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NHL players will participate in Sochi Olympics; what’s next?

Gary Bettman

Now that they’re officially OK’d for Sochi, what should we look for from the fifth Olympic hockey tournament with NHL players?

The key storylines as the Games approach:

1. Will Russia defend home ice? At Vancouver 2010, the most vital medal for Canada was men’s hockey gold. You can make the same argument for the host nation next year.

Russia is rooted in Olympic hockey success from the Soviet Union era, much moreso than Canada. The Soviets won all but one Olympic gold from 1964 to 1988 (with the exception, of course, being 1980).

But, “Russia” has never won an Olympic title. The Unified Team won in Albertville in 1992. In the last five Olympics, “Russia” took home a total of one silver (1998, thanks, Dominik Hasek) and one bronze (2002), half as many medals as Finland.

2. What pressure is on Alex Ovechkin? The Washington Capitals superstar and reigning Hart Trophy winner has never been able to lead his juggernaut NHL team past the conference semifinals. Likewise, Russia would have liked to have done better with Ovechin in 2006 (fourth place) and 2010 (quarterfinal loss to Canada).

Ovechkin actually starred in 2006, scoring five goals and making the all-tournament team. But he’s never carried the weight of expectations that will come in Sochi. Is it a stretch to equate it to what Sidney Crosby faced in Vancouver? I say no.

3. What about the U.S. and Canada? The acclaimed Olympic medal predictor Infostrada went out on a limb with its latest projections in April.

Gold: Russia
Silver: Finland
Bronze: Czech Republic

Obviously, European nations have a built-in advantage not having to cross an ocean for an Olympics, but it’s hard to believe neither the gold nor silver medalist from Vancouver will podium.

If there’s any uncertainty, it’s who will start in goal for both nations.

For the U.S., Vancouver fortress Ryan Miller turned 33 after the worst goals-against average (2.81) season of his career. Jonathan Quick, the No. 3 U.S. goalie in Vancouver, crashed back to earth in the strike-shortened season after being a Vezina finalist in 2012.

The current leaders appear to be the Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard, 29, who has turned in back-to-back strong seasons, and Craig Anderson, so long as his spectacular last season with the Ottawa Senators wasn’t a fluke.

Canada is loaded with skaters, but not in goal. It’s hard to believe Roberto Luongo was their super sub in Vancouver, replacing Martin Brodeur after the group stage. Luongo has since had an epic downturn with the Vancouver Canucks, Brodeur is now 41 years old and the No. 3 in 2010, Marc-Andre Fleury, is coming off forgettable playoff performances with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Corey Crawford of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks may be the new favorite.

ProHockeyTalk compiled the groups and schedule, which begins five days after the opening ceremony.

Group A Group B Group C
RussiaAustriaCzech Republic
SloveniaCanadaLatvia
SlovakiaFinlandSwitzerland
United StatesNorwaySweden

Men’s Preliminary Round Schedule
WED, FEB 12
112:00 PM ETCzech Republic vs. Sweden
212:00 PM ETLatvia vs. Switzerland
THU, FEB 13
33:00 AM ETFinland vs. Austria
47:30 AM ETRussia vs. Slovenia
57:30 AM ETSlovakia vs. United States
612:00 PM ETCanada vs. Norway
FRI, FEB 14
73:00 AM ETCzech Republic vs. Latvia
87:30 AM ETSweden vs. Switzerland
912:00 PM ETCanada vs. Austria
1012:00 PM ETNorway vs. Finland
SAT, FEB 15
113:00 AM ETSlovakia vs. Slovenia
127:30 AM ETUnited States vs. Russia
1312:00 PM ETSwitzerland vs. Czech Republic
1412:00 PM ETSweden vs. Latvia
SUN, FEB 16
153:00 AM ETAustria vs. Norway
167:30 AM ETRussia vs. Slovakia
177:30 AM ETSlovenia vs. United States
1812:00 PM ETFinland vs. Canada
Qualification play-off – TUE, FEB 18
193:00 AM ETTBD
207:30 AM ETTBD
2112:00 PM ETTBD
2212:00 PM ETTBD
Quarterfinals – WED, FEB 19
233:00 AM ETTBD
247:30 AM ETTBD
2512:00 PM ETTBD
2612:00 PM ETTBD
Semifinals – FRI, FEB 21
277:00 AM ETTBD
2812:00 PM ETTBD
Bronze Medal Game – SAT, FEB 22
2910:00 AM ETTBD
Gold Medal Game – SUN, FEB 23
307:00 AM ETTBD

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