The Olympics are underway, putting to end the massive promotional campaigns, countdowns and endless torch relays. It seems everyone and their mother had a chance to carry the torch for their own ten yard stroll. Now that we’re done lighting torches (or as many as the hydraulics will permit), it is time to talk about lighting lamps.
It is no surprise that hockey is the big draw at this year’s games. All the talk surrounding the games is focused on the hockey tournament. The hoopla was so hyped and analyzed that people gathered in pubs, living rooms and in front of any nearby television to watch the unveiling of Canada’s national hockey team. Canada’s roster has been dissected, analyzed and turned inside out over and over, and there is no doubt Canada is potent on all levels. The tournament is not a gimme for Canada though. There are some competitors that deserve some respect.
To the foreground jumps team Russia. There is no secret to their strength. The Russians have one strategy in mind, and that is to score goals in heaps. They aren’t known for their two-way play, and the most defensively responsible player they’ll dress is possibly an aging Sergei Fedorov or Pavel Datsyuk. They’ll look to win by outscoring their opponents, and the tools are there to do it. A projected top line of Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk just makes you think that maybe putting five defencemen on the ice is the only way to contain this line. Follow that up with Alexander Semin, Maxim Afinogenov and Datsyuk, and you may have the most dazzling line at the tournament. For Russia to win gold, they’ll have to rely heavily on their goaltending, which seems pretty solid. Their defensive core is offensively minded, headed by Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar, so a strong presence in net is needed. Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov seem more than capable of shutting down the average teams, but may cry for mercy against the Canadians, Swedes or Americans.
The next team I see as a potential threat are the Swedes. Team Sweden boasts a well balanced roster of scoring, defensive prowess and goaltending. The only reason the Swedes are not an instant favourite at the tournament is because of an incredible Canadian roster. Led by the Sedin twins, team Sweden is my pick to play in the gold medal game. Their offence is potent, sporting such superstars as Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom and Daniel Alfredsson. Peter Forsberg can be a major player in a tournament where hitting is kind of taboo. Throw in youngsters Loui Eriksson and Patric Hornqvist and you have a very dangerous line-up. Though they will be capable of scoring goals with the big boys, Sweden has a defensive core that knows it’s role. Led by Nicklas Lidstrom, the Swedes can play a good defensive game in their own zone, and have the skills to transition the puck for a quick offensive shift. Niklas Kronwall, Mattias Ohlund, Tobias Enstrom and Johnny Oduya are more than enough complete defencemen to protect their goalie, who, surprisingly, is the weak link of the team. Though they have Henrik Lundqvist to protect the twine, one of the premiere goalies in the NHL, should he be off his game or get hurt, there are slim pickings behind him. Their second line of defence is Jonas Gustavsson, who doesn’t instil much confidence for Team Sweden.
There isn’t much respect going out to the Americans. All the hype is surrounding Canada and Russia, but it was the United States that won the World Junior Hockey Championships not too long ago. The U.S. is producing some great talent, and their roster is nothing to dismiss so easily. The team is young, fast and skilled. Anchored by their top talent of Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Paul Stastny, the U.S. has a chance to make some noise at the tournament when no one is looking. Their roster has taken the form of scoring up front, big responsible defencemen on the blue-line, and good goaltending. They’ll get enough chances to score with Phil Kessel, Ryan Malone and Bobby Ryan complimenting the trio of stars the U.S. has to offer, but will be hard-pressed to get help from the blue-line. Outside of Brian Rafalski and Ryan Whitney, the Americans have little offensive help coming from their defence. A strong group of shutdown defencemen like Jack Johnson, Brooks Orpik and Erik Johnson will do their best to shield starter Ryan Miller from the opposing snipers. Should Miller bring his recent NHL struggles to the Olympics with him, there is little solace in their backup. Tim Thomas, the American number two, recently lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask in Boston. He did win a Vezina last season, so the talent exists, I just don’t think he’ll last against the world’s top players. If everything clicks for the Americans, they may just steal a bronze out of this thing.
Along with Canada, these three teams will be the ones competing for medals. They possess more than enough talent to cruise through the lesser teams and make it to the medal rounds. You almost feel bad for participants like Germany, Latvia or Norway, all of whom will get lit up like they were part of the opening ceremonies. No disrespect to wild cards Finland and the Czech Republic, but their teams seem a bit old for the skill sets of Canada, Russia, the U.S. or Sweden. They may surprise you by sneaking into a bronze medal game, at which point I’d say adios to the Americans, but if it is predictions you want, I’ll gladly oblige:
Best Player: Alex Ovechkin
Biggest Upset: Slovakia beats Russia on Feb. 18
Can’t Miss Game: Sweden vs Finland on Feb. 21
Go Canada Go!