The NHL draws the best hockey talent from around the world. Every four years, during the 2014 Winter Olympics, these international stars return to their home countries to play for the gold. While this means that fans have to take a break from watching their favorite teams play each other, it doesn't mean they have to stop watching their favorite players. This year in Sochi, Russia, of the 100 players in the final four teams in the running for the gold, the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden 89 of them are NHL players.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of Team USA hockey's 25 man roster is from the NHL, and this year, they are in it to win it. You may remember Team USA's heartbreaking loss to Canada at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. If you don't, here's a recap:
The U.S. was undefeated in Olympic tournament play going into the gold medal match with Canada. Down by one goal at the end of the second period, Team USA was able to tie it up in the last period, sending the game into overtime. After seven minutes of overtime play, Canadian Sidney Crosby scored on U.S. goalie Ryan Miller, winning the game for Canada - it was his only goal during the game.
Naturally, after coming so close four years ago, the United States is determined to bring home the gold this year. To do so, they have assembled a team of top-notch talent from across the NHL, five of whom are among the top 20 goal-scorers in the league (Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty, James van Riemsdyk and Joe Pavelski). Team USA has only won two gold medals in Olympic hockey, the last one being the spectacular "Miracle on Ice" game in 1980.
As a right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks, Patrick Kane is not only a current Stanley Cup champion, but also the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. This isn't Kane's first go around with the Stanley Cup, either. In 2010 he scored the winning goal in the finals during overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers. With the second-highest scoring record in the NHL, Kane is ready to take home the gold this year after coming so close in 2010.
Another high-scoring forward from the NHL, Kessel can be seen playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs during the NHL season. He spent his formative years training under Bob Suter, a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team of amateur and collegiate players who beat the greatest hockey power of their time, the Soviet Union. Kessel has already proved to be the leading scorer in the 2014 Winter Olympics, accumulating four goals and three assists in only three games.
As the current Olympic champions, Canada is back to defend its gold medal. Unfortunately, their history of Olympic play outside of North America is not reassuring - they haven't won a medal outside of North America since 1952. That is a 60-year trend that the team will have to compete with going into Sochi, which, by the way, is not in North America. The team seems confident in its chances, being led by captain Sidney Crosby, who is often hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky, or as we like to call him, Wayne Nextzky. The team is rounded out by a solid defense. In fact, the Canadian defense is so good, they've been outscoring the forwards.
Often referred to as "The Next One" - a spin off of Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's nickname, "The Great One" - Sidney Crosby is determined to lead Team Canada to another gold medal victory. A center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, during the 2008-09 season he became the youngest person to win the Stanley Cup. Along the way, Crosby has picked up many game day superstitions, such as not calling his mother and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
A defensive player for the San Jose Sharks, Vlasic has been making quite a name for himself so far during tournament play. A Montreal native, he is in his eighth season with the NHL, which is quite an accomplishment considering he is only 26 years old. His pairing with teammate Drew Doughty has been getting a lot of attention for the way the two seem as though they have been playing together for years. Doughty is a defense player for the Los Angeles Kings and is currently the leading Olympic scorer on Team Canada with four goals.
After pushing home team Russia out of competition, Finland has risen to become a force to be reckoned with. Its roster features 14 NHL players, including Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild, Lauri Korpikoski of the Phoenix Coyotes and Tuomo Ruutu from the Carolina Hurricanes. Team Captain Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks led the Fins to a 3-1 win over Russia. This could be the beginning of a Cinderella story for the Finnish team as they advance through the ranks to potentially play Olympic favorites Canada and the USA.
The Boston Bruins goalie made 37 saves during the Olympic men's hockey match, ending Russia's chance of winning gold and closing the game with a 3-1 victory. Rask leads the league with the most shutouts this season and comes in 4th with his save percentage.
Teemu Selanne, nicknamed "The Finnish Flash," proves age is just a number. At 43, the Anaheim Ducks' right winger looks to help push his country's team into the gold medal match. Selanne scored 76 goals in the 1992-93 season, and holds the league record for most goals by a rookie. Now a six-time Olympian, with two bronze medals, and a silver medal under his belt, Selanne is also the all-time leader in scoring at the Olympic ice hockey tournament.
Sweden looks to become the second repeat champion at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Ranked No. 1 in the world, after their 2013 World Championship win, it's clear the Swedes will be a tough team to beat. Stacked with more than 20 NHL players, including Erik Karlsson, Gabriel Landeskog and Oliver Ekman-Larrsson, Sweden is predicted to take the gold medal.
The 41-year-old Detroit Red Wings forward and Selanne may be considered the old-timers on the ice, but each holds their own. Alfredson led Sweden in scoring in the 1998 Olympic Winter Games with two goals and three assists in four games.
"King Henrick," goaltender for the New York Rangers, is no stranger to the Winter Olympics either, having led Team Sweden to their second Olympic gold medal. Lundqvist is the only goalie in league history to record 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons.
One thing's for certain the final four Olympic men's hockey teams are stacked with serious skill, and a roster of the NHL's best. Who do you think will take home the gold?