The excitement for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (Russia) is already starting to build. On Tuesday, the groups for the men's ice hockey competition were unveiled.
Here are the three groups, according to the IIHF:
Group A: Russia (1), Slovakia (6), USA (7), Slovenia (18)
Group B: Finland (2), Canada (5), Norway (8), Austria (15)
Group C: Czech Republic (3), Sweden (4), Switzerland (9), Latvia (11)
The format will be the same as in Vancouver 2010. The four teams with the best records (the group winners and the second-place team with the best record) advance to the quarter-finals, the remaining eight teams will play a qualification game.
At first glance, it seems like the most competitive batch of teams will be Group A. Russia, the United States and Slovakia are all capable of finishing in first place in that group to reach the quarterfinals. Russia will be under a lot of pressure to start well and earn a place in the medal round in front of their home fans.
The defending gold medal winners from Canada are in the easiest group, and the only team they will have to worry about is Finland. Sweden will be the favorite to win Group C, and the Czech Republic should not have too much trouble finishing in the top two for an opportunity to reach the medal round.
Let's take a look at the favorites for each men's ice hockey medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Feel free to share your medal predictions and roster picks in the comments section below.
Gold Medal: Canada
|1||Rick Nash||Sidney Crosby||Steven Stamkos|
|2||Jonathan Toews||Claude Giroux||Corey Perry|
|3||Jamie Benn||Patrice Bergeron||Martin St. Louis|
|4||Eric Staal||John Tavares||Tyler Seguin|
|1||Shea Weber||Marc Staal|
|2||Drew Doughty||Alex Pietrangelo|
|3||Duncan Keith||Brent Seabrook|
|Carey Price||Roberto Luongo||Cam Ward|
As always, Canada will have a lot of difficult decisions when it comes time to determine which players will get the final roster spots. However, there is no shortage of world-class talent for Steve Yzerman to choose from.
The Canadians have a surplus of amazing two-way centers, and finding the right goal scorers for each playmaker will be an important task for likely head coach Mike Babcock.
Canada's blue line will lose some important veterans from the 2010 gold medal team, including Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle, but there are plenty of exciting young defensemen ready to play an important role for their country.
The goaltender position will certainly be one of the main focuses of the team, but Carey Price should give Team Canada more confidence than Roberto Luongo did in 2010. When it comes time to travel to Sochi next year, Price could be the NHL's best goaltender.
Canada will enter the 2014 Olympics with the most talented roster and high expectations, but they won't be under pressure to win the gold medal in front of their home fans like they were in Vancouver three years ago.
Silver Medal: United States
|1||Patrick Kane||Ryan Kesler||Zach Parise|
|2||Bobby Ryan||Dustin Brown||Phil Kessel|
|3||T.J. Oshie||David Backes||Ryan Callahan|
|4||James van Riemsdyk ||Joe Pavelski||Max Pacioretty|
|1||Ryan Suter||Ryan McDonagh|
|2||Keith Yandle||Jack Johnson|
|3||Kevin Shattenkirk ||Justin Faulk |
|Jonathan Quick ||Ryan Miller ||Jimmy Howard|
Not many people predicted the United States to win the silver medal in 2010. However, thanks to the incredible play of tournament MVP Ryan Miller and a strong defensive performance, Team USA almost upset Canada in the gold medal game though the U.S. ultimately lost 2-1 in overtime.
The 2014 edition of Team USA should be even stronger, especially at forward where a group of highly skilled and gritty players will make the United States one of the toughest teams to beat.
The blue line is a young group, and it will be interesting to see if veterans such as Brooks Orpik and Tim Gleason will make the roster for a second straight Olympics to give Team USA some more experience and toughness on defense.
One interesting positional battle to watch is the No. 1 goalie role. There are three quality players (listed above) capable of earning the starting job.
After a strong performance in 2010 and a better roster for 2014, the United States will face very high expectations in Sochi. If their goaltending is strong, the United States could win their first Olympic gold medal since the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.
Bronze Medal: Sweden
|1||Gabriel Landeskog||Henrik Sedin||Daniel Sedin|
|2||Loui Eriksson||Nicklas Backstrom||Patric Hornqvist|
|3||Patrik Berglund||Henrik Zetterberg||Johan Franzen|
|4||Alexander Steen||Mika Zibanejad ||Jakob Silverberg|
|1||Oliver Ekman-Larsson||Erik Karlsson|
|2||Niklas Kronwall||Viktor Hedman|
|3||Alexander Edler||Tobias Enstrom|
|Henrik Lundqvist||Anders Lindback||Johan Hedberg|
Sweden won the gold medal in 2006, but the team was surprisingly unable to reach the medal round in 2010.
With a talented top-nine forward group that has a good mix of experience and youth, Sweden shouldn't have many problems scoring goals.
The concern for the Swedes is their blue line, where Niklas Kronwall will probably be the only shutdown defenseman on the roster.
Their blue line is loaded with elite offensive talent, led by Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson, but will Sweden's defensemen be able to win physical battles against tougher teams such as Canada and the United States?
With reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, Sweden will certainly contend for a medal in Sochi. This team has too much talent and experience to have another disappointing performance at the Olympics.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.
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