DETROIT – The rosters are set, the games are scheduled, and the players are anxious to get the Olympic Games going in Sochi.
Talk to any of 10 Olympians in the Red Wings’ locker room and hopes are high that they will medal, if not win gold this month.
“I think we got the roster to do it, I think we have the goalie to do it,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “It just comes down the hard work.”
Kronwall’s Sweden team is likely the favorite to win Group C, which also features Switzerland, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. The Swedes definitely have the advantage with a loaded roster with six Red Wings, including Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Jonathan Ericsson and Gustav Nyquist, who is on a tremendous hot streak of lately, producing nine goals in his last nine games.
However, the defending gold-medal Canadians, coached by the Red Wings’ Mike Babcock might, stand in everyone’s way with their skill and international experience.
“We’re like a group of other countries; we have a good talent base,” Babcock proclaimed. “A good talent base doesn’t get it done, the best team does, so we have a lot of work to do but we feel we have an opportunity and that’s all you can ask for.”
The team that could give the Canadians problems is the Americans, who defeated Canada in a preliminary game in the 2010 Vancouver Games. But the game that mattered most was the gold-medal game, where Canada invoked its revenge against the U.S., which hasn’t won the gold since 1980.
Still, the U.S. will have a shot at making history in Sochi, but they’ll have to get past the home country, Russia, led by Pavel Datsyuk.
“I think we got just as good a chance as anyone else,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “I like the way our team is built. It’s not necessarily an all-star team.”
Following the 18 preliminary games this week, the 12 teams will be ranked through a unique formula, which does include order of finish in the three different groups. The top four teams receive a bye into the quarterfinals. The bottom eight teams will play in four win-or-go-home qualification games.
With an eye on the games involving the Red Wings players and staff here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
WEDNESDAY – CZECH REPUBLIC vs. SWEDEN, 12 p.m. EST (USA Network): These two countries last clashed in the 2006 semifinals in Turin. In that game, Daniel Alfredsson had a goal and an assist, Tomas Holmstrom scored a goal and Niklas Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom, Mikael Samuelsson and Henrik Zetterberg all picked up an assist. This time, the Swedes are led by five guys who helped win gold that year. But this Swedish team has perhaps more leadership qualities than the assembled squad that won gold in Turin. … Head coach Par Marts has said that Zetterberg is the best player he’s ever coached. Certainly helps that Zetterberg is one of the best leaders in the business on a Swedish team that has at least six players that are either captains or alternate captains for their NHL teams, including Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado and Kronwall. Marts has an incredible international coaching resume winning gold and silver as both a head coach and as an assistant, including the gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. … Other than the Canadians, the Swedes’ roster features more NHL stars who have played near a point-per-game pace than the rest of the tournament’s field. Led by Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who has 56 points in 59 games, the Swedes could choose to deploy an entire Red Wing’ five-man unit with Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Gustav Nyquist, Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. It might not be a bad idea, particularly on the power play where familiarity and chemistry could be key. … Meanwhile, the Czech’s are led by its ageless wonder, 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who has eight goals and 22 points in four different Olympics. The Czech might have the oldest roster with 11 players over the age of 30 and two in their 40s, including former NHL star Petr Nedved, who is still playing in a Czech league at 42 years old. … Capitals’ forward Martin Erat replaces injured Vladimir Sobotka for the Czech Republic. It’s an interesting choice considering that the 32-year-old winger just scored his first goal of the season in the Caps’ 3-0 win over New Jersey on Saturday.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Not nearly as big or physically imposing as his younger brother, Jimmie Ericsson is the only player in Sweden’s roster who plays in the Swedish Elite League, where he is team captain for Skellefteå. Through 43 games, the 33-year-old forward has 13 goals and 27 assists. Besides his obvious leadership acumen, Jimmie Ericsson will bring a versatile style to the Swedish team. But as the only non-NHL player on the roster the microscope will be on him.
THURSDAY – RUSSIA vs. SLOVENIA, 7:30 a.m. EST (MSNBC & CBC): Will he or won’t he play? That’s the question swirling around Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, who missed 14 games for the Red Wings will a leg injury. He played in the Wings’ last two games prior to the Olympic break but Detroit coach Mike Babcock hopes his star center didn’t rush back too soon. “He wants to play bad but he’s a smart guy, he isn’t going to jeopardize his career over something like this,” Babcock said about the Olympics, though they’re in Datsyuk’s homeland. Datsyuk sat out Russia’s first practice on Monday but skated in Tuesday's session centering a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said he expects his team captain will be ready for the tournament opener. … Red Wings fans will have the opportunity, perhaps, to watch Jan Mursak for the first time since he was put on waivers last spring. The former sixth-round draft pick of the Wings signed a one-year contract with Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL. He has since moved on to CSKA Moscow – yes, the team operated by Sergei Fedorov – having produced 12 goals and 24 points in 46 KHL games.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Anze Kopitar is the only NHL star who is playing in these Olympics for Slovenia. He and his father, coach Matjaz Kopitar, will finally make their Olympic debuts as part of the first hockey team in Slovenia history to qualify for the Winter Games. Though it’s his first Olympics, the L.A. Kings’ 6-foot-4 center has represented his country in the Olympic qualifying rounds in 2005. He currently leads the Kings with 30 assists, 47 points and a plus-22 rating in 59 games.
THURSDAY – SLOVAKIA vs. USA, 7:30 a.m. EST (NBCSN): Winning silver was quite the disappointment for the Americans four years ago, so don’t think that’s not weighing heavily on their collective minds entering these Sochi Games. But can the U.S. win without the eyebrow-raising absences of Bobby Ryan and Kyle Okposo? This team definitely doesn’t lack international experience with 13 Olympians on the roster, which is in strong contrast to three who entered the Vancouver Games with prior experience. … For Slovakia, who can’t like a name like Branko Radivojevic? The 33-year-old forward, who played nearly 400 NHL games with Phoenix, Philadelphia and Minnesota, replaces Marian Gaborik, and Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky has backed out of the Sochi Games.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Joe Pavelski will likely be counted on to be a huge catalyst to get the Americans a return trip to the gold-medal round. In pre-tourney practices, the Sharks’ center has worked on a line with Maple Leafs’ wingers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Pavelski earned a silver medal at the 2010 Games, producing three assists in six contests. Since mid-January, Pavelski has been on a hot streak, collecting eight goals – including three game-winners – and 11 points in his last 11 games. He’s currently has 29 goals, which is tied for fourth in the league with Anaheim center Ryan Getzlaf.
THURSDAY – CANADA vs. NORWAY, 12 p.m. EST (CBC & USA Network): These two nation’s faced in an Olympic opener in 2010 and it didn’t go very well for Norway as Jarome Iginla scored three times and Dany Heatley added two goals in an 8-0 win for the Canadians. While Iginla and Heatley aren’t on Canada’s roster this time, Norway will have to contend with the NHL’s top-five Canadian scorers – Sidney Crosby, Getzlaf, John Taveres, Corey Perry and Patrick Sharp, who are all playing at a point-per-game pace. … It’s been nearly 20 years since Norway won a game in the Olympics. That year in Lillehammer, Roy Johansen scored in a 3-1 victory against Austria. Johansen is now coaching Norway in the Olympics for the second time. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is playing in his second Olympics. The 6-foot-2 defenseman was once property of the Red Wings as he was acquired in a trade that sent Ville Leino to Philadelphia at the 2009-10 deadline. Tollefsen never played for the Wings, spending the rest of the time with the Grand Rapids Griffins. The only NHL player on Norway’s roster is Mats Zuccarello, who has produced 15 goals and 43 points in 58 games for the New York Rangers. Forward Mathias Olimb is among the leading scorers in the Swedish Elite League with 34 points in 46 games for Frölunda.
PLAYER TO WATCH: It’s Crosby’s turn to lead Canada in the Olympics. The Penguins’ captain who scored the gold-clinching goal in overtime in Vancouver four years ago, now has the leadership role of the 2014 squad. He has won the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and has overcome a myriad of injuries, including concussions that kept the 26-year-old away from the ice at stretches at a time. The two-time Ted Lindsay Award winner is the league’s top scorer with 28 goals and 78 points in 58 games for the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins. … Crosby had three assists in Canada’s 8-0 win over Norway in Vancouver. He finished the 2010 Games with four goals and seven points.
