Olympics

2010 Olympic Hockey Preview



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Each year, players and fans alike look forward to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the NHL, and consider it the pinnacle of competition, with some of the toughest, most spirited games in history coming in the Stanley Cup Finals. However, every four years, nationalism is thrown into this mix, to create probably the most emotionally charged tournament in hockey. This year's tournament should not disappoint anyone, when it comes to emotion, but also boast most likely the highest level of parity among the nations that anyone (certainly I) can remember. There are probably two "favourites" in Canada and Russia, but not far behind at all, and on very even turf, are Finland, Sweden, USA, Czech Republic and Slovakia, who have all been genuine medal contenders (and winners) in the past, but not always at the same time. 

I will provide a preview and short analysis for each contender to get you ready for the tournament.


Canada

Playing host this year, the government of Canada funded a program called "Own the Podium" in the years leading up to the Olympics with hopes of, for the first time, garnering more medals than any other nation. This just adds to the permanent and lasting pressure for Steve Yzerman and Co. to capture gold, with the country that constantly chants "hockey is Canada's game" wreathing for a victory after the disappointing showing in Turin.

Forwards

 Without a doubt, Yzerman was looking for diversity and players to play to their strengths in choosing the offensive group he put together. This is quite evident in his choice of players like Brendan Morrow and Patrice Bergeron. But there is no denying the depth of skill and firepower on this roster. With world class players like Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Eric Staal, part of the new-age NHL, lining up with Olympic veterans Jerome Iginla, Rick Nash, Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton, Team Canada should not have too much trouble finding the back of the net. The mix of players also brings the complementary skills like the physicality of Morrow, Iginla and Getzlaf with the defensive prowess of Mike Richards and Bergeron to create a well rounded squad of forwards.

Other forwards on the Canadian roster include Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews, and Corey Perry.

Defense

 Looking at the members of the Canadian defensive corps, it is hard to argue that Team Canada will have the strongest defense in the tournament. With possibly the best defensive pairing in the NHL, in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, lining up together, there will be enough to look at for any opponent. Put team captain Scott Neidermayer, his former teammate Chris Pronger, crafty Dan Boyle and Shea Weber, who has one of the hardest shots in the league, behind them, it’s enough to send other teams through a turnstile at the sports psychologist's office. 20 year old Drew Doughty rounds out the list as the surprise addition to the team, but will most likely be an alternate barring injury.

Goaltending

The Canadian team starting goalie COULD theoretically end up being any one of Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo, or Martin Brodeur. The obvious choice this year might be Brodeur who is playing at the top of his game, while becoming the all-time leader in shutouts, but Fleury's Stanley Cup experience could become a huge benefit to him if he gets hot, and not many people will argue Luongo is near the top in the world when he really hits his stride.

Analysis: If Canada’s top rated defense can manage to shut down the awesome offensive power of Russia, they should be able to reach their goal with a gold medal. But if they hit a rut, the pressure could push them out of the medals altogether.

Czech Republic

Forwards

Vladimir Ruzicka has assembled a group of forwards from the NHL, KHL and Czech Extraliga. It might not show as much skill as the group that won gold in Nagano, but there is still a bunch of top level talent there, and the supporting cast should help these along with pure scoring skill apparent on every line. 

Already a legend in his own country, Jaromir Jagr will lead a cast that includes a few of the most explosive players in the game today in Martin Havlat, David Krejci, and Tomas Plekanec. Veteran Patrik Elias, Milan Michalek and Martin Erat will help provide secondary scoring, along with Roman Cervenka from Ruzicka's club in Prague, HC Slavia. Petr Cajanek, Tomas Fleischmann, Josef Vasicek and Tomas Rolinek will most likely be relied upon in checking roles, but still have the skill to light up any goaltenders in the world. 

Defense

The Czech defense group is not as flashy as some rosters iced in previous Olympics, but with steady positioning and a great deal more physical presence than in the past, they should be quite effective in shielding the Czech goal from danger. Some of that steady defense will come from defensive specialists like Jan Hejda, Roman Polak, and Zbynek Michalek, who all excel in their own end. The Czech counter attack will be led again by Tomas Kaberle, along with Pavel Kubina and Marek Zidlicky, who all possess a great offensive awareness and can easily send many of the fast skating Czech forwards in on a break. Miroslav Blatak and Filip Kuba will bring their well rounded games in to support the crew in their efforts to reach the podium.

