Quick note: I don't expect to cover the women's tournament much. It kind of sucks. Sorry. It's not their fault. They play under catastrophically shitty rules and the disparity between North America and All The Other Teams makes the majority of that event really dull.
Ladies and gentlemen of Mile High Hockey, welcome to Sochi, Russia. It's time for some LYMPICS! ERMAGERD!
The opening ceremony is/was today, depending on when you read this, but that didn't stop the figure skating, snowboarding, and women's moguls from already getting underway yesterday. Eager beavers they are. The women start their prelims in hockey tomorrow, and the Main Event of the winter games, men's hockey, kicks off on Wednesday, February 12. Here's the dates to keep in mind, assuming the North American viewer of course because what would the Olympics be without some good ol NATIONALISTIC FERVOR.
Feb. 8: USA v Finland, Canada v Switzerland (women's prelims)
Feb. 10: USA v. Switzerland, Canada v. Finland (women's prelims)
Feb. 12: USA v CAN (women's prelims)
Feb. 13: USA v. Slovakia, Canada v. Norway (men's prelims)
Feb. 14: Canada v. Austria (men's prelims)
Feb. 15: USA v. Russia (men's prelims)
Feb. 16: USA v. Slovenia, Canada v. Finland (men's prelims)
Feb. 18-19: Men's knockout round begins
Feb. 20: Women's medal round (if this isn't Sweden v. Finland followed by USA v. Canada, it's strange)
Feb. 21: Men's semifinals
Feb. 22: Men's bronze medal game
Feb. 23: Iggy! Iggy! Men's gold medal game
12 nations sent delegations to the Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena, split into three groups of four. They'll play a preliminary round-robin in which every team plays every other team in the group once. The 3-2-1 points system will be in place here. A regulation win is worth 3; OT/SO win 2; OT/SO loss 1. The teams will be seeded 1-12 based on an only mildly complicated algorithm. Group rank is the first criteria; teams are organized within that group rank based on points. The tiebreakers are lain down all the way to 2012 IIHF ranking but who cares?
Seeds 1-4, meaning the group winners and the Best of the Rest, get a day off while 5-12 begin knockout play in a pretty standard bracket. The winners of those matches take on the teams who had byes in the quarterfinals and it's ez from there.
Alas, the US and Canada were not placed into the same group again this year. It's a shame too because getting 2 USA-CAN games in one Olympics in 2010 was a fuckin treat. Classics, both of em.
The Pros: The host nation, and a team with medal hopes. The high-end talent on this team is gargantuan. Alex Ovechkin. Pavel Datsyuk (although he's banged up). Evgeni Malkin. Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky. Slava Voynov. Ilya Kovalmoneybags.
The Cons: The back end is somewhat suspect, as are the depth forwards. Being the host nation is a double-edged sword as well. That's a shedload of pressure.
What to watch for: Varlamov's unreal toe save on a still-drunk Alex Radulov in their second game of the round robin.
Expectations and Outlook: Anything south of a gold medal game will be seen as a disappointment to Russian fans, but unless they get an absolutely otherworldly performance out of Varlamov and as much schedule luck as the States did in 2010, I wouldn't predict them higher than bronze.
The Pros: Despite being a perennial powerhouse Team USA still manages to come into this thing feeling like underdogs. That's freeing for a bunch of elite-level forwards like Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, and Zach Parise. They also have a top-2 goaltending group in the whole tournament between Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick, and Jimmy Howard.
The Cons: Team USA isn't bringing a defense that can shut anybody down. Martin and McDonagh might, but the rest of this team seems built to outskate you, outscore you (except for a forward line or so) and pray to the gods of the blocker. It's not a particularly stable formula.
What to watch out for: Dustin Brown's elbow.
Expectations and Outlook: If the goaltending runs hot they could take the whole thing. If it doesn't, they may not medal. Who knows?
The Pros: Jaroslav Halak has been sort of forgotten at the NHL level, but is still the same guy that stunned Team Russia in 2010. Add other high end guys like Zdeno Chara and Marian (and Marcel!) Hossa, and what you get is a team that should absolutely not be taken lightly.
The Cons: If Halak isn't on his absolute best the hopes of Slovakia rest on Peter Budaj. Because outside Hossa and Marian Gaborik, where are this team's goals coming from? Oh and Gaborik will miss the competition due to injury. So that's fun for them.
What to watch for: I'll be watching for Oilers prospect Martin Marincin because I've always liked him as an OKC Baron. You guys should probably watch on the outside chance they pop Russia in the mouth again, that's always fun.