FRIDAY – SWEDEN vs. SWITZERLAND, 7:30 a.m. EST (NBCSN): This is a rematch of the 2006 Turin quarterfinals as Sweden marched to a 6-2 win en route to winning a gold medal with a host of Red Wings on the roster. While this game will feature six Red Wings on the Swedes’ side, another player of interest will be former Red Wings forward Damien Brunner, who is making his Olympic debut. Brunner signed a one-year contract with New Jersey, where he has struggled with injuries and production, producing just 17 points in 41 games for the Devils. A knee injury held him out for a month but since returning Jan. 21, Brunner has a goal, four points and a minus-5 rating in nine games. The Swiss do have the experience of playing together on the international stage as 11 players, including four NHL players – goalie Jonas Hiller, defensemen Raphael Diaz, Mark Streit and Yannick Weber.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hiller nearly led the Swiss into the semifinals in Vancouver. The Ducks’ goalie made 42 saves in a 2-0 loss to the Americans. Now in his second Olympic Games, Hiller has the experience to be an X-factor, especially against a Swedish team that he is very familiar with. Hiller is on top of his game for the league’s front-running Ducks with a 25-9-4 record and a 2.34 goals-against average. He also has four shutout wins, including a 1-0 win over the Red Wings on Jan. 12.
FRIDAY – CANADA vs. vs. AUSTRIA, 12 p.m. EST (CBC & USA Network): The last time the Canadians faced off against Austria in the Olympics, 22-year-old amateur goalie Darren Eliot surrendered one goal in an 8-1 preliminary-round win in the 1984 Sarajevo Games. Canada should win this one without breaking much of a sweat as they look toward Sunday’s preliminary finale against Finland. Coach Mike Babcock wanted balance on his blue line and general manager Steve Yzerman answered the call by taking four left-handed and four right-handed shooters to Sochi. Dividing ice time will be a challenge but no other coach in this tournament has an elite defensive corps to choose from as Babcock does with top blue-liners like Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban and Shea Weber. … Austria is led by three NHL forwards – Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek of the Islanders, and Michael Raffl of the Flyers. Austria’s Bernhard Starkbaum ranks third among SEL goaltenders with a .931 save percentage for Brynäs. Forward Brian Lebler has produced a point per game this season for EHC Linz and is the highest-scoring Austrian in Austria’s top pro league.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Winger Chris Kunitz already set a single-season career high with 27 goals through 58 games this season. The Penguins’ star is now in striking distance of obliterating his personal bests for assists (35) and points (61) accomplished in 2011-12. Definitely, Kunitz has benefited from playing with a healthy Crosby this season. It’s likely that Babcock will pair the Penguins’ top two goal scorers together with Kings center Jeff Carter but as Red Wings fans have come to expect, expect the unexpected when it comes to the coach’s mixing and matching of line combinations.
SATURDAY – SLOVAKIA vs. SLOVENIA, 3 a.m. EST (MSNBC): Earning a medal would complete an Olympic Cinderella Story for Slovenia, as the country finally qualified for the 2014 Winter Games in its sixth attempt over the past 20 years. Kopitar, the only Slovenian in the NHL, highlights the team’s Olympic roster. He has 17 goals and 30 assists through 59 games, and ranks 10th in the league with five game-winning goals. It won’t be an easy matchup for the newcomers against Slovakia. Led by brothers Marian and Marcel Hossa and defenseman Zdeno Chara, Slovakia is the favorite in the Group A matchup against Slovenia. Marian boasts the third best plus/minus rating in the league (+26), and Chara, a 6-foot-9 defenseman, currently ranks 10th in the NHL with eight power-play goals. Chara will captain the Slovakians in his third Olympic appearance. Although the defenseman can lack quickness, Chara is an elite all-around blue-liner and leader that possesses the professional and international experience that the Slovenian team lacks.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Forward Marian Hossa entered the 2014 Olympic Games on a strong note, having recorded two goals and four assists in Chicago’s past five games. The right wing is on pace to finish this season with a plus/minus rating of plus-36, which would be a new career high after earning a plus-27 with Detroit in 2008-09. Hossa has experienced much success since his last Olympic appearance, winning his first of two Stanley Cups just four months after the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver before helping Chicago to another championship in 2012-13.
