Group A: U.S., Russia to battle for top spot
Two gold-medal contenders will battle for an automatic trip to the quarterfinal round with one of the surprise contenders from four years ago and a national team making its first trip to the Olympics in Group A.
The United States and Russia will play one of the most anticipated games in the preliminary round of the 2014 Sochi Olympics men's ice hockey tournament Saturday. The Americans open the tournament Thursday against Slovakia, the losers in the bronze-medal game four years ago. The Russians play Olympic rookie Slovenia at the same time.
Group play concludes Feb. 16 when the United States plays Slovenia and the Russians play the Slovaks.
Here is a preview of Group A:
Coach: Dan Bylsma
Key players: G Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres), G Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings), D Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild), LW Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild), RW Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), C David Backes (St. Louis Blues)
2010 recap: The Americans won the silver medal in Vancouver after losing to Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game.
Preview: It's an understatement to say expectations internally and externally are higher heading into Sochi than they were heading into Vancouver four years ago.
The Americans were underdogs in 2010; they're favorites now.
The Americans were not supposed to medal four years ago; they have legitimate gold-medal aspirations now.
The Americans had two players from the 2006 Olympic team play on the 2010 team; they have 13 players from the 2010 team on this year's roster.
The United States has not medaled at an Olympics outside of North America since 1972. They captured the bronze medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship split between Sweden and Finland, but only three players from that team are on the Olympic team (Paul Stastny, T.J. Oshie and Justin Faulk).
To fulfill their expectations of winning gold in Sochi, the Americans are first going to have to identify a No. 1 goalie. The choice is between Miller and Quick, though Jimmy Howard also is an option even though he's likely in Sochi as the third goalie.
Identifying a No. 1 in net might not happen in the preliminary round, but provided his team gets through that and into the quarterfinals, Bylsma knows he has to have his choice firmly in place in the win-or-go-home portion of the tournament.
The United States opens against Slovakia, plays Russia in its second game, and then closes the preliminary round against Slovenia.
Miller has the experience at the Olympic level -- he was the MVP of the tournament in Vancouver. However, Quick has been more battle-tested of late, having been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four straight seasons and winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, when he also was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Miller hasn't played in the playoffs since 2011 or won a round since going to the Eastern Conference Final in 2007.
Miller has been the more consistent goalie this season largely because he has played the entire season. Quick was out of the lineup for nearly two months with a groin injury but had a strong January despite the fact the Kings were slumping because they couldn't score. Then again, Miller hasn't had much in the way of goal support, or really any support all season from the last-place Sabres.
One question Bylsma has to ask himself: Will Quick's aggressiveness work with defensemen who are not used to playing with him?
Quick is known for coming out of his crease to challenge shooters. He is one of the most aggressive goalies in the NHL, but the Kings defensemen all know that and they understand that they need to give him room, especially at the top of the crease, where the athletic Quick likes to play. None of the American Olympic defensemen ever have played in a game with Quick, so they'll have to adjust to his style.
While Miller is not nearly as aggressive as Quick, he did make it a point to challenge shooters in the 2010 Olympics and could decide to do the same in Sochi.
Bylsma also has to consider which goalie will better handle the different angles on the larger, international ice. The rink is 15 feet wider, so the angles for goaltenders are different. Quick has no experience on the big ice and Miller hasn't played on it in a meaningful way since the 2003 IIHF World Championship in Finland.
It's Howard who has the most recent experience on the big ice, having served as the United States' top goaltender at the 2012 World Championship that was split between Sweden and Finland.
Suffice to say this is an interesting and potentially difficult decision for Bylsma.
The decisions up front will be all about chemistry and finding the right line combinations. Bylsma has three sets of teammates who could start the tournament as linemates in Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan from the New York Rangers, Backes and Oshie from the St. Louis Blues and James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It's possible Bylsma will separate those three pairs early in the tournament, but to foster chemistry it might make sense to try it out at least in the first game or two.
