Winter Olympics Ice Hockey: Russia can deliver icing on the cake

Sochi is the destination for this year's Winter Olympics
Sochi is the destination for this year's Winter Olympics

It's 22 years since Russia last won hockey gold, but playing at home could be a big advantage, explains Tobias Gourlay

"The Russians won the 2012 World Championship, winning all ten games along the way"

Back Russia Gold Medal Winner @ 3.3512/5

Format

The format is unchanged from Vancouver: 12 teams start in three groups of four; the group winners and the best second-placed team go straight to the quarter-finals. The other eight enter qualification playoffs, with the winners of those going forward to the quarters. Then it gets easier: semi-finals followed by bronze-medal and gold-medal games.

At the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome on 23 February, the gold-medal match has been scheduled as the finale of Sochi 2014.

Nine teams made it through as the top-ranked outfits after the 2012 World Championship, then Austria, Latvia and Slovenia came through a qualification tournament.

One interesting adjustment from four years ago: the Russian rinks are an international-sized 61m x 30m, rather than the NHL-standard 61m x 26m. The extra width favours attack over defence, which alas means teams become much more cautious. 
 

Contenders
Canada
Winners of two of the last three Olympic tournaments, Team Canada might just go off favourites for Sochi 2014, a broken nose ahead of hosts Russia.

Those recent gold medals came on North American ice - Vancouver last time out and Salt Lake City in 2002 - when the US made the final two for the first two times since 1980's Miracle on Ice (which also took place somewhere pretty directly north of Mexico).

No one's retained an Olympic title since the Soviet Union dominated in the Cold War era. Now that Sid 'The Kid' Crosby is a man, he's Canada's captain, but just like his team-mates the four-time NHL All-Star must adapt to the different shooting angles and passing tactics of international arenas.

Russia
Vancouver four years ago was the first time Russia - or a team including Russia - had failed to make the top four since Soviet authorities missed a deadline and couldn't send a team to Oslo in 1952.

Vladimir Putin has made no such mistake. He's already personally tested the ice in Sochi. This is the bling he really, really wants. Dare you bet against him?

Deploying their superstars from the NHL, the Russians won the 2012 World Championship, winning all ten games along the way. Star turns Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk missed the 2013 tournament, but are back for this one.

Group A looks the most competitive of the three - Slovakia made the final of the 2012 Worlds, while the US have been known to upset the best-laid plans - but the format is forgiving and there will be chances to bounce back from early defeats.

And Putin, surely, is just the strongman to keep all of the other egos in check and Russian eyes on the prize.

Sweden
Top of the world rankings after winning the 2013 World Championship on home ice, the Swedes are third favourites, trading around 7.06/1.

That 2013 success comes with a caveat: it was played after an NHL lockout, which meant North America-based players (if selected) arrived in Sweden on the back of an exhausting catch-up schedule.

Their gold medal in Turin eight years ago - the last time the Winter Olympics were in Europe - suggests they can challenge once more. Led by the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, the squad has an appealing combination of talented youth and international experience. Blend in the confidence gained from last year and there are reasons to back them at around even-money for a place on the podium.

USA
Four years ago, Ryan Miller was the tournament's best goaltender and Team USA went all the way to overtime in the final before Sid Crosby sunk them.

They probably have the best goaltender in Sochi too - Miller is likely to be benched in favour of Jonathan Quick - and he can take them deep into the tournament. Ultimately, however, Team USA will encounter problems at the other end of the rink, where they are short on scorers.

And the Americans rarely show up outside North America so, if we're looking beyond the big three, it should probably be towards Europe.

Finland
Second in the world rankings, but only sixth in the betting, history too suggests the Lions are a little underrated.

Finland have made the podium in four of the last five Olympic tournaments (5/7 if you go back to Calgary '88).

Fourth in last year's Worlds, which they hosted jointly with Sweden, might have been a shade disappointing, but the Finns have a fine pedigree in that tournament too: they've medalled in 11/22 competitions since 1992.

They've never won Olympic gold, but are a perfect 3/3 in bronze-medal matches and could rate a punt for the Top 3 once more.
  

Women's
 
Eight teams are in Sochi for the women's ice hockey, but only two are rated plausible Gold Medal Winners. Canada and the USA have dominated the game for two decades and that's unlikely to change now.

Winners of the last three Olympics, the Canadians are slight favourites for gold, but 2014 looks like Team USA's time to shine.

The Americans won the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, and in the last few months they've won 4/4 against their rivals from across the border.

Canada's coach quit in December to be replaced by Kevin Dineen, a man with no experience of the women's game. We're ready to back the USA for a small upset.

Best Bet
Back Russia Gold Medal Winner @ 3.3512/5
 
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