The Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was tremendously entertaining as Team USA and Team Canada squared off for the gold medal. The Canadians won in overtime, giving the country its 11 gold medal in the event. The Canadian squad is again the favorite for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Men’s hockey begins on February 12.
Before entering any wagers for the Olympics, it’s important to realize some of the differences between international hockey and the NHL. International rinks are 100 feet by 200 feet. NHL rinks are 85 feet by 200 feet. The additional width tends to lead to less physical play and will have an effect on goaltenders because they use a lot of angles to be in the proper position to make saves. Speed plays more of a factor on the wider surface, making things more difficult for bulkier, less agile defensemen. The additional skating required on the wider surface could play a role with the three games in four days format during group play. Both the Canadians and Americans have struggled outside of North America in recent Olympics.
Odds have been out for some time now on who will win the gold medal and who will be victorious in each of the three pools. Injuries, interesting roster decisions, and the tournament format combine together to create good betting options for this year’s event. These odds are courtesy of Diamond Sportsbook, one of our affiliates here at BangTheBook. Sign up through our site and use the promo code ‘DSI100’ to get a great bonus offer.
Group A: Russia (-185), USA (+215), Slovakia (or) Slovenia (+725)
Group A presents an interesting situation. The Russians are the heavy favorite to win Group A on home ice, with the Americans coming in at more than a two-to-one underdog. Slovakia and Slovenia are packaged together at +725. In group play, each team plays the three countries in their group, so all four teams will play three games in four days on the Olympic-sized surface in Sochi.
Team Russia is led by a collection of talented forwards and 2013 Vezina Trophy winner for best NHL goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Semyon Varlamov has been one of the top goaltenders in the NHL this season. Unlike the United States and Canada, who focused a lot on which side their defensemen shoot from, the Russian have seven left-handed defensemen out of their eight defensemen. This is something that teams will likely try to exploit, forcing the Russians to use their backhand in the deep Olympic-sized corners. The Russians may be the most talented roster overall and have plenty of motivation in their home country following a very disappointing sixth place performance in Vancouver.
Team USA is very balanced with skill, speed, and physicality. Goaltending will be the key for the Team USA, just as it was four years ago in Vancouver. Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick are in the mix for the starting role, while Jimmy Howard will be there in case of emergency. Team USA has not named a starter yet, though many people believe that Quick is the favorite to start. This year’s American team is a little bit less experienced, especially on defense, so there are some concerns with the pressure of playing in this tournament.
Past US teams have lacked the same speed of this team. A shift in the way that American-born players are developed has led to a new crop of talent, one that should be more adaptable to the bigger rink. The days of big guys like Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin having to excel on the big ice are gone. The US finished eighth in Turin, sixth in Nagano, eighth in Lillehammer, and fourth in Albertville. While the Americans have struggled on international-sized rinks, this team may buck that trend.
Team Slovakian and Team Slovenia are long shots to medal, but the Slovaks do have several NHLers on their roster, including the starting and backup goalies. Jaroslav Halak will start with Peter Budaj in a backup role. The Slovak forwards took a big hit when Marian Gaborik broke his collarbone in November and his loss really hurts the team’s ability to pull an upset. The Slovakian team has some good players, but they lack the necessary depth to be a big factor. The Slovenian team has just one NHL player, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, and the team is coached by Kopitar’s father, Matjaz. This is the first time Slovenia has qualified for the Olympics.
Group winner: USA (+215)
This may seem like a biased pick, but understand that the Americans really only have to beat the Russians for this play to be a winner. The Americans should beat both Slovakia and Slovenia with relative ease. The USA-Russia game is the second game for each team in group play and it will follow a day off. It’s very hard to see a scenario where Team USA would be a +215 underdog in that matchup, so you’re making a +EV play since Team USA’s biggest competition is the Russian squad. At +215, the expected probability of Team USA going 3-0 is 31.75 percent. It should be higher than that, so there’s value in taking the Americans to win Group A. Not to mention, you can always make a hedge on Team Russia in their head-to-head matchup to either break even or insure your Team USA bet.
Group B: Canada (-500), Finland, Norway, Austria (+400)
The Canadians are heavy favorites to win Group B, as Finland is likely the only team capable of giving them a test. The Canada-Finland game will be the final match in group play. Norway has qualified for back-to-back Olympic tournaments for the first time since 1992-94. Team Austria qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 2002 in Salt Lake City.
The Canadians, as always, are stacked. There don’t appear to be any weaknesses on the Canadian team. Roberto Luongo, the reigning gold medal winning goaltender, will be between the pipes for his third straight Olympics. Carey Price will be the backup, with only one international tournament eight years ago on his resume. It’s difficult to envision them losing a game in this group, however, Team Canada did need a shootout to beat Switzerland in 2010, so anything can happen. Also, Team Canada has struggled on international ice in the Olympics, finishing seventh in Turin and fourth in Nagano.
