By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Ice hockey teams that gel the quickest often enjoy success at the Winter Olympics, so the chemistry between Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin could prove the difference for the Tre Kronor at the Sochi Games.
The Sedins' familiarity from having played together for all of their professional careers is evident most nights in National Hockey League action given the countless no-look passes to each other that appear like a display of twin telepathy.
But the 33-year-old brothers, who both starred for a Swedish national team that triumphed at the 2013 world championships, will need to be at their best if they are to help Sweden rebound from a fifth-place finish in Vancouver four years ago.
Perhaps a benefit for Sweden will be a return to the larger international-sized ice hockey rinks compared to the smaller surface used at the Vancouver Olympics.
Sweden has won the last two Olympic men's ice hockey titles on European ice, most recently at the 2006 Turin Games, but Henrik seemed content to play the underdog card.
"I think Russia and Canada are maybe the two top teams if you look at it on paper," said Henrik, who will be an assistant captain of the Swedish team at the February 7-23 Sochi Games.
"And Russia is playing at home as well. There are five, maybe six, teams who can win it. You have to be good at the right time. I don't think anyone is a huge favourite but I think Russia and Canada are the best on paper.
"We might not be as deep as we were in '06 when we won but when it comes down to one game, if you have a great goaltender back there who steals a game, I don't think it really matters who you have up front."
Sweden has arguably the best goaltending in the tournament, led by Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped Sweden to a gold medal in Turin. Thirteen players will return from the 2010 team while six members from the 2006 champion-winning outfit are back.
The Sedins should have ample opportunity to showcase their talent as Sweden is in a group with Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia. Sweden is expected to breeze through the round robin stage of the tournament and get a direct pass to the quarters.
"I like our team," Daniel added.
"We have some really good offensive guys, I'm talking about the forwards now, and some really good hardworking checking guys, too. So I think our team is built a little bit different than last time around and I'm excited about it."
The twins will undoubtedly bring loads of confidence to Sochi having propelled Sweden to the gold medal at last year's world championships.
Daniel had a goal and five assists in four games while Henrik had four goals and five assists in the four games he played, including a three-point effort in the gold medal game.
Since Daniel and Henrik were selected with the second and third overall drafts picks by the Vancouver Canucks in 1999, the Sedins have been dazzling fans in North America while also shining on the international stage.
Henrik is the playmaker and Daniel is the goal scorer. The former won the NHL scoring title and was named the league's most valuable player in 2010, while the latter led all players in points the following season.
Sochi will be the third Olympics for the brothers, and both are eager to improve on their performances from the Vancouver Games where they combined for five points in four games.
While Canada is widely considered to have the edge in the 12-team tournament, many experts feel Sweden could be the best-equipped team for the larger rink in Sochi where physical play is not rewarded as much as playmaking.
"International hockey is getting more difficult for Canadians every day," said Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman.
"These countries are all improving. It's becoming very tough. To pick one country and say, 'That's our biggest rival, our biggest fear.' I'm nervous about them all. You can't overlook anyone anymore."
(Editing by John O'Brien)