2014-Sochi-Winter-Olympics2014 Winter Olympics Hockey Odds, Picks and Predictions: Gold Medal Favorites, Dark Horses and Sleepers: Opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are set for February 7, and while the NHL will go on hiatus during for nearly a month, most of the league’s stars will still be action as they head to Russia to try to bring home a gold medal for their country. Four years ago in Vancouver, Pittsburgh Penguins’ star Sidney Crosby delivered the gold to Canada by netting the game-winning goal in a 3-2 overtime victory over the United States. Canada will be trying to become the first country to win gold in back-to-back Olympics since Russia in 1984 and 1988, but there are plenty of other countries that will have something to say about that. With that in mind, here is a closer look at the countries that could bring home the gold medal in hockey at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Favorites

When you consider that NHL stars such as Claude Giroux, Taylor Hallo, Tyler Seguin and Martin St. Louis were left off the roster, it becomes obvious just how loaded Canada is heading to Sochi. In Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Canada has four players that currently rank in the top 5 in points in the NHL, including the top 3. They also boast four of the top-7 scoring defensemen in the NHL this year in Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban and Shea Webber. Throw in fellow NHLers like Patrick Marleau, Chirs Kunitz and Patrick Sharp, who have all topped 20 goals, and excellent table-setters like Jonathan Toews and Matt Duchene, and the firepower on this team is unreal. By the way, Canada might get goal-scoring machine Steven Stamkos back from a leg injury in time for Sochi, as well. With Roberto Luongo and Carey Price, this team also has quality goal tending. If Canada gets solid play between the pipes, they are going to be a handful.

There is a good chance that Russia will be giving the home crowd something to cheer about in Sochi. After all, the team’s offense is led by NHL superstars Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, and the trip will be joined by former NHL star turned KHL star Ilya Kovalchuk. Throw in young snipers like Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin, and there is no shortage of firepower on this team. Granted, Russia blue-liners aren’t the most intimidating, but with defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in net, this team can more than hold its own in tight game. If Russia’s stars perform at a high level in Sochi, they have the weapons to take home the gold medal.

The Dark Horses

Injuries seemed destined to derail the gold medal chances of Sweden, but the team’s stars are getting healthy just in time for Sochi, starting with goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Offensive stalwarts Henrik Zetterberg, Alexander Steen and Daniel Alfredsson are also have also been back on the ice and will join fellow NHLers Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Gabriel Landeskog and Nicklas Backstrom to form a potent scoring attack. Erik Karlsson also gives this team dynamic player on the blue line, but overall, Sweden’s defensive lineup isn’t the best. Still, if Lundqvist is on his game, Sweden has enough other pieces in place to win gold.

While they may not have the star power of Russia or Canada, the United States is blessed with excellent depth at every position. Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick give the U.S. two legitimate options in net, and Ryan Suter, Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler are a few of the bigger names among a rock solid group of defenders. Offensively, snipers like Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, Max Pacioretty and Patrick Kane are all capable of shouldering the scoring load, and Zach Parise is recovered from an injury just in time to join the party. Meanwhile, T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny both head to Sochi playing excellent hockey, and any line the United States puts on the ice is capable of scoring goals. Depth should have the U.S. in the mix, and if one or two players can have special performances, another run at a gold medal isn’t out of the question.

In hockey, there is no substitute for a hot goalie, and Finland has three NHL starters at their disposal in Tuukka Rask, Antii Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. Rask in particular has been one of the NHL’s elite net-minders the past couple of years, and he could carry Finland on a special run. Offensively, injuries to Saku and Mikko Koivu aren’t ideal, but Valtteri Flippula, Mikael Granlund and Jussi Jokinen are all enjoying strong seasons in the NHL this year and could do some damage. At the very least, Finland will likely be a tough out, and with strong enough play in net, anything is possible.

The Sleeper

Thanks to a nice blend of youth and experience, the Czech Republic can’t be counted out in Sochi. Veterans like Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and Petr Nedved will join David Krejci, Ondrej Palat, Vladimir Sobotka and Jakub Voracek to form what could become a special scoring attack. However, questions do remain regarding the Czech Republic’s goalies. Ondrej Pavelec is the lone NHLer on the roster, and he is giving up almost 3 goals per game Winnipeg this year while barely stopping 90 percent of the shots sent his way. Obviously, those numbers will have to improve, but if the Czech Republic can find a hot hand in net, they have enough playmakers on offense to make some noise.

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