I would guess that if you were to track the amount of time the Canadian media has spent talking about the Olympic hockey tournament in the last year it would exceed the time they have spent talking about everything else combined. Canada is absolutely obsessed with the upcoming tournament. It takes place on home soil, so winning it is particularly important. There's also the incredibly bitter taste of a pathetic seventh-place showing at the last Olympics to purge from our collective memories. This is serious, serious stuff.
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To win the tournament, Canada will have to survive their group of four teams, and then beat the teams that emerge from the other two groups. So, can they do it? Let's break the tournament down. (odds are from Bodog):
The format - Each team will play the three teams in their group. Based on that, the top four of the 12 teams will make it automatically through to the quarterfinals. The other eight teams will play a single-game playoff with the winners advancing to the quarters. From there it's a straight single-elimination run to the gold medal.
Group A - Canada got a hometown gift here. Their only real competition is the Americans. Norway and Switzerland are badly outmatched and, barring a miracle, will each only stand a chance in their game against each other. The Americans have a decent team, but they have a lot of youth, and they just don't have nearly the depth of the Canadians. Canada has enough depth that they could field a second team that would be a serious medal contender. Anything can happen in one game, but Canada is the 1/4 favorite to win the group, and it's hard to argue with that.
Group B - This is another group that seems fairly straightforward. Latvia and Slovakia just don't have the talent to compete unless they pull of a big miracle. That can happen - Belarus did it last time - but it's hard to bet on. The Czech Republic isn't nearly as talented as they have been in the past, but they are still the second best in this group by a wide margin. The best, though, is clearly Russia - 10/29 to win the group. They aren't as deep as Canada, but Alexander Ovechkin is the best player in the world, and Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk are n a very small handful of the top offensive talents on the planet. I expect Russia to overwhelm the rest of their group.
Group C - There's a familiar pattern in this group as well. Sweden is by far the best team, though they aren't as good as they were last time out because of age. At 1/2 they are heavily and fairly favored to take the group. Finland is the clear second choice. They don't have the offensive might of some teams, but are going to be very strong in net. Belarus and Germany just have to remember that the Olympics aren't just about winning.
The quarterfinals - Canada, Russia and Sweden are all very likely to make it through. The fourth automatic bid is wide open, but the Americans, Finns, and Czechs will also make it through to the quarters regardless of how they have to get there. The last two teams could be anyone, but it doesn't really matter. How the top three teams get to the quarters will have a lot to do with who wins. The top qualifying team - based on wins, goal differential, and goals scored - will be able to avoid the other two elite teams until the finals, while the other two will be on a path to meet in the semis.
The worst case scenario in terms of a dream final in my eyes would be for Sweden to come out on top because then Canada and Russia would have to meet before the end. I don't see that happening, though - both Canada and Russia have more offensive power, and Canada has the softest draw of the three.
The semifinals - Assuming Canada and Russia aren't in the same group I see them both moving on. Sweden and the U.S. are perhaps the most likely other teams to get there, but if Canada and Russia are on top of their games then neither can match up. I know I seem to be oversimplifying it, but I truly believe that these two teams are on an entirely different level as long as they are focused and ready for the challenge. In Torino Canada wasn't healthy or focused and it was a disaster. They won't make that mistake again. Russia is just too terrifyingly good offensively for most teams to measure up to. If Canada and Russia were forced to play in the semis then I would give the Americans the edge to make the finals, but they would lose badly to the winner of the other semi.
The finals - I am at risk of losing my Canadian passport here. I have to look at this one in two ways. My heart obviously says that Canada will win, and my head says that that is the most likely outcome, too. They have a great offensive cast, and Sidney Crosby is the second best player in the world. The defense is the best in the world by a wide margin, and the goaltending, though a comparative weakness, is still very solid. I would pick them to beat the Russians straight up - especially because the impact of the home crown can't be overlooked. From a betting perspective, though, I'm afraid I would have to tab the Russians. Canada is at 11/10 to win it all, while Russia is at 21/10. That's a big difference - a bigger difference than the difference between the two teams. It's not more much more than a coin flip between the teams, so Russia is, sadly, where the value is.