense that has some holes, the goalies will make sure the puck stays out of the net. At this level of hockey, that decides the game more than almost anything else.
The offense has enough skill players capable of scoring, but the key will be the experience and leadership on the roster. Olli Jokinen has already won two Olympic medals, but that is nothing compared to Teemu Selanne:
Selanne has been a part of Finland's national team since 1992 and has three medals, none of them gold. He will look to change that in 2014 as he leads a solid group of players ready to compete with the best in the world.
If they can get some key goals while the goaltenders maintain low-scoring games, Finland can go all the way.
Despite being a regular participant in the event, it has been a long time since Switzerland did anything noteworthy in the Olympics in hockey. The last time the team medaled was a bronze in 1948, and it has rarely been close.
However, the Swiss are coming off a second-place finish at the 2013 World Championships, and they are hoping to use that momentum to compete with the best in Sochi.
Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated discussed the team's style, saying that "the Swiss play a smart, disciplined game that gives them a chance every night, especially with the kind of goaltending that [Jonas] Hiller can provide. Familiar or not, this is a team that can’t be taken lightly."
There are few NHL players on the roster, but that could end up being an advantage. The group is hungrier for success and clearly wants to prove itself on a big stage. This team also has better chemistry than many others.
Even with a relatively tough draw, Switzerland could surprise people with a strong effort in this tournament.
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