One of the loudest fan bases you will ever come across, they are a fun team to watch and be around. I expect just like other international tournaments they will win some neutral fans over to their side. While they do not have lots of fans they do have loud and proud fans.
What needs to go right for them to do well? They will need to find a way to score goals. Under head coach Ted Nolan I expect the focus of the team to play suffocating defence, however to win games Latvia will eventually need to find a way to score some goals.
Who to watch? There is only one NHL player on this roster, and he is still very young and unproven. However maybe some of the goals that I mention above will come from the stick of Zemgus Girgensons?
This will be Slovenia’s first time participating in the Olympic hockey tournament and will be a big step in growing the game in their country. This experience is not about how they do in these games but more on what is the impact to potential future Olympians.
What needs to go right for them to do well? To be honest I think this will be an overwhelming experience for them. The one bright spot is that they qualified without Anze Kopitar participating in the qualification process. Their best hope is that they can catch some teams by surprise and Anze Kopitar can score lots of goals.
Who to watch? Without question the rest of the Latvian team will be looking to Anze Kopitar to lead and shelter them. He is a complete player and should be able to help them at both ends of the ice. I have the feeling Kopitar understands the importance of this tournament and will rise to the occasion.
This is a program that continues to improve. While they are still new to the international scene their ability to continue to qualify for the major tournaments is a good sign that they are moving in the right direction.
What needs to go right for them to do well? The will need to get great goaltending and score timely goals. Luckily for them they have a player that has the ability to fill the net in Mats Zuccarello. While he is playing for an original six team in the NHL I am not sure that many people appreciate or know about his talent and speed.
Who to watch? Since I have already mentioned Mats above I will go with Lars Haugen. Full disclosure I have not watched any KHL games this year so all my information is second hand, however all accounts are that he has struggled this year. For Norway to have any chance he needs to play his best.
The last time that Austria qualified for the Olympics was 2002. They are led up front by Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner. What needs to go right for them to do well? Thomas Vanek will need to carry this team and light up the back of the net
What needs to go right in order for them to do well. As with all teams in the tournament goaltending will need to be exceptional. Their defence and goalies are their weakest position.
Who to watch? Thomas Vanek has elite level finish and is a pure goal scorer; the problem maybe that he does not have a center that can get him the puck in good scoring positions.
Team Czech Republic
It is my opinion that they made a mistake with their selections. I believe this team is too old and too slow to compete with the elite teams. Having said that many people thought Jagr was too old to continue to play in the NHL, yet he finds himself leading the New Jersey Devils in scoring.
What needs to go right for them to do well? While there is no questioning their talent up front, I believe special teams are going to be the key to their success. If they can penalty kill at a 90% rate or higher combined with having a greater than 20% powerplay than I think they will have a shot. I expect them to
take lots of hooking and holding penalties as they are too slow. When they are on the powerplay they have the skill to score.
Who to watch? Ondrej Pavelec is going to need to win games on his own for the Czech to have any success in this tournament. This is not good news for them as he has had a very shaky season for the Winnipeg Jets.
Know around the world as a goalie factory team Finland always seems to fly under the radar. Let’s not forget that they captured the Bronze medal in Vancouver four years ago and are looking to do even better this year.
What needs to go right for them to do well? In my mind this is an easy prediction to make. Whoever is between the pipes will need to play well for Finland to have success. Finland also executes a team defence mentality very well, which they will need to continue to do as their defence is not very strong. They will also need to score timely goals which I do believe they have the talent to do.
Who to watch? I believe there will be a passing of the guard this tournament and expect Mikael Granlund to take over from the likes of Teemu Selanne and Olli Jokinen.
The Cinderella team of the 2010 Olympics is hoping to prove that last time was no fluke. Let’s not forget that they were one post away from tying up the semi final game against Canada. The Slovaks area a well rounded team and if they are taken lightly the will pounce on the opportunity to knock a team off.
What needs to go right for them to do well? While there is no specific weakness or strength for this team, I think their ability to play a complete game and compete in all three zones will be the key. They have world class goalies, defensemen and forwards. If they can stick together and play as a team they have a chance to play for a medal again this year.
