The women's Olympic hockey tournament began Saturday and runs through Feb. 22 -- and it's "gold or bust" for Team USA, which has finished second to archrival Canada at the past two Games. Even though the men's tournament, which starts Wednesday and runs through Feb. 25, doesn't include NHL players this time around, there are still plenty of reasons to tune in. Here are our picks as to which teams will take home the hardware in both tournaments.
Greg Wyshynski: Having already established that an NHL-led American team would have captured gold in Pyeongchang, I now cast a melancholy glance at the men's tournament and see the Americans sans any medal. Sigh.
Canada should win Group A, while the Olympic Athletes from Russia and Sweden should win their respective groups. Assuming the sorta-Russians throttle their group and finish with the top seed in the medal round, that would set up a Canada-Sweden semifinal if the favorites win out. Which means the winner would likely play the KHL-player-rich OAR for gold, while Sweden defeats whoever advances to the bronze-medal game. (Hopefully, a total off-the-board surprise and not, say, Finland.)
My pick here is Canada. Not only because this is a well-coached group led by Willie Desjardins, but because I assume they're going to have enough speed and just enough offense to hang with the better teams in this tournament.
But most of all, the pick is Canada because that is the only answer to the following question: What scenario could play out in the 2018 men's tournament that would drive me into a spiral of hockey sadness? The U.S. failing to medal while Canada not only wins a third straight gold but crafts a faux-"Miracle On Ice" legend for beating a heavily favored "Athletes From Russia" team.
Emily Kaplan: Despite sporting a neutral flag and not being able to hear their national anthem on the podium, let's not fool ourselves: This is a Russian team playing a good brand of Russian hockey. With a skilled sniper in Ilya Kovalchuk and an elite two-way center in Pavel Datsyuk (both four-time Olympians), plus talented goalies -- two of whom could make their mark in the NHL soon -- no team boasts the experience or talent of the Russians. In a tournament in which everyone is adopting the underdog role, the Russians will buy in, too; besides the sting of the sanctions, they're looking for redemption after falling flat in front of the home crowd in Sochi. The Swedes will take silver in yet another coming-out party for presumed No. 1 2018 NHL draft pick Rasmus Dahlin, while the Canadians, who boast a combined 5,544 games of NHL experience (an average of 222 games per player), take bronze.
Chris Peters: I don't think there's any doubt the Russians are the top team on paper. It would be really difficult for anyone to beat them. Sweden is probably the next-best team on paper, but there's something about Finland and the structure with which it plays that makes me believe it might have the best shot against the Russians. In pre-Olympic prep, Finland beat Russian and Canadian teams that had many now-Olympians on it. The Finns have a solid goalie in Mikko Koskinen, a legit sniper in 18-year-old Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen and a commitment to team defense that makes them so difficult to play against. It's a swing-for-the-fences kind of prediction, but I think Finland is fairly well-positioned to pull off the upset.
As for the fate of Canada and the U.S., I have the Canadians losing to Sweden in the bronze-medal game and Team USA also getting dispatched by a more skilled Swedish team in the quarters (yes, I attempted to map out the whole tournament, and yes, I am an unabashed international hockey geek). That said, I think both the Americans and Canadians are going to give every team they play against a challenge. I don't blame you if you don't want to set your alarms for the early-morning games, but I think you'll still enjoy watching when you have the chance.
Ben Arledge: The Russians are the obvious favorites here, and for good reason. Their roster includes the likes of Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and Vadim Shipachyov up front and a trio of extremely talented goaltenders -- including prospects Igor Shestyorkin (New York Rangers) and Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders). The silver and bronze will likely be some combination of Sweden, Finland and Canada, but I'm going with the Nordic teams to win the medals. With Dahlin on the point, decent forward depth and very capable goalies, Sweden will certainly push the Russians for gold. Finland, meanwhile, always finds a way to challenge for a medal at the Olympics, and I like the Finns to defeat Canada in the consolation game for their third consecutive bronze medal. Watch for Preds prospect Tolvanen to make a difference. It would be the first time since 2006 that Team USA and Canada failed to medal, but this just isn't your typical men's Olympic hockey tournament, instead favoring the European nations.
Wyshynski: It's funny: There's almost more virtue in finishing second overall in the qualification round than first. The top team faces the No. 3 team from Group A, which will most likely be Finland. And the only thing that should scare Canada or the U.S. other than each other is goalie Noora Raty, who made 40 saves against the Americans in their Olympic opener. Hence, the Finns should take home bronze.
But much like four of the five other women's hockey Olympic tournaments, this one will end with Team USA and Team Canada playing for gold.
The U.S. has lost its past four games to Canada, but I like the Americans to win their first gold medal in 20 years for two reasons. The first is adversity. This team hasn't jelled as well as one would hope. There are problems offensively, which makes the decision to leave Alex Carpenter home all the more baffling. But I'll take an American team that has been staggered a little bit before Pyeongchang than one that believes a gold medal is preordained every time.
The second reason is Sochi. I was there. I spoke with Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Brianna Decker. I sensed the absolute anguish and disgust they felt after their overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game, a victory they had in their grasp. And despite Canada returning Shannon Szabados, an all-time great goaltender, and forward Marie-Philip Poulin, who has single-handedly kept gold away from the Americans with her offense, I can't fathom how Team USA could cope with leaving South Korea with anything less than gold.
Kaplan: It's inevitable: The two top-seeded teams in this tournament will meet in the gold-medal game, yet again. This time, USA gets revenge on Canada after its wrenching loss in Sochi. Don't be fooled by the American women's tight opener against Finland; they had to overcome an early deficit for a 3-1 win. Raty, the Finish goalie, is perhaps the best in the game, and she'll help lead her country to bronze. The Canadians, predictably, steamrolled the Olympic Athletes from Russia 5-0 in their opener. The North Americans are on a collision course toward the gold-medal game, and with nine veterans back from the 2014 Games and stout leadership from Knight and Meghan Duggan, I expect the U.S. to prevail.
Peters: There's something special about the way the Canadians have played in the Olympics. They always seem to find a way, but I think this year is going to be different. Aside from the fact that the American women have won each of the three IIHF Women's World Championships since suffering the devastating defeat in Sochi, there's another major factor for this team. Some might point to the togetherness and the special bond forged through their pay dispute with USA Hockey, which I think is going to help a lot. On the ice, however, this team absolutely flies. Having a "third line" of Lamoureux-Davidson, Lamoureux-Morando and Kelly Pannek, which was absolutely dominant against Finland, also gives this U.S. team a power element that helps on the boards and at the net-front. Meanwhile, burners such as Kendall Coyne and Amanda Kessel can beat defenders with outside speed on the big ice, especially with the help of some dynamic defensemen who can get the puck to them and spark a deadly transition. It took a while for Team USA coach Robb Stauber to optimize his lineup, as we saw with the team struggling to generate offense on their pre-Olympic tour, which has caused some concern in the lead-up to the Games. I think they've got a pretty good mix right now, though. Twenty years is long enough between gold medals, anyway. This group looks poised to end the drought.
Arledge: The all-North American gold-medal game seems almost set in stone. Team USA is stacked with talent behind Knight, Duggan, the Lamoureux twins, Kessel & Co. There aren't too many weaknesses here. Canada has its own deep roster, lining it up with yet another battle for gold with the Americans. For the first time since 1998, I think the Americans pull off the win. The Finns impressed in their opener against the U.S., putting the Americans to an early deficit. They'll take home the bronze in the women's tournament.