It's not often that a defending champion can be thought of as an underdog. Strangely, Sweden finds itself in that very position heading into the Olympics as it opens against Germany on Wednesday night.
Despite a roster featuring more than half of its players from the team that won gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics, Sweden has become something of an afterthought while Canada and Russia are seen as the leading contenders to win this tournament.
Even six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings agreed that Sweden is not one of the top favorites.
"I think Canada and Russia are the top two teams to beat," said Lidstrom, Sweden's captain. "I would put us, the Finns and the Czechs in there and you could add the U.S. as a sixth team with a legit chance to win."
A second straight gold medal would make Sweden the first nation with two Olympic golds since NHL players were allowed to compete in 1998.
While they may not be the popular pick, the Swedes are again loaded at every position, including goaltender, where three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist returns as the undisputed starter.
Lundqvist (25-22-6, 2.41 goals-against average) is having another strong season for the goal-starved New York Rangers and will be playing behind a far better offensive team in this tournament.
Lundqvist had five wins and a 2.33 GAA in Turin, making 25 saves in a 3-2 victory over Finland in the gold-medal game.
Seeking a third gold for Sweden is Peter Forsberg, who had eight points in 2006 and scored the winning shootout goal against Canada in the gold-medal game in 1994 - the last Olympics without NHL players. Forsberg, though, has been plagued by injuries lately and hasn't played in the NHL since 2008 with Colorado.
"It would be huge," the 36-year-old Forsberg said of a winning a third gold. "This is probably my last shot at it."
As illustrious a career as Forsberg has had, he likely will take a secondary role behind Sweden's younger offensive stars, a stellar group that includes twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks. Henrik ranks second in the NHL with 80 points - two shy of his career high - while Daniel has 16 goals and 54 points.
The Sedins will play on one line while another unit figures to be centered by emerging star Nicklas Backstrom, the NHL's fourth-leading scorer with 76 points. At just 22, Backstrom already has established himself as one of the game's top playmakers, often setting up Russian star Alex Ovechkin for the high-scoring Washington Capitals.
Sweden's firepower up front continues with Detroit teammates Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, a late replacement for the injured Tomas Holmstrom. Zetterberg had 43 goals and 92 points in 2007-08, and has 48 points in 53 games this season for the Red Wings. Sweden doesn't lose anything with Franzen, who set career highs with 34 goals and 59 points last season.
"We wish we could've had them both, but I am happy to get another elite player when one is missing," said defenseman Douglas Murray of the San Jose Sharks.
Lidstrom is the anchor of a formidable defensive unit that features Detroit teammate Niklas Kronwall and Tampa Bay's Mattias Ohlund, another member of the gold-medal winning team in Turin. Murray, Henrik Tallinder, Johnny Oduya and Magnus Johansson round out the group.
With only seven players currently in the NHL, Germany isn't likely to beat any of the star-studded teams at the Olympics, but does have the ability to put a scare into the favorites. The Germans finished 10th in the 12-team field in 2006 and were eighth in the 2002 Olympics.
Jochen Hecht of the Buffalo Sabres and Boston's Marco Strum will be counted on to carry a heavy load for Germany as two of the team's most-skilled forwards.
Christian Ehrhoff of the Canucks and Florida's Dennis Seidenberg are the biggest names on the German blue line while the goaltending will be handled by either Thomas Greiss - a backup for the Sharks - or Dmitri Patzold, whose only NHL experience was three games for San Jose in 2007.