PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Home team Russia is gone and the Winter Olympics' men's hockey final is weaker for its absence.
Recent Olympics have spoiled fans a bit, especially fans of the host country. Team USA's matchup against Canada in Salt Lake City in 2002 got a boost not only from its home-ice advantage, but from a shellshocked nation looking for something to rally behind. For the Canadians in 2010, Sidney Crosby's game-winning goal in the gold-medal matchup against the U.S. would have made the Vancouver games a success even if its hadn't eclipsed its larger neighbor's gold medal total for the entire games.
It takes a lot of elements coming together at the right time to make the men's hockey gold-medal game something universally memorable. The National Hockey League has tried its best to stack the deck ever since it began halting its season and sending its best players to the games in 1998. Even top-flight NHL talent has been no guarantee of a memorable or even watchable gold-medal matchup.
Thus far, Olympic men's hockey has been treating NBC well and justifying not only its nearly $800 million investment in the Sochi games, but its 10-year, $2 billion deal with the NHL as well. The U.S. team's win over Russia in the preliminary round alone drew 4.1 million viewers on average for NBC Sports Network, including 6.4 million who tuned in to the last half-hour just to see T.J. Oshie's heroics in the game-ending shootout. That's the most-watched hockey game that NBC Sports Network has ever aired, edging Game 3 of last year's Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
It also got a huge boost from a U.S.-Canada semifinal that was both a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game in Vancouver and the matchup that North American hockey fans craved most. What does that mean for this year's games-ending final? Tough to say, but it'll take one thriller of a matchup to make up for the lack of North American-Scandanavian animosity of late.
Just to give an idea of exactly what this year's final is up against, here are just five of the best Winter Olympics men's hockey finals of all time for comparison. It's a lot to live up to: