Grading the Olympic contenders
February, 17, 2014
By Craig Custance | ESPN Insider
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesT.J. Oshie's prowess in the shootout could come in handy again for Team USA.T.J. Oshie is arguably the most popular athlete in America right now. Canada is working itself into a panic over the lack of production from Sidney Crosby and his linemates, despite earning eight of a possible nine standings points in preliminary rounds. And host Russia is still struggling to get that powerful offense going, despite the best efforts of Pavel Datsyuk, a standout playing with one good leg.
The Olympic men’s hockey tournament has already had incredible moments, and that was just the preliminaries. It was fun, but the real fun starts this week.
As we catch our breath in what is shaping up to be another classic tournament, here’s how the contenders graded out in the prelims, with a look ahead at who has more to give:
1. Team Sweden: B-plus
Next opponent: Winner of Slovenia-Austria
The Swedes did all you could ask for in the prelims by winning all three games in regulation, but it’s hard to hand out an A to our pre-Olympic gold medal pick because they did it without playing any other Olympic powerhouse and it wasn’t done in especially convincing fashion.
They squeaked by everybody’s favorite underdog, Switzerland, 1-0, and beat Latvia 5-3. There are still injury concerns after Henrik Zetterberg bowed out, but the play of Henrik Lundqvist has eased any pre-tournament concerns that his inconsistencies in New York might carry over into his play for Sweden. He has stopped 73 of 78 shots, good for a .936 save percentage. There was an injury scare during Monday’s practice following a collision between Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson, but early indications were that Lundqvist is fine. That’s something to watch moving forward.
As for Karlsson, he’s been outstanding for the Swedes, leading them with three goals in three games. While Sweden’s forwards are banged-up, the defensemen are shining.
Looking ahead: The Swedes will wait for the winner of Slovenia vs. Austria, and then have a possible showdown with host Russia if the stars align. Olympic veteran Daniel Alfredsson has provided offense up front for Sweden, but if they’re going to win gold, they’ll need more production from the next generation: Gabriel Landeskog, Gustav Nyquist, Jakob Silfverberg and Nicklas Backstrom are all looking for their first goal of the tournament.