Who to watch? I think it is more a matter of what to watch as oppose to whom. If the Slovaks can sneak out a win against either the USA or Russia in the preliminary round, that will go a long way to boost their confidence that they should be considered among the best teams in the world. Has Zdeno Chara past his
prime? He is still a force to reckon with, but maybe mother time is starting to catch up?
I believe the Swiss are the team that has shown the most improvement over the last 15 years. Other smaller countries such as Norway, Latvia and Slovenia should look at what the Swiss program has done. I think they are going to ride the high of their silver medal at the world championships last year and be the surprise of the tournament this time around.
What needs to go right for them to do well? You can always count on the Swiss to have good goaltending and good team defence. They will need some timely scoring in order advance in the tournament and the Swiss now have the skill upfront to get those goals.
Who to watch? Jonas Hiller is the key to the Swiss team. Part of the reason why the Swiss were so successful in the world championship last spring was in large part because of the play of their goaltenders. Now that they have Hiller on the team I can only predict that their goaltending is at least that good.
While it is Canada and Russia that are getting most of the attention I think team Sweden is still really strong even though they have sustained some big injuries. They are very strong in all three areas of the team, forwards, defenseman and in net and are the reigning World Championship gold medalist. Unfortunately Sweden has run into some injury troubles which I do think will affect their ability to win gold.
What needs to go right for them to do well? Like the other superpower countries one of the challenges for the Swedish team is trying to come together as a team. I think if they can get out to a strong start the can silence all the whispers of how they lost to the Slovakian team and the last Olympics. As the team continues to play in the tournament I believe they will get stronger and stronger. They question now becomes can they score enough goals with the injuries they have sustained?
Who to watch? In my opinion they have the best goalie in the world in Henrik Lundqvist, who looks to be fully recovered from early season injury. He has the ability alone to win games. I predict that we will stand on his head and will their best player.
Much like the Swiss the Americans have a program that continues to evolve. They are icing their best team ever and are now considered one of the superpowers of hockey.
What needs to go right for them to do well? The Americans are in a tough group alongside the Russians, Slovaks and Slovenia. If the Americans are not careful I think the Slovaks can catch them off guard. I think the Americans need to get off to a quick start and build confidence that Vancouver 2012 was no fluke.
Who to watch? Ryan Suter is logging lots of ice time in the NHL right now. He is a difference maker for the Wild right now. If he can play at the same level for the Americans he will be asked to shut down the Ovechkin’s and Crosby’s of the world.
One of the traditional powerhouses in men’s hockey is going to have even more pressure on them as the host nation this year. I would put them as the favourites going into the tournament as they have several players comfortable with playing on international size ice. Not only that but they will have the home field advantage when it comes to things like food and accommodations. They are coming off a horrible 2010 games where Canada embarrassed them in the quarter finals.
What needs to go right for them to do well? There is no denying that Russia has the best offensive weapons in the tournament; however the really big question I have is their defence and mental stability. It will be important for Russia to get a couple of wins early on and gain confidence. If this team has to face any kind of adversity early my fear is they will self destruct. I also think that it is going to be important for the forwards to come back and help the defenseman and that is an area of weakness for the team.
Who to watch? All eyes will be on Alexander Ovechkin. As he will be the one expected lead the charge for Russia. If he can get hot it seems like there are times he is unstoppable. Another factor to consider is that if Ovechkin gets going I think his emotion will supercharge the rest of the team.
The reigning Olympic champions as usual come into this tournament with lots of pressure and scrutiny. While expectations are for them to capture the gold again, it is safe to say that expectations are not as high as they were last Olympics on home soil. Also consider the fact that the Canadians have not medaled in an Olympic games that were played on international size ice.
What needs to go right for them to do well? They are a team that is build to score goals and create scoring chances with their speed. If their defenseman can effectively move the puck up to their forwards and whoever is in net does not let in a bad goal then I think Canada has a great chance.
Who to watch? Matt Duchene is really designed for the big ice surface, his game breaking speed and nose for the net will be a underrated addition to team Canada. There may have been some people who were surprised with the inclusion of Matt on the team, but I suspect this will be his breakout performance.