Sochi Group B: Canada favorite to advance to medal round
If group play wasn't already simply a preseason tuneup for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it might be now.
What was already a top-heavy Group B became even more so when Finland was dealt a severe blow to its hopes with the injury withdrawals of Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild and Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Missing its top two centers, Finland's best hopes for an automatic bye to the quarterfinals will most likely be through the wild-card spot. It's unfortunate because a healthy Finnish squad featuring undoubtedly the best goaltending in the tournament could have had a chance to finish first in the group.
Now, Group B is shaping up to be fodder for the Canadian machine to roll through on its way to the medal round.
Preliminary round play in Group B begins Thursday and concludes Sunday, when Canada and Finland face each other in the final game of group play in the tournament.
Here is a preview of Group B:
Coach: Mike Babcock
2010 Recap: Canada won the gold medal with an overtime victory against the United States.
Preview: Gold or go home.
In a nutshell, that describes Canada's outlook heading into the Olympics, or any international competition for that matter.
Canada has 11 returning players from the team that won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, including its top three defensemen (Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty), top two centers (Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews) and starting goaltender (Roberto Luongo). Among the 14 players being added to that group are the reigning Art Ross (Martin St. Louis) and Norris (P.K. Subban) Trophy-winners, and the NHL's third (John Tavares), ninth (Patrick Sharp), 17th (Chris Kunitz), 21st (Jamie Benn) and 24th (Matt Duchene) leading scorers.
In fact, Canada has 11 of the League's top 25 scorers among its 14 forwards. The rosters of all the other countries in the Olympic tournament combined have nine: the U.S. has three (Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and Joe Pavelski), Russia has two (Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin), Sweden has two (Erik Karlsson and Nicklas Backstrom), the Czech Republic has one (David Krejci) and Slovakia has one (Marian Hossa).
So really, whatever combination coach Mike Babcock comes up with from this group of forwards should work, at least in theory. Canada's depth at the position is best reflected by its response to the loss of Steven Stamkos, who had to pull out last week because his broken tibia hadn't sufficiently healed for him to play. In his place, Canada added St. Louis, a two-time NHL scoring champion and former Hart Trophy winner.
And St. Louis might be asked to play a checking role.
The main question mark for Canada, as it has been all along, remains in goal.
With Luongo returning as the defending gold medalist, it stands to reason that he will be given every opportunity to seize the starting goaltending job. Luongo's performance amid the pressure cooker in Vancouver four years ago has likely allowed him to get the benefit of the doubt from Babcock, but he is entering the tournament cold.
Playing behind a Vancouver Canucks defense decimated by injuries, Luongo allowed at least three goals in each of his final six starts prior to the Olympic break, posting an .880 save percentage in those games.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carey Price, who finished with a flourish prior to leaving for Sochi. He stopped 203 of 210 shots and posted two shutouts in his final six starts, a .967 save percentage.
Price's numbers took a dip during a run where he allowed at least four goals in five straight starts immediately prior to his current hot streak, but his save percentage of .925 on the season is still second among all goaltenders who will be in Sochi, behind only the .928 of Finland's Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.
Luongo's .917 save percentage ranks him seventh among Sochi-bound goalies, behind Rask, Price, Semyon Varlamov (Russia, Colorado Avalanche), Ryan Miller (United States, Buffalo Sabres), Henrik Lundqvist (Sweden, New York Rangers) and Sergei Bobrovsky (Russia, Columbus Blue Jackets).
Babcock has already said Luongo and Price will each start one of Canada's first two games of the group stage against Norway on Thursday and Austria on Friday before a final decision is made on the No. 1 job in goal.
On defense, it is another member of the Montreal Canadiens that represents what is basically the lone question among what is probably the strongest group in the tournament.
Subban's spot on this team was the subject of great debate right up until he was named Jan. 7, and now that he's on the team it remains to be seen in what capacity he will be used. He is fifth in scoring among League defensemen and is considered to be one of the most potent power play weapons in the world. It's possible Subban will dress exclusively to help in that area, just as it's possible Subban is used in a top-four role, or that he'll be scratched altogether.
One thing that is not in question is that Keith, Doughty and Weber will be the anchors of the Canadian defense, likely to log heavy minutes and play in all situations. No team can count on a top trio of defensemen as elite as Canada's.
Filling out the Canadian defense are Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester of the St. Louis Blues, who are almost guaranteed to play together on a third pair, along with Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks) and Dan Hamhuis (Canucks).
One of Vlasic or Hamhuis, both lefty shooters, will likely play the left side on Canada's second pairing, while the other might not dress.
