Olympic Hockey Preview
I can’t give an Olympics preview. I love’em, but I would be lying that I knew anything about 3/4 of the events. Couldn’t be more pumped about the Dufor-Lapointe sisters finishing 1-2 in women’s moguls, but I know zilch about moguls other than when I was 11 I accidentally went down a moguls run while skiing and just about killed myself.
Absolutely love watching all of the events, and lets be honest it is because Canada is actually a power in the winter games as opposed to the summer games, but I don’t know half the athletes and know even less about their events. And lets be honest, I’ve been so wrong about so much the last 8 months or so it’s humiliating. But I know hockey a little, and there for I’ll try again to give a decent preview and look at what could happen starting this week.
Now with all due respect to Slovenia and Anze Kopitar, the Austrians and Tomas Vanek, Norway and Mats Zuccarello, the Swiss who are on the rise as a hockey power, the Germans who….Uwe Krupp was good…. Anyway, all due respect to those 5 teams, realistically there are 7 teams who have a shot to win this. I guess the Swiss have enough to shock the world, but man that would be the shocker of all shockers!! So I’m just going to focus on Canada, Russia, USA, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The big news coming into this tournament are the injuries. No Henrik Sedin for the Swedes, no Mikko Koivu or Valtteri Filppula for the Fins, no Marian Gaborik for the Slovak’s, and of course no Steven Stamkos for Canada. Big blows for all 4 teams, but while Canada had about 8 or 9 guys who could step right in and you wouldn’t even notice a difference, Sedin is the Swedes 1st line center, Koivu and Filppula are the Fins top 2 center’s, and Gaborik is the Slovak’s top sniper. Huge blows for those countries.
Always overlooked are the Slovak’s, but I can’t understand why anymore…at least on the highest level. Simply having 2 elite players is huge for this team. The rest of the roster is made up of fringe NHL players (weather they’re currently in the NHL or not), but having Hossa and Chara is such a perfect fit because they’re unselfish guys despite being such decorated stars in the NHL. Of course as an Oiler fan I know that Martin Marincin is a kid who has been called up and played extremely well thus far, and former Oiler Lubomir Visnovsky is now up there in age but on the big ice his speed and quickness will be a huge asset. Michal Handzus is also up there in age, but he is very experienced and plays a heady 2 way game that will be invaluable to this team up front. And then with Jaroslav Halak in goal they have a guy who is capable of stealing games. So while I don’t put this team up there with the Canadians, Americans, Russians or Swedes on paper, they’re in that next group of teams who still have enough to steal gold.
The Czech’s are another one of those teams, although there is a lot more star power. This country dominated the “dead puck era” of hockey in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, and while those days are long gone, a lot of the talent they produced during that time is still around. Hell, some of the talent produced by the former Czechslovakia is still around in Nedved and Jagr (2nd and 5th overall in the 1990 draft). This team is REAL good down the middle. No superstar, but 3 guys in Krejci, Hanzal (he’s so hot right now….Hanzal), and Plekanec who play a great 200 foot game and if you read my stuff you know how big I am on that! But their strength is definitely up front. The blueline is suspect at best and Ondrej Pavelec is a total wildcard in net as any Jets fan will tell you. He can steal you a game just as easily as he can lose you one. But don’t sleep on the Czech’s, especially with this tourny being on big ice and so close to home for them.
As I hit on earlier, the Fins have taken a major, MAJOR hit in losing Koivu and Filppula for this tournament. They must be asking why they couldn’t have had another injury in goal where right now they are the best in the world. No Pekka Rinne for them, yet it isn’t even noticeable. Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are as good as it gets between the pipes. Rask will be the starter and will be relied on heavily by this team to carry them. He is capable of doing so as he proved not only in last year’s playoffs but he was brilliant for his country in Vancouver….not 2010, I’m talking about the 2006 World Junior’s where he carried the Fins to a Bronze medal that they had no business winning. So the guy is fully capable, although this is a much bigger and tougher stage to do that on. I don’t love their blueline, as they’re either too young (Maatta and Vatanen) or too old (Salo and Timonen). I don’t see them having what it takes to win (like always) but they’ll be a miserable out for anyone who plays them (like always). Had Koivu and Filppula not gone down, they would have a pretty good shot.
Of course the best shot that the Fins had at Olympic gold during the NHL’s participation in the Olympics was in 2006, when their arch rivals the Swedes knocked them off in the Gold medal game. That team was led by Swedish legends Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin and of course Niklas Lidstrom. Well those guys are long gone, along with the aforementioned Henrik Sedin (for this tournament), this country isn’t hurting and is still going to be considered one of the 4 favorite’s along with the Americans, Russians and Canadians. Either Henrik Zetterberg or Niklas Backstrom are more than capable of taking over 1st line center duties. They have a heavy team up front and while they won’t put guys through the boards they can wear down other countries using the cycle maybe better than any other team. Somehow Victor Hedman got left off this team, but that blueline is scary. Ekman-Larsson is their horse and if you don’t know how good he is now, you will by the end of this tourny. Karlsson, Kronwall, Hjalmarsson, Edler (despite having an awful season), it is a great group on the blueline. And finally of course they have one of the best in net with Henrik Lundqvist. They aren’t the most talented team entering the tournament, but on paper only Canada exceeds the balance they have.