SATURDAY – USA vs. RUSSIA, 7:30 a.m. EST (NBCSN): The Group A winner will more than likely come down to this matchup. While the U.S. returns 12 players who were part of the silver medal team in 2010 and likely arrived in Sochi with a chip on their shoulders, it’s no secret that the Russians have been under pressure to win gold in their home country. Team Russia has 16 NHL players on their 25-man roster, led by star forwards Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Datsyuk, who are looking to lead Russia to its first Olympic gold medal. The talented trio will cause havoc against its opposition, but the Americans will certainly be up to the challenge defensively with either Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller in goal. Miller was between the pipes for the Americans in Vancouver four years ago, and has been playing well despite being the netminder for the struggling Buffalo Sabres. The pair will also be joined by the Wings’ Jimmy Howard, who will most likely be the third-string goalie for the U.S. The matchup between Russia and the USA will be a high-profile game that will test both countries in the preliminary round and could potentially have an impact on the outcome of the tournament, as both are Olympic favorites.
PLAYER TO WATCH: With 40 goals through 55 games with Washington this season, Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals scored and ranks sixth with 60 points. The 2014 Winter Games will mark the forward’s third Olympic appearance, and as the pressure of winning gold in their home country continues to rise, the Russians will be looking to Ovechkin to spark their offensive attack. Despite his minus-17 rating, Ovechkin entered Sochi on a hot streak, recording two goals and three assists in the Capitals’ last five games.
SATURDAY – SWEDEN vs. LATVIA, 12 p.m. EST (USA Network): Although the loss of Henrik Sedin is a big one for Sweden, Tre Kronor still boasts one of the most talented rosters with the likes of Zetterberg, Alfredsson and Daniel Sedin, defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Erik Karlsson, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. At 41 years of age, Alfredsson will be makings his fifth Olympic appearance alongside five of his Red Wings teammates, including Zetterberg, Kronwall, Ericsson, Jonas Gustavsson and Nyquist. But the Swedes’ talented offensive front may not be its most dangerous weapon. Lundqvist entered the Olympics on a 4-0-0 run with a .953 save percentage and 1.47 GAA through the Rangers’ past four games. The goaltender has been successful at every level and tends to excel under pressure, which will cause a lot of trouble for opposing teams. Lundqvist is one of five players who were members of Sweden’s 2006 gold medal team that will be in Sochi, and should be able to help his country through the preliminary tournament unscathed. The matchup against Latvia will conclude Team Sweden’s prelims, and although the Swedes are the clear favorites to win Group C and possibly advance to the gold medal game, they can’t afford to overlook the Latvians. Buffalo’s rookie forward Zemgus Girgensons is the only NHL player on Latvia’s roster. The 20-year-old has five goals and 12 assists with the Sabres this season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Just as he played his way onto the Red Wings’ roster in November, forward Gustav Nyquist earned a spot in Sweden’s lineup after teammate Johan Franzen withdrew from the Olympics due to concussion-like symptoms. As Swedish officials searched for Franzen’s replacement, Nyquist recorded four goals and one assist over Detroit’s next two games, including the forward’s first career hat trick, which solidified his place on Sweden’s roster. The 24-year-old has nine goals and four assists in the Wings’ final nine games leading up to the Olympic break. With Zetterberg captaining Team Sweden and four of his other NHL teammates on the country’s roster, the youngster shouldn’t skip a beat in his first Olympic appearance.
SUNDAY – RUSSIA vs. SLOVAKIA, 7:30 a.m. EST (USA Network): Slovakia is a dark horse contender in a group that includes gold-medal favorites Russia and the USA, and could make a run for the Group A winner while all eyes are on the matchup between the aforementioned countries. Although the Slovakian team is highlighted by NHL stars Marian Hossa and Chara, the Wings’ Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco have already gained valuable experience at the professional and international level that could help them succeed in their first Olympic appearance. In 2009 Tatar scored 11 points in seven games for Slovakia’s U-20 team that upset Team USA, leading the team in points and tying for the fourth best total in the overall tournament. That same year, Jurco shined at the U-18 World Junior Championship, scoring two goals and recording three assists in six games. Although the Olympics will mark the biggest stage the two Slovakians have competed on, their past success at the World Juniors should give them confidence going into the international competition. While the Slovakians will cause trouble for Russia, the home country is the favorite to win the Group A pairing. Slovakia will be without one of its top forwards, Marian Gaborik, and could have difficulty finding the back of the net with either Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov or Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky in goal for Russia. Team Slovakia isn’t as strong in goal as the host country, and although returning netminder Jaroslav Halak gives the Slovakians experience between the pipes, Russian forwards Malkin, Datsyuk and Ovechkin are going to create a significant challenge for Slovakia’s defense.
