The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have been underway since late last week, but the men's hockey schedule kicks off with Sweden playing the Czech Republic and Switzerland playing Latvia at 9:00 a.m. PST Wednesday, February 12. Four San Jose Sharks will have to wait 15 more hours for their first games.
All three pictured previews are for games that start Thursday at the Sochi Olympics, from midnight to 9:00 a.m. PST.
Team Finland will play Austria first. If Antti Niemi does not play in this game, his last chance could come in the next game Friday against Norway. (If he does play, look for it to be included in the three-game recap Thursday.)
At 4:30 a.m. PST, Team USA plays a good Slovakian squad. It will be interesting to see where Joe Pavelski plays. He could center any of the top three lines or play wing on either of the top two lines. Considering the lack of center depth, it would seem better to put him there.
Patrick Kane must center the first line, but right now Ryan Kesler is not having as good a season. He has nine fewer goals and seven fewer assists in one more game played than Pavelski on a team that is underachieving. Since either is good defensively, it makes more sense to have the better scorer center the second line.
The third and last team with ties to the Sharks plays at 9:00 a.m. Thursday. Team Canada is so deep that it is conceivable they could scratch both Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. However, it is likely at least one will play against Norway.
Patrick Marleau was taken for his abilities in open ice and he has the versatility to play on a scoring or checking line, on the wing or centre—which is after all how that team spells the position. He should start out on the third- or fourth-line wing and stay in the lineup if he plays well.
In keeping with the Canadian spellings, Vlasic is not likely to play every game on defence. However, he should play more often than not and thus San Jose has a good chance of seeing him on television right about the time the work day starts.
Team USA will play what could almost be a must-win game right from the start. With Russia also in Group A, getting a top-four seed in the medal round to avoid playing games on back-to-back days might require finishing first.
Slovakia is very good in all three units, but not entirely comprised of NHL players. They have the best defender in the world, but Zdeno Chara's size will be less imposing on the bigger surface. The Americans simply must adapt quickly to the larger surface they are less used to and let their depth take over the game late.
This game is technically at home for Team USA, so the advantages of line matchups and stick placement on faceoffs should help. A loss here means needing to beat the very dangerous host team without those advantages to earn that bye.
The Slovaks will have trouble scoring against great American goalies without Marian Gaborik. If they win this game, it would be an upset.
More than likely, Tuukka Rask will be the primary goalie for Team Finland. Whoever they start should be able to handle Team Austria.
It is not that this team can be overlooked. They skate well, know each other better than most teams and are used to the international ice. However, having only three NHL players (Tomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl) is going to make it hard to beat a true medal contender.
Team Swtizerland is the only non-medal contender that is a threat to beat any team with one of the San Jose Sharks on it...or any of the other three contenders.
Team Canada is the gold-medal favourite (again, the spelling to represent the nation). They are known for not bringing the intensity and for trouble adapting to the international surface, but Team Norway just has too little talent to make it happen—Max Zuccarello is the only NHL player on the team.
He would not even have been considered on the team he faces. There is no position that does not have a gigantic talent gap between the teams. A respectable loss like 3-1 would be a major success for Norway in this game.