The 2014 Olympic men's hockey tournament starts today, and all eyes will be on Canada and the US. Canada is looking to defend its 2010 gold medal, while the Americans want to bring home their first hockey gold since 1980 — and avenge a tough overtime loss to the Canadians four years ago.
But there are more than those two teams playing for the gold medal. Ten other countries want to skate out of Sochi as world champions. And while not every team has an equal shot at glory, there are a few nations who could find themselves on the medal podium.
Here are three teams to watch — not wearing a maple leaf or the stars and stripes and their sweaters — as the 2014 tournament gets underway.
2010 Result: 2-0-0-1, Did not medal
On paper, Sweden has a solid team heading into Sochi: Forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Carl Hagelin, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, and Alexander Steen and defensemen Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya, and Erik Karlsson are not to be taken lightly.
But players and coaches know that a great goaltender can steal a game — or a championship — for his team. Right now the best in the world is the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. If he gets hot at the right time, and his fellow countrymen score just enough, Sweden could leave Sochi with its first gold medal since 2006.
2010 Result: 2-0-1-0, Did not medal
There's a lot at stake for the Russian team in these Olympics. National pride, for sure. But with a team made up of a lot of guys from Russia's KHL, the country wants to show the world that it can compete with the best in the world — and the NHL.
The Russians haven't won a medal since they took home bronze in 2002, but no one is looking past them in '14. Not only will Russia have home ice advantage, but it will also be led by scoring machine Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. If Ovi produces on offense, Russia could win its first gold since 1992 (when it was the Unified Team).
2010 Result: 3-0-0-0, Won bronze medal
Ignore Finland at your own peril — no nation has won more medals (two bronze, one silver) since 1998, the start of Olympic hockey's NHL era. Still, the Finns are looking for their first hockey gold medal. Those hopes rest with winger Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks. Playing in his sixth (and likely final) Olympics, the 43-year-old would love to make Finland the Olympic champion.
But the Finns should get a big boost from goalie Tuukka Rask. He's been a breakout star for the Boston Bruins and a clutch shutdown netminder. If he gets in the zone early — and the team in front of him is able to find the back of the net often — this could be Finland's year.
For more on the 2014 men's tournament, check out our story about the possible US/Canada rematch from our January/February issue!
Photos: Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated (Lundqvist), David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated (Ovechkin), Canwest/Zumapress.com (Selanne)
Olympic Men's Hockey 2014: Three to Watch