When the first puck drops in Sochi, three star-studded men’s hockey teams will attract by far the most attention and be considered the favorites to win medals.
Defending gold-medal winner Canada, Vancouver; silver-medalist United States and homestanding Russia will be all over the airwaves and could very well wind up side-by-side at the medal ceremony, but there are other contenders who will challenge for hardware.
Here’s a look at the top teams:
2010 FINISH: Silver
BIG STARS: F Patrick Kane, G Ryan Miller, F Zach Parise, D Ryan Suter
OVERVIEW: Eyebrows were raised when some stars with extensive international experience such as Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson were left off the roster. But after taking Canada to the brink four years ago, the Americans still boast a lot of talent. Kane is always among the NHL points leaders and was clutch in last year’s Stanley Cup win for the Blackhawks as well as the Vancouver Games. Miller, the MVP of the 2010 U.S. team, returns to mind the net, and Suter is among the NHL’s best defenders. Team USA will get a big boost if Suter’s Minnesota Wild teammate Parise returns from injury in time to wear the red, white and blue.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Justin Faulk. The 21-year-old Carolina Hurricane defender is the youngest player on the roster and got the nod over Johnson and was America’s top-scoring defenseman at the 2012 World Championships.
2010 FINISH: Gold
BIG STARS: F Sidney Crosby, F Rick Nash, D Drew Doughty, G Roberto Luongo, D Duncan Keith
OVERVIEW: When you look at the overwhelming talent available to Canadian coach Mike Babcock, it seems the odds are good we’ll hear “Oh, Canada” at the medal ceremony once again. Crosby cemented his status as a national hero with the gold-medal winning goal in Vancouver and leads the team into Sochi. But Nash, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, the Islanders’ John Tavares and a host of other great forwards mean it’s not all on Crosby, and the Canadians can send out line after line capable of lighting up the goal. With Doughty, Keith, PK Subban and others in front of Luongo it’s not going to be easy to score against the defending champs either.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Steven Stamkos. The Tampa Bay center recently rejoined the Lightning at practice as he continues to recover from a broken leg. Stamkos says he’ll be ready to go in Sochi, but Canadian officials have the right to replace him on the roster if they don’t agree.
2010 FINISH: Quarterfinals
BIG STARS: F Alex Ovechkin, F Evgeni Malkin, G Semyon Varlamov, F Pavel Datsyuk, F Illya Kovalchuck
OVERVIEW: The 2010 Games were a disappointment. Failing to medal at home in 2014 will be viewed as something close to a disaster if the Russians are left off the stand again. The talent is there to challenge for gold, particularly at forward. Ovechkin and Malkin are clearly two of the best in the world, and Datsyuk isn’t far behind. Varlamov is the likely choice to start in goal and can be a brick wall at times. Illya Kovalchuck disappointed some U.S. fans when he bailed on the Devils and signed with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia’s KHL. He may get an opportunity to do it again if the nations meet on the Sochi ice.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets goalie has been on fire as the Olympics near. He’ll likely start as Varlamov’s backup, but if the Avalanche star falters, Bobrovsky seems more than ready.
THE BEST OF THE REST
FINLAND -- The 2010 bronze medalist, Finland could play spoiler in Sochi. The roster boasts both the oldest, 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, and the youngest, 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, players in the NHL.
CZECH REPUBLIC -- A pair of New Jersey Devils veterans, Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias, give the 2006 bronze medal nation a shot this time around.
SWEDEN -- The Swedes are plagued by injuries, leaving question marks on the roster, but they are set in-goal with Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist, and Henrik Zetterberg leads a potentially dangerous group of forwards who could find the medal stand.
SLOVAKIA -- Forwards Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik are capable of finding the back of the net often.
SWITZERLAND -- Nashville’s Roman Josi was the MVP of last year’s World Championships, leading the Swiss to a silver medal.