Goaltending

A virtual shoo in for the past 2 decades, Czech goaltending phenom Dominik Hasek was left on the sidelines this year, and at age 45 and with a fairly average performance this year in Pardubice in the Czech Extraliga, you can't really blame Ruzicka for his decision. Taking the reins from Hasek will most likely be Tomas Vokoun, who has shown he can stop the puck with the best of them on many occasions in his career. His backup will most likely be Ondrej Pavelec, with young Jakub Stepanek getting alternate experience for future Olympics. If Vokoun can play to the level he is capable of, the Czechs will increase their chances at a medal.

Analysis

Czech Republic really plays to their mood. If they get on a role, they could get a medal. If not, they could be fighting with Belarus for 6th or 7th. Much will depend on their goaltending though, as only half of their defense is made up of players that play defense.

Finland

Forwards

The Finns have always been a team with a great combination of grinders with skill. Things haven’t changed this year, except for the fact that the level of grind and level of skill have both increased. This should bode well for Finland in its quest for the medal podium. They will be led up front by veterans Saku Koivu, Olli Jokinen, Teemu Selanne and Jere Lehtinen, but the high level of skill doesn’t stop there, with talents like Saku’s brother Mikko Koivu, as well as developing stars Valtteri Filppula, Niklas Hagman, and Antii Meittinen. Another pair of brothers, Jarko and Tuomo Ruuttu, will do their best to get under the skin of the opponents – something they both excel at in the NHL. Jarko Immonen, Niko Kapanen, and Ville Peltonen will also add some sand paper to the mix while contributing on the score sheet, as well.

Defense

This might be where the Finnish team seems the weakest, but they always seem to perform better in international competition as a group than they seem to on their pro teams. Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen will most likely man the point on the power play, which will help a lot. Joni Pitkanen will support their cause, while Toni Lydman, Sami Lepisto and Lasse Kukkonen only need to play solid in their zone to ensure the team play that Finland is so famous for brings them out on top.

Goaltending

If there is one position that Finland will have no trouble, it is between the pipes. They are among the top goaltending nations in the world, and having a roster that includes Mikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Anteri Nittymaki only proves this assertion. “Kipper” spoke quite openly that he wanted the starting job, and would not play if he didn’t get it. His addition to the team, then, essentially quells any speculation who will be their starter. But no matter who starts, and who finishes, Finland is in good hands in this category.

Analysis

No matter the quality of the individual players, Finland is always a contender because of their uncanny ability to form a team game so quickly. Look for them in the top 4, but they will not win gold unless Kiprusoff becomes superhuman for a week, which, based on his recent NHL play, is unlikely.

Russia

Forwards

Looking up and down the forward portion of the roster for Team Russia can only instill fear in their opponents. Not only do you have to deal with arguably three of the top five offensive weapons in the world, in Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, but once they leave the ice, they are replaced by Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin and Alexei Morozov, who is often referred to as the best player in the world not playing in the NHL. Add to that the elite talents of veteran Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, and Alexander Radulov, and you have the most potent offense I have personally ever seen on any team at any time. KHL players Danis Zaripov and Sergei Zinoviev round out the forward group, but what really do they need to do but watch the magic on the ice?

Defense

The defensive corps for the Russian team is, by a long shot, their weakness. That is not to say it is a weak group, though. When you ice a group that includes all stars Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar, along with bruiser Anton Volchenkov and slick skating Denis Grebeshkov, you aren’t exactly putting together a group of nobodies. Fedor Tyutin, Ilya Nikulin and Dimitri Kalinin provide backend presence and good international experience. Also included in this group is Konstantin Korneyev, who will most likely watch most of the tournament from the press box.

Goaltending

As potent as their offense is, that is how steady their situation in goal is. Evgeni Nabakov and Ilya Bryzgalov have been rocks in net for their respective teams the past two years or more and will provide much of the same in the Olympics. Semyon Varlamov might not be able to fulfill his alternate duties, as he has been recently injured, but if so, Russia has at least a few more decent choices for 3rd string, a luxury not all nations can boast.

Analysis

Definite gold medal contenders. Look for Kovalchuk to emerge above all, as his nationalistic spirit always seems to put rocket boosters on his skates. Russia’s only downfall could be defensive blunders, but a top 4 finish is all but guaranteed, if not gold.

Slovakia

Forwards

Slovakia boasts two of the premier forwards in the world in Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik. These two will have to carry a huge load for Slovakia, a roster that is spattered with aging players that include Josef Stumpel, Zigmund Palffy, Pavol Demitra and Miroslav Satan.  A group of well rounded players support them with Tomas Kopecky, Michal Handzus, Marcel Hossa, and Branko Radivojevic in the fray. Former NHLers Lubos Bartecko and KHLer Martin Cibak round out the group that seems to have a “hidden dragon” element to it with a lot of skill that comes out when you least expect it. The performance of this group is going to be key in determining how far Slovakia gets.