Team Finland is quietly solid, as are most Finland teams. The Finnish hockey ideology is based on being responsible defensively and looking for offense in transition. Finnish teams are rarely flashy, although this year’s version certainly has some skill at forward. One blemish for the Finns is the loss of Mikko Koivu, who didn’t make it back in time from a broken ankle to compete in the games. The Finnish defense corps is underwhelming, but very experienced outside of 19-year-old Olli Maatta. With Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, and the Finnish style of play, don’t count them out for an upset of Canada or a shot at a medal.
Norway and Austria will combine for one win, whoever wins their head-to-head matchup. The Norwegians have one current NHLer in Mats Zuccarello, by far the team’s best player. Patrick Thoresen and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen spent time in the NHL. Team Norway has questionable goaltending three newcomers to the Olympics. Team Austria is headlined by Thomas Vanek, but they do have two other current NHLers in Michael Raffl and Michael Grabner. The Austrians have some offense, but will struggle in their own zone.
Group winner: Canada (-500)
There’s simply too much talent on Canada’s team. Finland may give them a game, but Norway and Austria will be walks in the park for Canada. Like the USA-Russia game, you could try to take a pre-tournament position on Finland and play Canada in the head-to-head matchup for less than -400 to either break even or insure the Finland play, but the Canada line may be too inflated to take that risk.
Group C: Sweden (-175), Czech Republic (+205), Switzerland, Latvia (+725)
This is probably the most competitive group overall. Sweden enters the tournament with a lot of injuries, the Czechs have medaled in the last two tournaments to be played on international rinks, Switzerland played very competitive with the United States and Canada in 2010, and the Latvians are a proud, tenacious bunch that will be pesky, but lacks the talent required to play with other countries.
Team Sweden enters the tournament as the team with the third-lowest futures odds to win gold at +450. The Swedes won’t be at full strength in this tournament. Brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin have both battled their way through this season. The normally dynamic duo has combined for just 22 goals this season and Daniel enters the week before the Olympic break on a 16-game goal scoring drought. It was announced on Thursday that Henrik Sedin will miss the Olympics due to injury. Henrik Zetterberg missed 13 games with a back injury earlier this season. Johan Franzen will miss the Olympics with concussion symptoms. Alexander Steen missed nearly a month earlier this season. While most of the team is in tact, a lot of guys are either not playing at full strength or are struggling.
The Czech Republic brings a very experienced group to Sochi, with six players aged 35 or older. This is a very solid team that isn’t getting much attention leading up to the tournament. There is talent at forward that should score enough and a defense corps that is pretty responsible in its own zone. The big question for the Czechs is in net with Ondrej Pavelec. The Winnipeg Jet has medaled twice in the World Championships, a postseason international tournament featuring some NHL players. Alexander Salak, a starter in the Kontinental Hockey League will backup. Tomas Vokoun was very good for the Czechs in 2010, but they finished seventh after needing overtime to beat Latvia and falling to Finland in the quarterfinals. If Pavelec is good, the Czechs can surprise.
Team Switzerland gained a lot of respect in 2010 in spite of an eighth place finish. Switzerland outplayed Team USA for long stretches of their first game, took Canada to a shootout, and rebounded from two tough defeats to beat Norway. They played the US tough again in the quarterfinals in a 2-0 loss. Switzerland should get great goaltending again from Jonas Hiller and Reto Berra. Four Swiss defenders and two forwards are NHL regulars. A couple bounces here or there and they may pull a big upset in this group. Team Latvia has one current NHLer, with 20-year-old Zemgus Girgensons. They will play hard, but they are clearly a few notches below the rest of the competition.
Group winner: Sweden (-175)
The favorite should win this group, but a bet on the Czechs at +205 is very enticing. The Swedes might be the most complete team, outside of Canada, in the tournament, but with what some of their players have gone through during the NHL season, they’re clearly not operating at full strength. The reason Sweden should win is because of the Czech goaltending. Although Switzerland could pull an upset, it’s hard to see them pulling two against both Sweden and the Czech Republic to win this group.
Gold Medal Winner: Russia (+200)
The Russians have not won gold since 1988 in Calgary when they were still the Soviet Union. This team has a great chance to break that drought. The tandem of Bobrovsky and Varlamov gives the Russians two bona fide options to use and the ability to ride the hot hand. The level of skill at forward is off the charts, and some of the Russian players have spent the season in the Kontinental Hockey League. This tournament is about pride more than anything else for these guys. A potential loss to Team USA would make their path to the medal round a little bit more difficult, but the Russian team will have the home crowd advantage and may also get some preferential treatment in terms of accommodations. Their comfort level should be much higher than that of other teams and they have the scoring ability and the goaltending to win this tournament.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.