If the Canadian’s and Swedes are 1-2 in terms of balance, then I would easily place the Americans 3rd in that category, and they might be first in terms of team speed. Talk about a vital element on the big ice, and the Americans can come at you in waves. All 4 lines can fly, and the large majority of their forwards can really shoot the puck. Out of the big 4 countries, they’re probably the weakest down the middle, but that is like being the shortest center in the NBA. I’m sure Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson are just fine being called the “worst Super Bowl winning QB’s”. Backes, Kesler, Stepan and Stastny all play a real good 200 foot game, just that none of them have a high end offensive game. What they lack offensively down the middle though they more than make up for on the wings with Kane, Kessel, Parise, JVR, Wheeler, etc. The blueline lacks some experience but is maybe the most mobile group in these games. Not as stacked as Canada, but with Ryan Suter leading the way these guys can all move the puck very well and will jump in the play at any moment. In net if it’s me, I go with Jonathan Quick, but you can’t go wrong with Ryan Miller. Pretty nice problem to have. But while I could rave about this team all day, much like the Canadians they’ve made the final in 2 North America games, but completely no showed in 2 games over seas.
Of course the Russians won’t have a problem not being in North America for these games (awful segue I know). Everyone is talking about the huge advantage this team will have being at home, and they will. They won’t have an issue with the big ice, and they won’t have an issue scoring goals. Keeping them out however could be a big issue for this team. Outside of Pavel Datsyuk there are not many players up front who will play a 200 foot game. And the blueline is suspect at best. Slava Voynov is one heck of a good young D-man in the NHL, but he shouldn’t be the number 1 guy for a Gold medal favorite. Anton Belov can barely stay in the Oilers top 6, yet he is on this roster. It’s scary bad. Having said that, we have seen teams succeed in this tournament with major shortcomings like this before. And what they lack in defending, they make up for both in offensive fire power (Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, etc) and in goaltending with Semyon Varlamov who is having a simply spectacular season for the Avs and ironically playing behind a team that has major holes on it’s blueline and a lot of forwards who aren’t the most committed defensively. The pressure is sky high for this team to win Gold, but you never know how that will affect a team.
And last but not least, our team. The defending Gold medal champs, the winners of 2 of the last 3 Olympic Gold medals (would have been 3 of 4 had we not been “Dominated” in 98), the Canadians are far and away the best team on paper. Don’t let the goaltending talk fool you, both Price (who I would go with) and Luongo are more than capapble of getting the job done. These are Vezina quality goaltenders. If they were playing for any other country the media would be saying “if only we had one of them”. But because the Fins and Americans and Swedes have solid netminding all of a sudden our’s is supposedly weak. Are they capable of stealing games? Yes. So then what is the problem?
No problem up front I’ll tell you that. No Stamkos and we are still leaving two 1st line centre’s at home (Canadian spelling of centre’s when talking about Canada). I don’t get why with Crosby, Toews and Getzlaf already down the middle, Bergeron being more than perfect for a 4th line role, that Babcock wouldn’t put Tavares on the right side of Crosby, or at least have him on the wing for Toews but that’s just me. By the medal rounds, Babcock will likely have this team down to 3 big lines and a more frequently used top 4. I do worry about all the teammate pairings up front limited how much line juggling he can do, and I do worry about the speed up front. Everyone wants Benn with Getzlaf and Perry, but this isn’t North American ice folks. If they’re a line they could have trouble keeping with the pace.
Our blueline is far and away the best. Mobility, can move the puck, balanced, experienced, it’s not close. This is the strength of this team, and that is saying something! The only issue they’ll face is how they will balance the ice time, who is the best fit for the PP, things like that. The 4th pairing (likely Hamhuis and Subban) is capable of logging 30 minutes a game. Insane.
So on paper, Canada is set. BUT….I don’t believe they’ll win. I have seen it too many times not just in the Olympics but in World Juniors and World Championships where Canada goes overseas and it is just too tough getting adjusted, getting chemistry, and adapting to the big ice. I don’t really have any issue with the team that was picked and am not being critical of management or coaching. We are a power, but we also have a HUGE target on our backs. Something to watch for that I heard Jim Hughson talk about last week. Watch for the European teams to try to make Canada play on the ice that doesn’t matter. He said that is what scouts have told him the European teams will try to do so the goal for the Canadians is simply to try to keep playing as if they’re on North American ice. Sounds easier than it will be.
I believe this is the Russians time. While they have their flaws, when they put on that jersey more so than the rest of the countries, they elevate their play. Even more motivation will come from them hearing all about the North American media crushing their country since they’ve got over there. We have already seen Ovechkin go off about this. Add on top of that, the embarrassment they suffered in 2010 and while they have all the pressure in the world on them, they may have even more motivation than pressure. I expect the Swedes to take the Silver. More complete team than the Russians but home ice I suspect will be a huge factor in that game should it come down to the Russians playing in the final. I have Canada bringing back the Bronze, although OBVIOUSLY I’m praying it is Gold. But man alive that is such a tough task to go over there and have it all come together the way they need it to.
This easily could be the final time we see NHL players in the Olympics. It makes little sense to go to South Korea in 2018 with virtually zero hockey interest there and the NHL becoming increasingly unsatisfied with what they get out of going to the Olympics. The players love it, but if the owners don’t want to sign off on it, they won’t have to. So enjoy this one while you can, it could be a LONG time before the next one.
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