Defense

When people think of Slovakia and defense, they think of the monster Zdeno Chara. He simply dominates and will be the core of this defensive group.  He is well supported this time around by the small-but-effective Lubomir Visnovsky, who should share the blueline with Chara on the power play. Andrej Meszaros and Milan Jurcina should take second pairing while Andrej Sekera, Richard Lintner and Martin Strbak battle for the remaining two positions. It is a top heavy group, but the bottom four are very capable of shutting down high end offense.

Goaltending

This has traditionally been a weakness for Slovakia in the past few decades, but this year, the emergence of Jaroslav Halak has put hope in the nation that a medal is a very distinct possibility. He is well supported by Peter Budaj, who becomes steadier each year, and Rastislav Stana, who will most likely be alternate.

Analysis

A bit of a long shot for a medal, but if Halak stands on his head, and if they can squeeze just a bit more offense out of their aging stars, they have a chance to reach the bronze medal game.

Sweden

Forwards

The return of Peter Forsberg is the biggest story surrounding the Swedish squad, but the Sedin brothers, Henrik Zetterberg and Loui Eriksson will most likely be the ones most heavily relied upon to fill the net for Team Sweden. Although the squad is not very young at all, veterans of both NHL and international play, Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Holmstrom and Frederik Modin will help bring leadership to a group. The slick moves of Mattias Weinhandl will be on the minds of a lot of defensemen, and following him up will be Nicklas Backstrom, the future of the Swedish offense. Defensively, Samuel Pahlsson is about as good as they come in the forward position, and he will be helped out by Patric Hornqvist on the penalty kill.

Defense

This year’s squad probably brings the greatest array of talent on the back end that Sweden has ever iced. Together with the all star abilities of Nicklas Lidstrom, the offense will be supported by veteran Mattias Ohlund and Tobias Enstrom. They also bring two of the biggest and best hitters in the league in Douglas Murray and Nicklas Kronwall. Join that with the defensive stability of Johnny Oduya and the veteran presence of Henrik Tallinder, and you have all the elements needed for a medal winning team. Magnus Johansson rounds out the squad.

Goaltending

The brilliance of Henrik Lundqvist is known far and wide in the hockey world. But so are the short stints of his inconsistency. He will be, no doubt, the starter for Sweden. If he brings his A-game, they are in good hands. If not, they might have to turn to the “Monster” Jonas Gustavsson for help. Stefan Liv is there to support, if needed, but I am sure that all of Sweden hopes that will not be the case.

Analysis

Sweden always looks unassuming, but always comes out as a very formidable force. Their key will be in goal, as they have the tools elsewhere to win games if they can rely on their goalie. They have a chance at gold, but have to upset one of the favourites in Russia and Canada

USA

Forwards

The skill of the young forwards coming out of the US hockey system is getting better and better. And it is showing in their 2010 roster just how good this system has become. With a long list of young superstars like Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and Dustin Brown, the US offense is in good hands for the future. However, do they have the poise this year to make their mark? They will look to veteran, and team captain, Jamie Langenbrunner, as well as Chris Drury for leadership, as the proverbial torch is passed for future US teams. They should get effective play, as well, from the crash and bang styles of Ryan Kesler, Ryan Malone, David Backes and Ryan Callahan. Joe Pavelski should also provide some offensive spark if any of the top forwards dry up in production.

Defense

 For the last two Olympic Games, defense has been an issue for the US, and this year is no exception. It is getting better though, as the young members of the squad grow into their positions, and their bodies. Brian Rafalski will obviously be the veteran leader of this group, as well as the power play. Paul Martin will help in this regard as the only other real veteran in the group. One thing they are not missing on the US squad is physicality with Ryan Suter, Mike Komisarek, Brooks Orpik and a pair of Johnsons (Jack and Erik) all bringing big bodies to the international ice. It is quite obvious that it is a team constructed by Brian Burke. If they can manage their lack of experience, they should be successful, because the amount of raw skill is very apparent.

Goaltending

The amazing play of NHL rookie Jonathan Quick this year made him a surprise addition to the team, but he might be watching most of the games with more experienced and very reliable Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas ahead of him in the pecking order. All in all, this is not an area for concern for the US, and never really has been.

Analysis

 The age of their best players will play a huge role in where they finish. USA is a team to look out for in the future, and it has been a long time coming since their last international win. However, they young kids could very well surprise a lot of teams and they have a very good chance at a medal, but the colour will most likely not be gold.


More about this author: Brett Jamieson

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