Winter Olympic hockey power rankings: Canada gains the top spot

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SB Nation's bi-weekly power rankings in the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Who's on top? Who's trending up? Who's trending down? Let's find out.

Nation Trend Notes
Goaltending is constantly fretted about in Canada, but Carey Price has provided an answer to the question of whether Canada will have dependable goaltending in Sochi. Price has the best save percentage in the NHL among starting goaltenders, and has done so while facing 32 shots per game. Canada also has good news on the injury front, with Matt Duchene returning from injury, and Steven Stamkos already walking around without the aid of crutches. Walking is a lot different than skating at the highest level, but Stamkos has targeted a pre-Olympic return. Edmonton's Taylor Hall has also exploded offensively after a slowish start, which is huge.
A closer examination of Sweden's defensive core reveals some chinks in the armor, as Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jonas Brodin have been struggling mightily this season. Ekman-Larsson is still producing offensively due to a high team shooting percentage while he's on the ice, but he's posting the worst possession numbers of his career. Brodin is struggling similarly in Minnesota, putting extra pressure on Ryan Suter, who already has to do too much. Henrik Zetterberg being sidelined by a back injury doesn't help either, and even though the Red Wings say he'll only be out two weeks, back injuries tend to be recurring, and Zetterberg is no stranger to them.
Usa_medium A surprising start coupled with established USA Hockey vets struggling has seen Ben Bishop push himself into the Olympic conversation. America is also boosted by Max Pacioretty finding his scoring game, now with nine goals in his last nine games. Pacioretty has been the highest scoring American player at even-strength for the last two seasons, but his slow start put him on the bubble for the team. If he can continue to find the back of the net, his 200-foot speed game is going to help Team USA. The most interesting question for the Americans will be who they take on defense. Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh, and Keith Yandle are locks, but will they add offense to that group with players like Dustin Byfuglien, James Wisniewski, and Kevin Shattenkirk, or will they go with defensive stalwarts like Andy Greene? There's also the question of whether or not Paul Martin will be available after fracturing his tibia.
Russia_medium A slow start from Evgeni Malkin has been obliterated by an insane November, where he has climbed to second in the NHL in scoring. Coupled with Ovechkin's league-leading goalscoring, Russia's top guns could have them moving up, but injuries to Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Alexander Semin have them stagnant. Add in that Semyon Varlamov has followed his excellent October with a .907 save percentage since the beginning of November, and the troubles are mounting. With Nikolai Kulemin and Nail Yakupov continuing to struggle to score, Russia is going to have to look to KHL players for secondary scoring, and that hasn't worked out in the past.
Jaromir Jagr scoffs at being 42, and continues to lead the uninspiring Devils offense in scoring. In fact, a whole host of underrated Czech forwards are performing at a high level, and that's with David Krejci getting horribly unlucky in the shooting department this season. Even better for the Czechs is that their goaltending doesn't look like the complete disaster that everyone expects. Ondrej Pavelec isn't a guy you typically want to rely on, but he's putting up the best numbers of his career, and Michael Neuvirth could end up being a better option anyway.
Finland is caught in an odd situation right now, halfway between the great veterans, who are now too old to be major impact players, and great youngsters, who are still too green to lead the team to a medal. Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula are the only real prime age scorers that Finland has, with Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, Tuomo Ruutu, and Kimmo Timonen struggling to get anything done offensively. Youngsters like Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund have the makings to be stars, but right now they're still adjusting to pro level hockey. Finland has spectacular goaltending, but they're going to have to rely on it a lot more than in past tournaments.
Slovakia's higher ranking last time around was mostly due to having significantly stronger goaltending than the Czechs, but on an extremely strong defensive St. Louis Blues team, presumed starter Jaroslav Halak is performing at just a hair above league average. Even while playing behind Zdeno Chara, that's simply not going to be good enough for the Olympics. As crazy as it sounds, if Halak doesn't start performing, does Peter Budaj actually get a shot?
Switzerland_medium Jonas Hiller has still been inconsistent this year, which is a serious worry for Switzerland. With that said, the Swiss play an amazing defensive system that should give Hiller much more sheltering than Bruce Boudreau's run-and-gun style. Raphael Diaz and Mark Streit have also seen their play improve lately, and the two could form a seriously dangerous powerplay duo. Diaz has just 10 points on the season, and no goals, but it's important to remember that he's playing behind P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, meaning he never gets much powerplay time. Switzerland's trio of dynamic young forwards in Damien Brunner, Sven Baertschi, and Nino Niederreiter aren't lighting up the NHL, but that's a dimension that the national team has never had. Don't be surprised to see them upset someone ranked above them.
Norway_medium Norway doesn't have much in the way of NHLers, with just Mats Zuccarello representing them currently, although ex-NHLer Ole-Kristian Tollefson will likely be on the team. Last Olympics Tore Vikingstad captured the hearts of hockey fans who appreciate cool names and underdogs, but he won't be there this time to lead the way offensively. The Norwegians will be leaning heavily on Zuccarello and Patrick Thoresen to provide an offensive spark.
Latvia_medium Latvia has never boasted a star-studded roster, but for a generation they had three solid NHLers in the now retired Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh, and the departed Karlis Skrastins. This edition of the Latvian team will have only Buffalo rookie Zemgus Girgensons as a recognizable name to North American based fans.
Austria_medium There was a time when Thomas Vanek was the only player from Austria that any NHL hockey fan knew about, but that's changed with the emergence of Michael Grabner. Grabner is off to an extremely slow start this year, shooting at just 3.8 percent, and Vanek has struggled as well. The big international ice is going to change that though, especially for Grabner. The fastest skater in the NHL in my opinion, Grabner is going to find himself with a ton of open ice to play with and create. He's going to have a great Olympics.
Slovenia_medium Slovenia is going to be the team that everyone secretly roots for. They're the biggest possible underdog, with only one recognizable player on their roster. Luckily for them, that player is Anze Kopitar, who is possibly the best two-way forward in the NHL. Yes, he might be even better than Patrice Bergeron. Look for Anze to suit up beside his brother Gasper and put the team on his back. They may not win a single game, but they should be fun to watch.

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