When it comes to Olympic hockey on the women’s side of things, it is pretty much a battle between Canada and the US, with everyone else competing for bronze.
The men’s side is a bit more competitive, with four teams with realistic hopes for gold. The defending champion Canadians are a strong contender to repeat. Team USA, the silver medal winners in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, have also got to be considered to be in the running. The host Russians have a good shot with their explosive offense that includes Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk. Even the Swedes, with a strong blue line and good goaltending, are outside contenders for a gold medal.
With that in mind, the question becomes this: is there another country from outside that group that can be considered a sleeper to get on the podium? Sure, places like Latvia and Norway aren’t very likely to get into the medal round, and Slovenia doesn’t have a real strong chance either. Even excluding nations like that, there are three other countries that could have what it takes to compete for a bronze medal, or even loftier ambitions if they can pull off a few upsets along the way.
First and foremost among those countries is Finland. Largely written off because of the explosive firepower of other teams in the field, the Finns have a couple of things working in their favor. First and foremost, they have a ridiculously strong group of goaltenders playing in Sochi. Leading the way for them in the crease is Tuukka Rask, who led the Boston Bruins to within two wins of a Stanley Cup last season. He is backed up ably by both Antti Niemi, who does have a Cup ring to his credit, and Kari Lehtonen, who is one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL.
In addition to their strong goaltending, Finland also has a relatively easy group to get through. Sure, a February 16th game against the Canadians isn’t going to be a cakewalk, but games against Norway and Austria don’t necessarily pose that big of a challenge. Worst case scenario, the Finns finish with a record of 1-1-1 in pool play, and they’ll be forced to play in the qualification round. If things go according to plan, Finland could end up 2-0-1, and that would likely be good enough to get them a bye to the quarterfinals.
Another team that could potentially make some noise from outside the main group is Slovakia. Loaded with veteran talents on both sides of the ice in Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara, the Slovaks could very well make a big statement as they tangle with Slovenia, the US, and the host Russians.
Finally, the last team that could really make a big statement and get to the medal stand in Sochi is the Swiss team. No, they aren’t decorated with the biggest list of NHL players, but compared to previous years, this team is pretty talent-rich from the world’s premier hockey league. In goal, the Swiss will have Anaheim Ducks stalwart Jonas Hiller, and he’ll be helped out by defensemen like Mark Streit (Philadelphia), Yannick Weber (Vancouver), and Raphael Diaz (Vancouver).
On offense, they have a couple of solid players, with Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter heading up the list. Where the Swiss make their chocolate (worst pun ever, we concede) is going to be in the way that their forward group plays. They are a feisty team with a lot of physicality, and they will use a suffocating blend of that and their great forecheck to cause a lot of issues for their opponents.
With a field loaded with talent at the top, it’s easy to lose sight of how talented some of the mid-tier nations are, and that could work to the advantage of any of these three countries we’ve listed. While some may be surprised if a team like Switzerland or Slovakia makes the medal stand, the truth is that it’s anybody’s gold, and the competition for victory in the tournament will be as intense as ever.