Expectations and Outlook: They could surprise and finish 2nd in Group A, but shouldn't make it to the medal rounds.
The Pros: Anze Kopitar.
The Cons: Literally everything else.
Slovenia fall into that Happy To Be Here category. They ranked 18th coming into 2012 but qualified by running undefeated through a round robin against Belarus, Denmark, and Ukraine. Their country is under a couple feet of solid ice right now so if they perform above expectations at all it'll be a great diversion for them.
The Pros: I looked at their roster again just now and may have sort of peed a little.
The Cons: Steven Stamkos wasn't able to rehab in time, they took Chris Kunitz, the goaltending is "only" Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, and Mike Smith.
What to watch for: Hand-wringing from Canadian broadcasters when Sidney Crosby only puts one goal home against Norway.
Expectations: Gold or massive failure and a national crisis, as is tradition.
The Pros: Congratulations, opponents of Finland, Tuukka Rask has the night off! You only have to face Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi. Finland has hands-down the best goaltending group at the Games. They also lead by a wide margin in the fancystats category of umlauts/60.
The Cons: Finland are an odd group because they seem to mostly be either Young (Aleksander Barkov, Mikael Granlund) or Old (Teemu Selanne, Olli Jokinen). I see a whole lot of average here. You guys may disagree.
What to watch for: Teemu's final Games, a whole lot of mindmelting saves, Leo Komarov being a hilarious pest.
Expectations and Outlook: Basically the same as the US. They could go on a hot goaltending tear and come out on top, or they could erm not.
The Pros: Mats Zuccarello and some pretty badass names, though I was disappointed to see no Thor Vikingstad on the roster this year.
The Cons: Not a great roster at things like playing hockey.
The Imaginary Pros: Jonas Holos.
What to watch for: Jonas Holos.
Expectations and Outlook: Jonas Holos.
Group B's Happy To Be Here also-ran qualified over Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Their names are fun to say and they feature Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner, as well as former Monster Thomas Pock.
The Pros: Jaromir Jagr is still a boss. Hearing Western commentary butcher their names is always a scream.
The Cons: Something is very rotten in Czech hockey, as the list of snubs is literally better than the NHL selections: Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata, Tomas Fleischmann, Jan Hejda, Roman Polak, and Jakub Kindl. Oh and their goalie is Andrej Pavelec. Also Vladimir Sobotka is hurt and won't go, so they have no one to fight Canadian pugilist Matt Duchene.
What to watch for: Maybe Don Cherry will call them CZECHASLAVAKIA or something.
Expectations and Outlook: They should finish top-2 in Group C, but man, I'm not convinced they will. That is some serious roster fuckery.
The Pros: This team has elite talent at all positions, thanks probably to the aura of Peter Forsberg.
The Cons: No Victor Hedman is strange as hell. Their forwards are aging; can guys like Steen, Silfverberg, and Landeskog pick up the slack? Henrik Sedin is going to miss the games due to injury.
What to watch for: The chorus of boos audible all the way from Ontario any time Daniel Alfredsson touches the puck.
Expectations and Outlook: Medal round, possible gold medal... but the injuries have not been nice to them.
The Gutter: They have a forward named Luca Cunti. I am not making this up.
The Pros: There's more talent here than you might think. How about Jonas Hiller? Roman Josi? Rafael Diaz? Mark Streit? Nino Niederreiter? Will their games be called by forward Simon Moser?
The Cons: All that talent seems to come in the way of preventing goals, not scoring them. They have exactly two forwards in the NHL, Nino and Damien Brunner. Sven Baertschi was left home.
What to watch for: They always play the best teams tough, notably Canada in 2010. The Czechs are running with Pavelec so this may finally be Switzerland's year for a top-2 group finish!
Expectations and Outlook: I expect to giggle every time Cunti touches the puck.
Dynamo Riga Latvia
Finally, Group C's Happy To Be Here Also-Ran features none other than SANDIS OZOLINSH. Man I hope he tears it up out there. You may also have heard of Kaspars Daugavins and Zemgus Girgensons. Nine members of the team skate for Riga, which seems lower than usual. Latvia qualified by beating out Khazakstan, France, and Great Britain in their qualifying group.
The plan for right now is daily threads with updates on what happened the day before. One will go up for live games, because we should be able to watch all of them streaming. The other will go up before any tape delay broadcasts and should be considered spoiler-free. Feel free to suggest anything else you may want!