Sochi 2014 Preview: Breaking Down Every National Team’s Best Hockey Player

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Sochi 2014: Each National Hockey Team's Best Player

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin
Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports

The 22nd Winter Olympics are right around the corner, and one of the most popular events of the Games is without a doubt the men’s hockey tournament. The inclusion of ice hockey in the Olympiad actually goes back to the 1920 Summer Games in Belgium. Of course, it wasn’t until 1924 that the first Winter Games were actually held, and from then on the sport had its new Olympic home.

Perhaps the most memorable hockey game of all time was part of the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. At that time, professionals still weren’t allowed to play in the Olympics, and the American team led by coach Herb Brooks, Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig made a stunning run through the tournament. Their defeat of the heavily-favored Soviet Union team led to one of the greatest moments in sports history, as time ran out and Al Michaels bellowed “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” More than 30 years later, that game is still a benchmark for international competition.

This year in Sochi, the American and Russian teams are once again part of the tournament, joined by powerhouse Canada at the top. The nine other nations represented include Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Slovenia, Latvia and Switzerland. Players from the NHL are on every roster, with several players representing leagues from their home countries, and even a few college players sprinkled in. It’s as deep of a tournament as ever.

But who should we be on the lookout for? Which players will carry their teams hopes on their backs as they strive for Olympic gold? Read on to see my breakdown of each team’s best player.

Brandon Raper is a golf writer and contributor for RantSports.com. “Like” him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @Brandon__Raper and join him on Google+.

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Latvia: Zemgus Girgensons, Forward

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The inclusion of former Colorado Avalanche star defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh on the roster is notable, considering he is still playing at age 41, but 20-year-old Buffalo Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons is the one who will lead the team in Sochi. Even though he only has four goals and ten assists through 45 games, he has impressed Buffalo and Latvia coach Ted Nolan enough to earn his spot on the international squad.

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Switzerland: Jonas Hiller, Goaltender

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The Swiss team isn’t going to win any awards on paper, but Jonas Hiller is having a great season for the Anaheim Ducks, and countryman Mark Streit should help him out on the defensive side. Hiller has notched 23 wins in 32 starts for Anaheim and carries a .914 save percentage through the 2013-14 season. This will be his second appearance in the Olympics for Switzerland, having been on the eighth-place squad in Vancouver in 2010.

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Czech Republic: Tomas Plekanec, Center

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It’s a rough year for the Czech squad. Even though there are names you’ll recognize like Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved, they’re aging and not likely to have a major impact. Tomas Plekanec is one of the better defensive forwards out there, and could be one of the bright spots on the Czech roster. He's got 14 goals and 14 assists through 47 games this season, and he recently helped shut down Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp.

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Sweden: Nicklas Backstrom, Center

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The Swedes are so deep on offense, with Nicklas Backstrom, the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik) and Henrik Zetterberg that it may not even matter if goaltender Henrik Lundqvist struggles in the net. Backstrom led Team Sweden to the quarterfinals of the 2010 Olympics with six points in four games, and will be relied upon heavily again this year.

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Norway: Mats Zuccarello, Right Wing

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Norway’s only NHL player to make the roster, Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers faces a tough road ahead as they’re matched with Canada and Finland in Group B. Zuccarello played for Norway in 2010, scoring one goal and notching two assists before his team was eliminated.

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Austria: Thomas Vanek, Left Wing

Brace Hemmelgarn - USA TODAY Sports

The Austrians are just happy to be back in the Games for the first time since 2002. All three of Austria’s NHL players made the roster, and Thomas Vanek of the New York Islanders is the clear headliner. It will be interesting to see how a team that hasn't played on this stage for a decade fares.

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Slovenia: Anze Kopitar, Center

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The only NHL player on the entire Slovenian roster could be in for a brutal run with Russia and the United States in the same group. Kopitar has 38 points through 47 games with the Los Angeles Kings this year, and carries a +23 rating right now.

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Finland: Tuukka Rask, Goaltender

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Slovakia: Marian Hossa, Forward

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Marian Hossa isn't just the best player on the Slovakian team, but undoubtedly one of the best in the world today. As to whether he's the best player on his NHL club, the Chicago Blackhawks? You'll have to keep going to see about that one. Still, Hossa will be the focal point of Slovakia's offense, especially with Marian Gaborik out. This will be Hossa's fourth Games, which means he has all the experience needed to lead his squad.

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Russia: Alex Ovechkin, Winger

Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports

You know you have a good team when you can't even decide between Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin for this particular title. The Washington Capitals star edges out Malkin, though, based on his league-leading scoring pace. In these Games, you likely won't be able to separate the two much, but Ovechkin will bring his highlight-reel scoring to the international stage once again.

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United States: Patrick Kane, Forward

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The American roster is stacked, as you can tell by the decision to leave off players like Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo, and Dustin Byfuglien. Patrick Kane, however, was a leader for the silver medal team in Vancouver, and will be integral to the Americans' hopes of knocking off Canada and Russia. His remarkable 56 points through 49 games are second in the NHL this season, trailing only...

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Canada: Sidney Crosby, Center

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Is there any doubt here? Nothing really needs to be said about the best player on the Canadian team when he's also the best player in the entire world. Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in scoring with 68 points, carries a +12 rating, and he led the Canadians to gold four years ago on home ice in Vancouver. The Canadian roster is one of the most talented on paper, and it all starts with No. 87. Crosby will almost certainly lead his squad into the medal round.