Top 5 Hockey Teams Heading Into Winter Olympics

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Five Teams Who Could Win Gold in Hockey at Sochi

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Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

While nearly everyone is looking forward to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month, there are a few events during each Olympiad that seem to capture more of the attention. Figure skating is always popular, curling also has a set of curious onlookers as the tournament plays out and the odd combination of skiing and shooting stuff that's known as biathlon is always worth checking out.

But there is nothing in the Winter Olympics quite like the hockey tournament, where the top pros from all over the world -- many of whom play in the NHL -- battle it out in a 12-team event for the gold medal. Unlike some other years, this year's Olympic hockey tournament and half the field probably has some right to claim that they could win the gold medal this time around.

The Russian team is in the spotlight both for its star power and the pressure upon it to win gold while having home-ice advantage. Russia hasn't been part of a gold medal in ice hockey since the Unified Team took gold at Albertville, France, in 1992. In fact, had it not been for wins by Team USA in 1960 and 1980, the Russians/Soviets would have claimed an astounding 10 straight golds in hockey. But with Russian talent now well established in playing beyond its borders, gold hasn't come so easily. Sweden, the Czech Republic and Canada have all won gold medals in just the last four tournaments.

Who wins gold in 2014 really is anyone's guess, and it should be a great tournament for fans and neutrals alike. Here's a look at five teams that could skate away with gold in hockey next month.

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5. Finland

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Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Finland might not be the first country that comes into mind when thinking about Olympic hockey gold, but they have hit the podium in the last two tournaments, finishing third in 2010 and losing the gold-medal game to Sweden in 2006. This year's side is stacked in goal with NHL standouts Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi and Tuukka Rask to choose from. If Finland can find any offense at all, their goaltending should give them a chance to upset the field.

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4. United States

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Patriotically, it'd be great to put the USA higher on this list. But realistically and despite some lofty expectations, the Americans haven't won gold since the Miracle on Ice in 1980 at Lake Placid, NY. That almost changed in 2010, of course, as the USA fell to Canada in overtime, 3-2, in the gold-medal game. The only other time the USA has hit the podium since 1980 was in 2002, another finals loss to Canada. Players like Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and David Backes must be standouts for the Americans to have any chance.

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3. Sweden

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Adam Hunger - USA TODAY Sports

Sweden finished fifth in 2010 in failing to defend its 2006 gold medal. Also winners in 1994, Sweden have a nice mix of offensive talent on the squad, including Daniel and Henrik Sedin from the Vancouver Canucks, Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals and Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues. But how well Sweden does will depend on the play of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who is likely to carry much of the load during the tournament.

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2. Canada

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Perry Nelson - USA TODAY Sports

Four years removed from his game-winning goal that beat the United States in Vancouver in 2010, Sidney Crosby leads Team Canada into Sochi where many will have the Canadians pegged as the favorites. They do have a rather simple group, paired with Austria and Norway, as well as one tough opponent in Finland. The Canadian roster would make a powerhouse NHL roster with tons of offensive talent. The only question for the Canadians is what kind of goaltending they will get from the trio of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith. There also won't be a home-ice advantage this time.

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1. Russia

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Russia isn't here at No. 1 because it is necessarily the best team. Topping a group with Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States, there's not much question that the Russians should do well. But they are a mystery in that, compared to some of the other top favorites, there are many on the Russian team who don't play in the NHL. Some have experience, like Ilya Kovalchuk, but others are unknowns. The Russians need Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to rise to the occasion and be at their best to win gold. Russia hasn't hit the podium since a bronze in 2002, and such failure this time won't be acceptable at home.

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