Center depth has been discussed in the media as a concern for the Americans, but Bylsma does have five to choose from. Backes, Stepan and Ryan Kesler appear to be locks to play in the middle. If Bylsma decides to put Joe Pavelski on the wing then Stastny will be the fourth center. If Pavelski plays center then Bylsma will have the option to dress Stastny as his 13th forward.
The American defense is young, with six first-time Olympians joining Suter and Brooks Orpik from the 2010 team. Paul Martin was supposed to play in Vancouver, but an injury prevented him from participating.
It's an unbalanced defense with five left-handed shots and three righties, but Bylsma can balance his top six.
The American blue line is filled with strong skaters who bring some offensive skill in Suter, Faulk, John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler. Orpik and Martin, the two most veteran defensemen, should be the safe options that are necessary for success on the big ice.
Most teams will want to play a skill game, but for a defenseman, taking the safe route on the big ice typically is the best route because recovering from a mistake is harder.
Coach: Zinetula Bilyaletdinov
Key players: LW/RW Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), LW/RW Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St. Petersburg), C Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), G Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), G Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets), C Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings)
2010 recap: The Russians lost to Canada 7-3 in the quarterfinals in Vancouver.
Preview: The pressure is on the Russians the same way it was on the Canadians four years ago. How the Russians handle that pressure, or how well they deflect it, could determine how likely they are to be at the top of the medal stand Feb. 23.
The good thing is their coach knows a thing or two about pressure, both failing to live up to it and overcoming it. Bilyaletdinov played for the Soviet Union team that lost to the Americans in 1980 and then came back to win the gold medal in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.
Russia is going through a minor changing of the guard, as they have 16 first-time Olympians in Sochi, most notably Varlamov, Bobrovsky and defenseman Slava Voynov.
Bilyaletdinov has a team loaded with high-end forwards, but they might have to make up for some deficiencies along the blue line. Fortunately, Russia has a strong goaltending core with the red-hot Bobrovsky and the steady Varlamov.
Russia has four forwards in Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin and Datsyuk who could play in any top six on any team in the tournament. Ovechkin and Kovalchuk could play on either wing, so they could play on the same line. Malkin and Datsyuk are dynamic yet different centers, so Russia should be able to play a power and a speed game.
Russia has a solid third-line center in Artem Anisimov who is having a strong season for the Columbus Blue Jackets. He's defensively responsible and can put up some numbers too. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin could join Anisimov on the third line, making it more of a checking/scoring line.
Alexander Popov and Alexander Svitov also are options in the middle for Bilyaletdinov. Popov, who plays for Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, has 32 points in 46 games. Svitov, who plays for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL, is strong in the faceoff circle, having won 56.8 percent of his draws so far this season. However, he has 12 points in 46 games.
Potentially joining Ovechkin and Kovalchuk as top-six forwards are Carolina Hurricanes right wing Alexander Semin and former Nashville Predators left wing Alexander Radulov, who has 34 points in 33 games for CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
Semin was a late addition to the roster as a replacement for Dynamo Moscow forward Sergei Soin, who had to withdraw because of a knee injury. Semin has had a difficult season in Carolina but improved right around the time he was named to the Olympic roster.
First-time Olympians Vladimir Tarasenko, Valeri Nichushkin and Viktor Tikhonov, who plays for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, should be relied on to provide some scoring depth, but they can't be overcome by the moment.
If the Russians have a weakness, it's on defense, where they have seven left-shot players to only one righty and no real speedster. Compounding the problem is the fact that Ovechkin, Semin and Radulov, three forwards who expect to receive a lot of ice time, are not known for coming back hard into the defensive zone. Datsyuk is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of 14 straight games before he returned last Thursday.
Russia could become susceptible to giving up Grade A scoring chances to other high-end teams like Canada, Sweden and the United States.