Coach: Erkka Westerlund
Key players: G Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins), D Kimmo Timonen (Philadelphia Flyers), D Sami Salo (Tampa Bay Lightning), F Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), F Teemu Selanne (Anaheim Ducks)
2010 recap: Finland won the bronze medal by scoring four goals in the third period in a 5-3 win against Slovakia.
Preview: Finland has the strongest goaltending in the tournament with Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.
Unfortunately for the Finns, only one of them can play at a time.
Perhaps no team in tournament was more decimated by injuries than Finland, who officially lost Koivu and Filppula last week. When combined with the decision of Koivu's older brother Saku Koivu to remove himself from consideration for the team so he can focus his energy on the Anaheim Ducks and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Finland finds itself without three of its top centers.
That reality could thrust Aleksander Barkov into the spotlight.
The 18-year-old Florida Panthers rookie was already a great story simply by making the team, but now Barkov might be asked to play as its first-line center as well by the end of the tournament. Finland's depth chart down the middle has Barkov, Olli Jokinen of the Winnipeg Jets and Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild. It remains to be seen in what order those three players find themselves.
Just as Barkov may be in a position to play a role that belies his age, the same might be true of Pittsburgh Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta. One of four NHL defensemen on the team, Maatta's development was fast-tracked this season due to a number of injuries on the Penguins defense, and Finland might be the beneficiary of Pittsburgh's injury woes.
The 19-year-old could prove to be an important piece on Finland's blue line, one anchored by 38-year-old Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers and 39-year-old Sami Salo of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The possible emergence of Barkov and Maatta as stars on this Finnish team would be a symbol of the renewal on the roster. Finland has seven returning players from the team that claimed bronze in Vancouver, four on defense (Timonen, Salo, Lasse Kukkonen and Sami Lepisto), three at forward (Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and Teemu Selanne) and none in goal.
Despite the injury troubles and the lack of experience on the roster, Finland should not be written off as a medal contender in Sochi. The Suomi is the only team to have medaled in three of the four Winter Olympics that's included NHL players, and the leadership provided by veterans like Selanne and Timonen should not be discounted in a short tournament where pressure can get the best of you.
Past history would also suggest that the team with the best goaltending in the tournament can reach the podium.
Logic would dictate that Rask should win the starting job in goal, considering his .928 save percentage leads all NHL goalies participating at the Sochi Olympics. But should he falter, Finland has tremendous insurance policies in Lehtonen and Niemi.
If Finland plays Canada tight in the final game of the group stage, and blows out Austria and Norway, grabbing the wild card spot for a bye to the quarterfinals is not out of the question. And once the Finns reach that knockout stage of the tournament, they could see their goaltending catch fire for three games.
That scenario would see Finland on the Olympic podium, something that has become a habit for the Suomi.
Coach: Roy Johansen
Key players: F Mats Zuccarello (New York Rangers), G Lars Haugen, F Patrick Thoresen, D Ole-Kristian Tollefsen
2010 recap: Norway finished 10th in Vancouver, losing all four of its games.
Preview: For what the Norwegians lack in NHL players, they make up for in continuity.
There are 14 players back from the 2010 team that entered the third period of the play-in game against Slovakia tied 3-3 before losing 4-3 on a goal by Miroslav Satan. Norway also forced Switzerland to overtime in group play.
The most prominent of those players would be New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, the only NHL player Norway has. Zuccarello, who came to prominence at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, leads the Rangers in scoring with 43 points in 58 games.
Defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefson and forward Patrick Thoresen also have NHL experience, but the strength of Norway will come from the chemistry it established four years ago.
The one position with no returning players is in goal, where Lars Haugen of Dinamo Minsk of the KHL should get the bulk of the work.
Coach: Emanuel Viverois
Key players: F Thomas Vanek (New York Islanders), F Michael Grabner (New York Islanders), F Michael Raffl (Philadelphia Flyers)
2010 recap: Did not qualify
Preview: The Austrians will go as far as their trio of NHL forwards will take them.
Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders, and Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers, are the strength of the Austrian team, but the talent drops off rather significantly after those three.
Of the 25 players on the roster, 16 come from the domestic Austrian league, not one of the stronger circuits in Europe. Another three players come from the Swiss league and there is one each from the top leagues in Germany and Sweden, and one from the Swedish second division.
In goal, Austria will likely rely on Bernhard Starkbaum from Brynas Gavle of the Swedish Hockey League, who had a .934 save percentage in three games of Olympic qualifying last year.