Many people have touted this tournament as the "best of the best." Sweden begins their quest to defend gold. It will be Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby's first foray in the Olympics, carrying on their rivalry from their day jobs. It is, for the first time ever, played on Canadian soil with all-stars from the best professional league in the world. It's hard to find arguments to disagree with all these things, and should the two heavyweights, Russia and Canada, face-off in the final, expect a much-hyped, much-awaited re-match in Sochi in 2014, should Gary Bettman and the International Olympic Committee come to an agreement.
The key match-ups, including Czech Republic-Slovakia, Finland-Sweden, Canada-USA, and Canada-Russia, will no doubt draw the biggest crowds. The big names have already been spoken for, but here are some other things to keep an eye out for (in no specific order).
1. Sweden's youth... or lack thereof.
Head coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson went with a veteran heavy lineup, hoping that some of the winning experience from 2006 will translate to the same result. While there are no Crosby or Ovechkin-type heavyweights in their lineup on offense, the Swedes always play a smart and complete hockey game. Whenever you have Nicklas Lidstrom patrolling the back end and Henrik Lundqvist in net, you have a good chance of winning. But the youthful enthusiasm of young stars must not be overlooked. True, sometimes the atmosphere can overwhelm and throw inexperienced players off their game, but they also do provide energy and spark on the bench. Sometimes, veterans can develop a bit of a "been there, done that" attitude that is ultimately detrimental to the team.
2. The Sedins... at the top of the world.
The Sedins have established themselves as bona fide top liners in the NHL. For that, they deserve a pat on the back for really giving the Canucks really good bang for the buck after signing identical extensions. But now, they're on the top line for the defending gold medalists and will be relied on heavily. No longer can they hide behind the shadows of Markus Naslund, Peter Forsberg, or Mats Sundin. Now is the time to show the world what they can really do. They ended their road trip with their heads in the clouds, including a terrible showing in a 6-2 loss in Minnesota. The pressure on them, especially from hockey mad Sweden, is massive. We'll have to see how they respond.
3. Russia's KHL contingent and leadership roles.
I noted before that Russia's promise to take a significant number of KHL players might come back and bite them in the butt, and Pierre LeBrun at ESPN agrees. Leadership has always been somewhat of a problem for the Russians because their individual play is absolutely brilliant, and it did come as a surprise to me when Aleksey Morozov was named as captain. Morozov has not played on North American ice since 2004 and has been penciled in on the fourth line. While Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk will serve as the alternates, it's a little curious to me that key veterans like Pavel Datsyuk, Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar, and Sergei Fedorov won't have letters on their chests. The argument is that it's "just a letter" and perhaps Canadians just pay a little too much attention to who wears the 'C', but I wonder who will really lead this team.
4. Finland - the team everyone forgets.
The Finns aren't flashy, nor do they wish to attract a lot of attention to themselves. What they do, however, is play a tough, gritty game that always seems to catch other teams off-guard. For Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, wearing the 'C' and the 'A' respectively, this may very well be their last tournament, and it may be the coming out party for players like Valtteri Filppula and Sami Lepisto, both entering the prime age of their careers. Miikka Kiprusoff and 2006 tournament MVP Antero Niittymaki will man the pipes. Keep in mind that the Finns have won silver and bronze in the past three tournaments. If any team has a shot at upsetting a medal favourite, it's these guys.
It's been a long, long time since the NHL, and international hockey overall, has showcased this many young and talented players. For Crosby and Ovechkin, age 22 and 24, respectively, this may already be the defining moment of their careers. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were only 26 and 22 at the 1987 Canada Cup. The Americans haven't had this much talent since the early 1990s and have just 4 players born before 1980's Miracle on Ice. Brian Burke went on record to say that they picked Jon Quick over Craig Anderson in the end because of his age. Steve Yzerman chose youth over experience with Jonathan Toews and Drew Doughty, the only player born after 1988 in the tournament. This may perhaps be the biggest tournament they will ever play in their lives.
Bonus. Flashback: 1996.
Remember when Sergei Fedorov scored 107 points and won the Selke? Remember when Ziggy Palffy scored 43 goals? Remember when Jaromir Jagr scored 62 goals and had 149 points? Those numbers are still staggering. 14 years ago, these three players were at the height of their popularity and dazzled the world with their immense skill. Today, they are little more than relics of the old guard, expected to more lead than score. This is their ultimate swan song - the chance to represent their country in the most prestigious tournament in the world.
Let the games begin.