PLAYER TO WATCH: If Malkin, Datsyuk and Ovechkin weren’t enough for the stacked Russian roster, the Olympic host country added one more name that is sure to rekindle some memories and make an impact in Sochi: Ilya Kovalchuk. The right wing played 11 seasons in the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils before retiring from the league following the 2012-13 season. Kovalchuk scored 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 NHL games, and signed with SKA Saint Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League just four days after his retirement. The forward has 16 goals and 40 points through 44 games with Saint Petersburg this season and will be one more threat for the Russians to utilize on their quest for the gold medal.
SUNDAY – SLOVENIA vs. USA, 7:30 a.m. EST (NBCSN): After facing difficult matchups against Slovakia and Russia in its first two Group A pairings, the USA should defeat Slovenia handedly in the team’s final preliminary tournament game. Slovenia is participating in its first Winter Games in 2014 and makes its Olympic debut in a group with two gold-medal favorites and a strong Slovakian team. Kopitar, the lone Slovenian in the NHL, will highlight the country’s roster. Kopitar’s younger brother Gasper, a goaltender for the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, did not accompany Team Slovenia to Sochi. His absence comes as a surprise since the brothers’ father, Matjaz Kopitar, is the Slovenian bench boss. Instead, HK Nitra goaltender Robert Kristan is expected to start in goal for Slovenia and will likely have his hands full against the Americans. Team USA is led by forwards Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Kesler, as well as defenseman Ryan Suter. Kessel and Kane are both top-five scorers in the NHL, as Kessel has 65 points through 60 games and Kane has 63 points through 59 games. Kessel’s 31 goals are second only to Ovechkin’s league-leading 40 goals, and the forward has 10 points in Toronto’s last five games leading up to the Olympic break. Twelve players from Team USA’s roster were members of the silver medal team four years ago in Vancouver and will be in the hunt for the gold medal and high tournament seed when they meet Slovenia Sunday.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Forward James van Riemsdyk has already surpassed his previous career-high of 21 goals and 40 points in 2010-11 by notching 24 goals and 23 assists through 58 games with Toronto this season. Van Riemsdyk is on pace to score 33 goals and 65 points this season, and entered the Olympics having recorded six points in the Maple Leafs’ past five games.
SUNDAY – FINLAND vs. CANADA, 12 p.m. EST (CBC & USA Network): Bad news for the Finns who lost centers Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivo to ankle injuries in games leading up to the Olympics. Replacing the NHL stars are a pair of KHL stars, 31-year-old center Jarkko Immonen and 25-year-old forward Sakari Salminen. Both are among the top-three scorers playing for Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod. After earning a bronze medal at the 2010 Winter Games, Finland is the only country in Group B that could potentially upset the defending gold-medal champs. The two countries will face off in the group’s final game on Sunday in a matchup that pits Finns veterans Kimmo Timonen and Teemu Selanne against Canada’s Crosby and Getzlaf. The Canadians boast one of the most talented rosters in the tournament and are one of the favorites to win gold in 2014 behind NHL stars Jonathan Toews, Tavares, Subban and Keith. But goaltending could be an issue for Canada, as Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo’s inconsistent play may force a change in net. Conversely, Finland’s likely starter Tuukka Rask could give the Finns a clear advantage in goal, as the Boston netminder currently leads the NHL in shutouts and has a top-10 save percentage.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The 2014 Winter Games marks 43-year-old Selanne’s sixth Olympic appearance during a season that will most likely be his last in the NHL. Selanne has seven goals and 13 assists through 47 games with the league-leading Ducks this season. Coming off a bronze medal finish in 2010, the Finns are in a perfect position to upset the defending gold medal Canadians, and Selanne isn’t likely to end his Olympic career without putting up a strong fight.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
Andrea Nelson contributed to this report
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