After bringing home the gold four years ago, star-studded Canada enters the 2014 Games with the highest of expectations.
Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and the rest of the team aren't likely to get much of a test opening their gold-medal defense Thursday versus Norway, which features just one NHL player on its roster.
Though Canada hasn't won a gold medal outside North America since 1952, it appears to have a good chance to end that drought in Sochi. Widely considered the strongest club in the Olympic pool, Canada has 11 returning players from the team that beat the United States 3-2 in the 2010 gold-medal game behind Crosby's golden goal.
Coach Mike Babcock's club is comprised of 11 of the NHL's top 25 scorers, while the other 11 countries have a combined nine. Crosby leads the league with 78 points, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf is second with 67 and New York Islanders center John Tavares ranks third with 66.
"I think we've heard a lot of people talk about 'can't win on big ice and can't do this and can't do that,' and we're looking at it as a challenge," assistant coach Ken Hitchcock told the International Ice Hockey Federation. "We think we've got a heck of a hockey club. We know there are other teams that are good too, but I think quite frankly, we feel like we've got a gear that we can play at that's substantial."
Canada would seem to have a big edge in this Group B matchup over Norway, which went 0-4 and finished 10th in Vancouver. However, Tavares and company know better than to overlook any team in this tournament.
"Every game's a tough game," Tavares said. "(Norway is) a team that competes hard, and they have a tremendous skill set. ... Obviously, some of these countries that may not be as well-known have played together for a long time. That makes a big difference, and all those teams are going to be ready to play."
Norway will likely need a huge effort from winger Mats Zuccarello to keep up with Canada. Zuccarello, leading the Rangers with 43 points, is the team's lone NHL representative.
"When we play our first game, we've got to think that we're playing the U.S. or Russia every single game," said Toews, the 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion with Chicago. "That's the level we need to play at to get to the right level when the games really matter in this tournament."
Montreal goalie Carey Price will start on Thursday before Vancouver's Roberto Luongo faces Austria on Friday. Price carries plenty of momentum into the games after going 4-1-1 with a 1.16 goals-against average and two shutouts in his last six contests with the Canadiens.
"Obviously I'm thrilled, and I'm just ready to go," said Price, a three-time All-Star and first-time Olympian. "It's definitely a highlight. I seem to have had a lot in my young life so far, but this definitely ranks up there."
While Canada isn't lacking for offense, it will be without superstar Steven Stamkos, who is still recovering from a broken leg suffered in November. He was replaced by Tampa Bay teammate Martin St. Louis.
"I think we all figured if there's anyone that's going to find a way back, it would be him," Crosby said of Stamkos, a two-time 50-goal scorer. "That being said, it's probably more difficult for him than anyone else. You feel for him, but we obviously have to move forward."