Sunday, February 14, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball: 2010 Hockey Olympic Preview

The time is now upon us. Heavily anticipated since Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. won the Olympic Games in 2003, the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament is set to get underway on Tuesday. The hockey tournament will serve as a feature event at a Games where it’s expected that Canada will finally break its gold medal goose-egg on home soil, with the hockey team- one of the strongest in years- favoured to add to the gold medal tally. However, this tournament will be no cakewalk for the Canadian team, as the usual suspects- the U.S., Russia, Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden- all return with competitive sides of their own. With that said, it’s time to haul out my trusty magic orb which will tell you just how the tournament will play out.

Teams will be ranked by order of finish in their group. The number in parentheses is their overall rank out of all teams in round robin play (important for the medal round playoff rankings).

Group A

1. Canada (1). The pieces are there for what should be a romp towards the group title. Once again, Canada is the deepest team at the tournament, featuring top end players at every level of play. You have your elite scorers and playmakers (Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Eric Staal), your grinders (Ryan Getzlaf, Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow), your two-way players (Mike Richards, Jonathan Toews), your offensive defencemen (Dan Boyle, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber), your defensive defencemen (Chris Pronger, Brent Seabrook) and in goal (Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo). Up and down the roster, it’s hard to pinpoint a relative weakness towards the rest of the teams in the tournament (if I had to nitpick, overall team speed is going to be an issue with so many big bodies, but there’s more than enough skill to compensate for that). Plus, the Canadians have hockey minnows Switzerland and Norway and a weak U.S. team to contend with. Quite clearly, there’s only one enemy for Team Canada- themselves- because the opposition in this group won’t give them too much trouble.

2. United States (4). General Manager Brian Burke promised change for the 2010 edition of Team U.S.A. and he delivered, with only one player (Chris Drury) returning from the team that finished a disastrous 8th in Turin. This is also a very young team, with 10 of the 25 players born in 1985 or later, and only four players born before 1980. There’s a lot of promise with the American team, but it’s not likely to pan out in Vancouver, as the squad features a lot of players who are secondary players in the NHL, such as Ryan Kesler, Jack Johnson and Ryan Callahan, though a few stars (such as Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Brian Rafalski) are present. Goal should be the Americans’ strongest position, with Ryan Miller the undisputed starter, which could give the Americans an outside shot at the group title. Still, it’s not likely- the U.S. team would be great if they were a NHL team. They’re not- they’re in international waters, and while they’ll be competitive the team isn’t up to standard yet. They’ll get an inflated ranking thanks to the presence of Norway and Switzerland but they’ll be exposed come the medal round. Having said that, American fans will be pleased with what they see, because they’ll be seeing a lot of promise in the road ahead, instead of the despair the 2006 unit left them.

3. Norway (9). “Hockey power” and “Norway” are not typically in the same sentence and at 2010, it’s likely the Norwegians will just be there for the ride, but there’s enough to suggest that Norway won’t be as much of a cakewalk as they may seem. Although the team features just one player from the NHL (Olle-Kristian Tollefsen, who plays for the Detroit Red Wings), many have found careers playing in the Swedish Elite League and some of them (such as Mats Zuccarello-Aasen and Per-Age Skroder, first and third in scoring on MoDo) are stars. The Norwegian team also features Patrick Thoresen, himself a one-time promising NHL prospect. They’ll still be in over their heads at the tournament, but there’s enough elite-level conditioning to show that they’ll be competitive on most nights.

4. Switzerland (12). Yes, Switzerland shocked Canada with a 2-0 score in Turin, due in large part to an otherworldly performance by Martin Gerber, who is again in net for the Swiss; and yes, the Swiss did beat the Czechs at the same tournament. Guess what happened once they got to the medal round where there’s more pressure? Sweden dispatched them by a 6-2 count. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, as this team is no unknown commodity anymore; plus the expected Swiss invasion into the NHL has only produced two new players, Jonas Hiller and Mark Streit, who- while being prominent NHL players themselves- don’t have much of a cast behind them. Many of the players come from the Swiss league which, while it’s a good league, can’t compare to the quality of players that higher leagues- such as Russia and Sweden- produce, so while a lot of these players likely know each other better than other national teams might know themselves, there simply isn’t enough talent to really be competitive. Besides, Gerber isn’t the goaltender he was in 2006, although Hiller’s emergence as a star for the Anaheim Ducks means that the Swiss have a shot at not being blown out in every game. It’ll likely be a long tournament for Switzerland.

