Sochi Group C: Sweden favorites, but don't overlook Swiss
Three teams with medal aspirations and a potentially plucky upstart could make Group C the deepest and most intriguing of the three at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Sweden will be favored to top the group but there could be an adjustment period while the players find roles with Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen missing because of injury. The Czech Republic also is short a few key players, including a couple of curious self-imposed omissions.
Switzerland will be everyone's upset pick after finishing second at the 2013 World Championship. Latvia finished last in group play four years ago but also gave the Czechs a scare in the qualification round and has Buffalo Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan behind the bench.
Here's a breakdown of the four teams from Group C, which has the distinction of getting the tournament underway with two games (Czech Republic vs. Sweden, Switzerland vs. Latvia) Wednesday.
Coach: Alois Hadamczik
Key players: G Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets), D Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey Devils), C Tomas Plekanec (Montreal Canadiens), RW Jaromir Jagr (New Jersey Devils)
2010 recap: The Czech Republic went 2-1 during the preliminary round (loss to Russia). Defeated Latvia in the qualification round and then lost 2-0 to Finland in the quarterfinals.
Preview: After three straight years with a medal the Czechs were bounced early at the 2013 World Championship, just as they were four years ago at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It will be a lot of the same players from the group that went to Vancouver.
The strength of the team is at center. Tomas Pleckanec, David Krejci and Martin Hanzal is a 1-2-3 punch that can hang with any of the top trios in the tournament. Plekanec's defensive prowess will be an asset and he'll likely draw the toughest assignments.
Krejci rarely seems to earn the credit he deserves. He has led the Stanley Cup Playoffs in scoring twice in a three-season span. The last player to do that was Mario Lemieux.
Jagr had a tournament to forget four years ago (being on the receiving end of a thunderous hit from Alex Ovechkin is not the biggest lasting memory anyone is looking for) but he's returned to the League and proven he can still play at a high level there since Vancouver. There's little left to prove for Jagr, but a productive Olympic tournament at his age would be another reason to consider him among the top five forwards in the history of the sport.
The other wings include a couple of players who have had substandard NHL seasons like Milan Michalek and Martin Erat, but that could change in this tournament. Veteran Patrik Elias also could end up on the top line with Plekanec and Jagr, and Jakub Voracek is another strong top-six player at the team's disposal.
Jagr is not the only top-five pick in the 1990 NHL Draft on the Czech roster, and he's not the oldest player either. That would be Petr Nedved, who hasn't played in the League since 2006-07 but continues to produce in the Czech league.
There's plenty of experience on the blue line, but is it too much? Zidlicky should be on the top pairing and run the power play. He's joined by Zbynek Michalek and Michal Roszival at the front of an interesting defense corps that lacks the star power some of the other participants have at the position.
Ondrej Pavalec has been playing better for the Jets since coach Paul Maurice arrived and the Czechs will hope that continues. Tomas Hertl could have helped this team but is out because of an injury. Leaving Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata off the roster is an interesting move, one that probably won't be forgotten if the team struggles to score.
The Czechs are one of the teams where a wide range of results are possible in this tournament. If Pavelec plays well they could certainly play for a medal. They also could lose to Switzerland in the preliminary round and to someone in the quarterfinals.
Coach: Ted Nolan
Key players: G Kristers Gudlevskis (Syracuse Crunch), C Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo Sabres), D Sandis Ozolinsh (Dinamo Riga)
2010 recap: Latvia lost three preliminary round games by a 19-4 margin to earn the No. 12 seed in qualification play but nearly pulled off a historic upset before losing to the Czchs 3-2 in overtime.
Preview: While Nolan and Girgensons have been together in Buffalo, another player in upstate New York could be the key to a better tournament in 2014 than the one four years ago. Gudlevskis was a 2013 fifth-round pick (No. 124) by the Tampa Bay Lightning and has 22 games with their American Hockey League affiliate this season.
He's only 21 but there could be chances for Gudlevskis to steal a game for the Latvians with a big performance. Girgensons is the only current NHL player but three players in the defense corps have prior experience in the League. The big name is Sandis Ozolinsh, who is a baby compared to Jagr and Nedved (OK, he's from the 1991 draft class) and is playing in his third Olympics after missing the tournament four years ago.
Oskars Bartulis and Arturs Kulda have fewer than 100 NHL games between them but they have played them since Ozolinsh went to the Kontinental Hockey League. Forward Kaspers Daugavins will be counted on to do more than advance the puck with the toe of his stick, though watch for that ploy if the Latvians get to a shootout.
