Group A: Russia, United States, Slovenia, Slovakia
The Olympics are finally here, which means that it’s time for Olympic hockey. In this four article series, Anthony Pucik breaks down each Group in the tournament, as well as predicts the eventual winner. First up, team USA, team Russia and Group A.
When team USA drew Germany, Portugal and Ghana in their group for the World Cup coming up this summer, many characterized that group as the “Group of Death” that would be the hardest to come out of. Well, the same could be said for the USA in the Sochi Olympics, as they have been drawn in Group A with home country Russia, Slovenia and Slovakia. In this group alone there are two favorites who have been picked to be in the gold medal game in Russia and the United States, so for them to play one another in order to earn seeding in playoff qualifications will be extremely challenging and potentially make one of them miss a bye. Here is a breakdown of all four of the Group A teams strengths and weaknesses.
Before the breakdown, let’s examine how the group stage works. Each team plays one another in a round robin format. That means there are three games, each team playing one another in their respective group once. After those games are done, the teams will be seeded: first based on highest position in the group, then number of points, then goal difference, highest number of goals scored for and (if it needs to go any further) 2013 World Ranking by the IIHF.
First let’s take a look at team Russia, the home country for these Olympics. Aside from playing in front of their countrymen and countrywomen, the Russians have one of the most dangerous offenses out of any team in these Olympic games. Names like Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin pop off the roster immediately, but then there are also secondary scorers like Ilya Kovalchuk, now in the KHL, Artem Anisimov and Alex Semin who are also a threat to score from nearly every place on the ice. With an offense like theirs, and with the crowd on their side, the Russians could easily take control of a game with their offensive threats alone.
The biggest weakness for Russia, however, is their defense. Aside from Fedor Tyutin and Slava Voynov, not many names jump out at you on the Russian blue line. Their lack of talent on defense could lead to very high scoring games, and while they can make up for their defensive holes with their offensive depth in group play, it might become more problematic in the playoff rounds. I see the Russians sweeping Group A, taking all three games and earning nine points along with a bye in the playoff rounds.
Next up in Group A is team USA. One of the biggest assets the United States has is between the pipes. Both Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick, the projected starter, have Olympic experience and have proven themselves at the Olympic level before. Miller was MVP of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver due to his tremendous play. Without him, the USA might not have gotten as far as the gold medal game. Great goaltending will get you far in hockey, whether it be in the NHL or in the Olympics, and because team USA has Quick and Miller, they have a great chance to win every game they play, regardless of the opponent.
One of the biggest weaknesses for the USA, though, is their third and fourth line scoring. While the USA knows what they’ll be getting out of Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, and Joe Pavelski, third and fourth liners like Ryan Callahan, Max Pacioretty, Dustin Brown and T.J. Oshie are all question marks. All of these players have the potential to score, but they are not as skilled as other teams with much more depth on their third and fourth lines in terms of scoring. The lack of scoring depth won’t do much to hurt the USA in games against Slovakia and Slovenia, but it will affect their play against Russia in my opinion, causing them to lose one of their three games in Group A, earning them six points.
Next comes Slovakia. While it is hard to stack up against USA and Russia, Slovakia does not have a bad team. There is plenty of upside on the top defensive pairs and lines for the Slovaks, which is their biggest asset. Marian and Marcel Hossa along with the stellar play of youngster Tomas Tatar gives Slovakia good scorers on their top lines, while defenseman like Zdeno Chara, Andrej Meszaros and Andrej Sekera hang with the NHL’s best on a night in and night out basis, providing a solid two defensive pairings. Outside of these players, though, the depth is just not there like it is for teams like Russia and the USA. Injuries sidelining forward Marian Gaborik and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky hurt Slovakia greatly, and the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj is certainly not one of the best. Lack of depth will hurt against teams like the USA and Russia, so Slovakia will only pull out a win against Slovenia to earn three points in the group stages.
Rounding out the first group is Slovenia. In a group that is packed teams that are chock full of NHL players, the Slovenians are at a severe disadvantage in that department. The only real big threat that they have at any position is Anze Kopitar, meaning teams will key on him whenever he is on the ice. They are at a severe disadvantage at the defensive and goaltending positions, where they do not have any major superstars. It will be hard for Slovenia to compete against all of the teams in Group A, and I think they will come out of groups with three loses and no points.
Continue to follow Anthony’s Olympic hockey previews on WFUVSports.org.