Sochi 2014: Group A Preview

Bruce Bennett

We preview the toughest group in the tournament, with Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and USA.

The three groups in men's hockey tournament feature a fairly even distribution of the world's best teams, with two strong medal contenders per group (Russia and USA in Group A, Canada and Finland in Group B, and Sweden and Czech Republic in Group C). The reason I feel Group A is tougher than the others is that Slovakia isn't exactly a cupcake and they will give both of these teams a run for their money.

RUSSIA

One superstar after another at forward. A defense that beyond Voynov and Markov looks unspectacular, though they aren't bad players. Good goaltending, with reigning Vezina winner and another guy who'll probably be a finalist this year.

Russian lines at forward will be a thing of beauty. Malkin likes to play with Kulemin, but Bilyaletdinov honestly doesn't care what the players want. He recently said he'd probably have Ovechkin play on the left side, so Ovechkin-Malkin-Semin is a likely line combo there. Kovalchuk-Datsyuk-Nichushkin, Kulemin-Anisimov-Tarasenko, and Popov-Tikhonov-Radulov would all be great combinations.

Russian defensive corps is a bit suspect, to be perfectly honest, although 6 of 8 do play in the NHL. Markov isn't having a great year, but at least this time he gets to play with Malkin, not against him. After many injury-plagued months, Emelin is beginning to see the light of day, and Belov and Tyutin are dependable. For the most part these guys need to not get hemmed in their own zone for long stretches. If they can do that, I am score.

SLOVAKIA

The Slovak defense took one on the chin with Visnovsky not receiving medical clearance by NYI team doctors to play in Sochi. This is kind of suspect, because he is in fact playing for the Islanders last time I checked, but ... this is the Islanders after all. Slovakia might have to play Meszaros on the top pairing and that's not gonna be pretty.

Slovaks also lost Marian Gaborik, as his broken collarbone didn't heal in time to allow him to participate. This is a huge blow for them because it's not like "no Stamkos, no problem, we'll just add one of 17 NHL captains who didn't make the team". Slovakia has only a few genuinely elite players and without Gaby it will be that much easier to focus on Hossa and shut him down (that wouldn't make me sad, though). In the end, the Slovaks will go exactly as far as Halak takes them.

SLOVENIA

Um, Anze Kopitar and 24 other guys will try their best, and if they can get any points it would be fantastic. I think they're going to try hard, play their best, and maybe if Kristan gets hot, I mean stranger things have happened. Last May at the Worlds they took Canada to overtime and it was all kinds of hilarious. They actually led 3-2 late in the third and the panicked faces of Canadian players were priceless. That won't happen again, though, as the talent gap is much too wide.

USA

Team USA will bring grit and toughness, speed and great skating at forward, excellent goaltending and an experienced but somewhat questionable blue line. Another thing that Dan Bylsma is going to go out of his way to deliver will be excellent special teams - this is going to be his #1 focus. He knows that in Olympic competition even a small edge in special teams play is huge.

Here is how I would make the American lines: JVR-Kesler-Kessel; Parise-Pavelski-Kane; Pacioretty-Stastny-Callahan; Brown-Backes-Oshie. I will enjoy every second of that Backes line going out against the opposing team's top line. The only thing I will enjoy more will be watching Patrick Kane do his thing. One word describes team USA best: balance. More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more.

MATCH SCHEDULE

Here is the schedule for all 6 Group A games, converted to Eastern time. Given that there will be three games squeezed in four days, I don't expect the teams with several top goalies (USA, Russia, Finland, Canada) to play just one goalie - more than likely two guys will split the first three games and then take it from there.

DATE TIME GAME
Thursday, Feb 13 7:30 am EST Russia vs. Slovenia
Thursday, Feb 13 7:30 am EST Slovakia vs. United States
Saturday, February 15 3 am EST Slovakia vs. Slovenia
Saturday, February 15 7:30 am EST Russia vs. United States
Sunday, February 16 7:30 am EST Russia vs. Slovakia
Sunday, February 16 7:30 am EST Slovenia vs. United States

PREDICTED FINISH AFTER GROUP STAGE

Obviously the key matchup will be the one next Saturday, when Russia meets the United States. I think USA wins that match and finishes with 3 wins, Russia with 2, Slovakia with 1, and Slovenia with 0. USA and Russia will move straight on to the quarters, while the other two will have to play a qualification game, with Slovakia probably making the quarters as well. They are certainly more than good enough for that.

TV LISTINGS

Unlike many other sports that we have to watch on tape delays narrated by the insufferable Bob Costas and Mary Carillo, hockey will be shown live on NBC-affiliated networks in the US. Here is the full US TV schedule for Olympic hockey. Get your DVRs ready!

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