After finishing 12th in group play in Vancouver, the Latvians will be looking to avoid bad losses and easily could end up a couple spots higher. The Czechs and the Swiss each will be strong favorites but each could be vulnerable. An upset in the qualification round would be historic for Latvia, but even a point in pool play followed by a strong effort in the qualification round would be a step forward.
Coach: Par Marts
Key players: G Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers), C Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), C Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals), D Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix Coyotes)
2010 recap: Sweden rolled through group play undefeated and earned the No. 2 seed in the quarterfinals but was defeated 4-3 by Slovakia to end a bid for back-to-back championships.
Sweden was going to miss Johan Franzen, but also losing Henrik Sedin is a big blow. Zetterberg and Backstrom should be fine anchoring the top two lines, but with Sedin the Swedes were better at center than any team without a maple leaf in the logo. Patrik Berglund likely will see more ice time and Marcus Kruger should be a fine center on the fourth line.
Daniel Sedin doesn't need his brother to be a great player but their connection will be missed. This is a fantastic collection of wings with a mix of young (Gabriel Landeskog, Jakob Silfverberg), old (Daniel Alfredsson), fast (Carl Hagelin, Gustav Nyquist and Marcus Johansson) and elite two-way play (Loui Eriksson and Alexander Steen). There are plenty of options to find goal scorers here.
The Swedes left one of the top young defensemen (Victor Hedman) in the League off the roster and still have one of top groups in the tournament. Oliver Ekman-Larsson isn't really underrated anymore, but he'll have a grander stage to showcase his all-round skill set, possibly next to the offensive wizard Erik Karlsson.
The rest of the defense corps could be players who skate together on their NHL teams, but that could also mean the Vancouver Canucks' Alexander Edler is left without a regular partner.
Several gold-medal contenders in this tournament do not know who the No. 1 goaltender is. That is not a problem for Sweden, and Henrik Lundqvist's early-season wobbles also don't appear to be either.
Lundqvist won the Olympics in 2006 before he was a superstar and has collected a Vezina Trophy and a massive contract extension since then. If he can earn a second gold medal his credentials as the best in the game currently at the position could be tough to dispute.
Sweden was a popular pick to win gold before Henrik Sedin's injury. The Swedes still might put out the most complete lineup and still can win the tournament. They should win this group, with nine points not a lock but a strong possibility. Canada appears to have the easiest path to the top seed but strong play in the early going from Lundqvist could make this team the favorite at the start of the single-elimination contests.
Coach: Sean Simpson
Key players: G Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks), D Roman Josi (Nashville Predators), D Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers), RW Damien Brunner (New Jersey Devils)
2010 recap: Switzerland pushed Canada to a shootout in the opening round but also needed overtime to defeat Norway. After earning the No. 8 seed the Swiss defeated Belarus in a shootout but then lost 2-0 to the United States in the quarterfinals.
Preview: The Swiss no longer can be considered a plucky underdog story at the top international competitions. They've been a tough out for several years but the breakthrough came at the 2013 World Championship.
It wasn't a fluky run to a silver medal either. Switzerland won all seven group-stage games, including a shootout victory against Canada and regulation victories against Sweden and the Czech Republic before a second defeat of the Czechs and a shutout of the United States to reach the final.
Though those countries didn't have a full assortment of top players, the Swiss didn't have Jonas Hiller or Damian Brunner either. The Swiss league has evolved into the one of the best in Europe, and NHL players showing up there during the 2004-05 work stoppage may have helped spur the country to greater heights in the long term.
The flip side of the success is expectations never have been higher for this group. Hiller is the undisputed No. 1 goaltender for the team on top of the NHL standings. Roman Josi is a rising star and was the MVP of the 2013 Worlds.
Brunner joins many of the top offensive contributors from the 2013 team up front. The defense corps has four NHL players, and that doesn't include 2010 Olympian Luca Sbisa.
This might be just the right group for Switzerland to gauge its progress. The Swiss should handle Latvia but how do they respond to being clear-cut favorites? The Czechs will be looking to avenge the two losses from the World Championship and that is a huge game for seeding purposes in the qualification round.
Switzerland does not need to medal in this tournament to consider it a success but that certainly remains the goal. Second place in the group and a strong showing in the quarterfinals would be a strong effort as the country tries to continue its path to potential power.