Bilyaletdinov has an interesting dilemma on the blue line too. He has three natural pairs in Columbus teammates Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, Montreal Canadiens teammates Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin and Ak Bars teammates Ilya Nikulin and Evgeni Medvedev. However, Russia's top defenseman might be Voynov, who doesn't have a natural pair and is used to playing on the left side.
If all goes to plan, Markov and Voynov should lead the Russian defense in minutes played.
Goaltending should not be a concern with Bobrovsky and Varlamov competing for the No. 1 job.
Bobrovsky, last season's Vezina Trophy winner, has rebounded from a slow, injury-riddled start to the season and has helped lift the Blue Jackets into playoff position in the Metropolitan Division. Varlamov has been strong all season.
Coach: Vladimir Vujtek
Key players: G Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis Blues), D Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins), RW Marian Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks)
2010 recap: The Slovaks reached the bronze-medal game after beating Sweden, the defending gold medalists, in the quarterfinals. They lost to Finland in the third-place game. The fourth-place finish is Slovakia's best in the Olympics since the split from Czechoslovakia.
Preview: The Slovaks again enter the tournament as underdogs despite having one of the best defensemen in the world in Chara and one of the top right wings in Hossa. They were underdogs in 2010 but gave Canada a run in the semifinals before losing 3-2. They then had a 3-1 lead on Finland entering the third period of the bronze-medal game but gave up four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes and lost 5-3.
Vujtek took over as the national team coach in 2011, replacing former Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon. He led the Slovaks to a second-place finish in the 2012 IIHF World Championship.
Slovakia's chances at a medal, or at least being the upset specialist again, took a major hit when Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Marian Gaborik broke his collarbone earlier this season. Gaborik will not play in the Olympics, and for a team like Slovakia, it's just about impossible to replace someone who is a three-time 40-goal scorer in the NHL.
Gaborik led Slovakia with four goals in the 2010 Olympics.
Chara leads a defense corps that clearly is made better by his presence. He is one of three veteran NHL defensemen on Slovakia's roster, plus former NHL defenseman Milan Jurcina.
Lubomir Visnovsky was selected to play, but he returned recently from a concussion and reportedly accepted the New York Islanders' decision to not let him go to Sochi.
The other two veteran NHL defensemen are Andrej Meszaros and Andrej Sekera. Martin Marincin is 21 years old and has been in and out of the Edmonton Oilers' lineup this season.
Opposing coaches are going to work on a game plan to stop Hossa, or at least not let him beat them. The Slovaks will need some first-time Olympians like Detroit Red Wings teammates Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco to step up to provide some offense.
Tomas Kopecky and Michal Handzus give the Slovaks experience down the middle, but they could have problems against quicker opponents like the Russians and Americans.
Former New York Rangers prospect Tomas Zaborsky, a left wing, has 21 goals and 41 points in 52 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL.
Halak could be the difference in Slovakia's chances of going deep in the tournament the way he was in 2010, when he posted a 2.41 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in seven games. Halak now has Olympic experience and he's having a strong season for the Blues, but he has been susceptible to some bad goals.
Coach: Matjaz Kopitar
Key players: C Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings), LW Jan Mursak (CSKA Moscow)
2010 recap: Slovenia did not participate in the 2010 Olympics. The country is making its first Olympic appearance this year in Sochi.
Preview: For Slovenia, just qualifying for the Olympics is the equivalent to winning a medal. This is the first time the country has qualified for the Olympics since becoming a country after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Slovenia did provide all the players for Yugoslavia's team at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.
Anze Kopitar is the only NHL player on Slovenia's roster. Mursak is a former prospect with the Detroit Red Wings.
Slovenia was ranked 17th in the world by the IIHF when it qualified for the Olympics by beating out Belarus, Ukraine and Denmark. The Slovenians finished 16th at the 2013 IIHF World Championship, but they didn't have Kopitar and still took Canada to overtime in the preliminary round. Their best finish in the World Championship is 13th, in 2002 and 2005.
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Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer