Proteau’s pick for men’s Olympic hockey gold? The Americans

Team Canada and the Russians may be bigger favorites on paper to win a gold medal in men’s hockey at the Sochi Games, but columnist Adam Proteau is picking Team U.S.A. to beat the odds and emerge victorious.

There are a number of different things that separate the Olympic hockey product from the NHL game, but vastly different levels of parity isn’t one of them. There’s about as much of a chance that any national team can beat an opponent on a given night as there is of the same thing occurring in an NHL game.

This is something to bear in mind when you hear predictions/expectations from pundits who believe Canada’s men’s hockey team “should” win gold at the 2014 Sochi Games because they have the best and/or deepest squad on paper. Nobody tunes in to the Olympics to see “shoulds” and scan papers. They’re there because anything can happen – for instance, Dominik Hasek posting a 0.97 goals-against average to lead the Czech Republic to the top of the podium in 1998 – and often does.

That’s why, with as much due respect to Team Canada as I can muster (and I have a ton of it), I’m not picking the Canadians to win it all in Sochi. I’m picking America – and if you see that as me going out on a limb, I’m here to tell you the limb isn’t nearly as precarious-looking as it appears.

Many will point to America’s defense corps as their chief weakness. Could that turn out to be the case when the games are played? Sure, just as easily as it could turn out to be the case Canada suffers a short-span goaltending breakdown in a one-game elimination tournament and finds itself out of the medal hunt before they know what hit them. It also could turn out that U.S. netminding – which, for me, is as deep and talented as any collection of goalies in Sochi – steals games for the States.

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But I’m not only taking the U.S. because of Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller and Jimmy Howard. I’m also looking at their group of forwards and seeing some tough customers (Dustin Brown, David Backes, Ryan Callahan) mixed in with some top-end scoring talent (Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel). This isn’t going to be an easy team to play against. Nor will it be a piece of cake keeping up on the larger ice surface with this fleet-footed bunch. They gave Canada all they could handle at the 2010 Vancouver Games and have more experience heading into Sochi.

Again, this isn’t to argue the Americans are a shoo-in for gold. They could be shooed out by the host Russians, the Swedes (who were my pick for gold prior to injuries to Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen, and the ridiculous omission of blueliner Victor Hedman) or Team Canada at any point in the medal round. However, if you’re expecting the Sochi men’s hockey experience to climax with a final-game showdown between the Canadians and Russians, you should revise those expectations in a hurry. It very well could end with Team U.S.A. on top.

And this time, it won’t be a miracle.