Group B

1. Russia (2). There’s a lot of rumbling that the Russian team is a contender for the gold medal, but while the parts are excellent, the whole leaves a lot to be desired. In goal, the Russians can boast two of the NHL’s best in Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov (not to mention the emerging Semyon Varlamov), while at forward the Russians will be led by a formidable bunch such as Pavel Datsyuk (the world’s best two-way player), Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and NHL fugitive Alexander Radulov, a group whose speed and skill will strike a lot of fear into opposition defences. However, they’ll need to score a lot, because their defence will give up a lot of chances. Outside of NHLers Sergei Gonchar, Andrei Markov and Anton Volchenkov, there’s not a lot of quality along the blueline so the goaltending will have to be sharp. It should still be enough to top the group, however.

2. Czech Republic (6). Once upon a time, the Czech team was labelled as “Dominik Hasek and nothing else”. Now, the inverse is true. Up front and on the back-end the Czechs boast a number of NHL stars, such as Patrik Elias, Martin Havlat, Milan Michalek and Tomas Plekanec at forward and Tomas Kaberle, Zbynek Michalek and Marek Zidlicky on the back end, with Jaromir Jagr joining them from the Kontinental Hockey League. It’s just in net where the Czechs are lacking. Tomas Vokoun is a quality netminder, but he’s not the all-world goaltender he was with the Nashville Predators so he can’t compare against Nabokov and that’s what will keep the Czechs from beating Russia for tops in the group.

3. Slovakia (7). Slovakia historically always seems to be “hanging around” in tournaments, never strong enough to win them but never weak enough to bottom out. This year’s team is no exception. There are a few stars (Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra, Zdeno Chara and Andrej Meszaros) but, just like their American counterparts, a lot of secondary guys as opposed to bona fide stars, so relative quality is lacking on this team. The goaltending is also competent in the form of Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj, but it’s not good enough to defeat the elite teams. Still, this is going to be a tough Slovak team to defeat, and they’ll keep Group B- the Olympics’ “Group of Death”- the most competitive of the tourney.

4. Lativa (11). I could open with a joke and ask you to name a Latvian hockey player, but that’d be mean-spirited. You wouldn’t be out of place wondering who these guys are, and with good reason- only two of them play in the NHL (the Dallas Stars’ No. 3 defenceman Karlis Skrastins and Philadelphia Flyers impressive rookie Oskars Bartulis) and only one other (Kaspars Daugavins, who is a Binghamton Senator) plays in North America. Five other players play in Russia or Germany (including one-time NHLer Herbert Vasiljevs). The rest of the team plays for Dinamo Riga of the KHL. Seriously. 15 players in total come from Dinamo Riga, a figure so high you wonder why the national team doesn’t just import the club’s flag and jerseys for this tournament. The players will have some benefit from having played together for so long, but that can only go so far when the talent level is lacking. If there ever was a team that’s just “here for the ride”, it’s Latvia, though their fans- one of the loudest on Earth- will make it a fun one.

Group C

1. Sweden (3). If a team could challenge Canada for the gold medal, it’s Sweden, not Russia or the United States. This is the most complete team in the tournament outside of Canada, and they’re buoyed by the fact they’re the defending gold medalists, returning several of that victorious team. Up front, you have dangerous scoring in the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Backstrom and Patric Hornqvist, the two-way and checking acumen of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg, grinders Johan Franzen and Loui Eriksson and defensive specialist Samuel Pahlsson...not to mention Peter Forsberg, still dangerous at age 37 and one of the most complete players in the history of the game. The blueline is solid but not as deep as the forwards, although there’s no better anchor than Nicklas Lidstrom and the cast behind him is still competent with the likes of Lidstrom’s Detroit Red Wings teammate Niklas Kronwall, Mattias Ohlund and emerging youngster Tobias Enstrom. The Swedes also figure to be set in goal, with Henrik Lundqvist shouldering most of the duties and Jonas Gustavsson backing him up. The presence of Finland will mean the Swedes won’t romp to the group title unlike Canada, but Sweden will look every bit of a gold medal contender by the time the group stage is finished.

2. Finland (5). Sweden’s rival for the group is their all-time rival, their geographic neighbours in Scandinavia in Finland. The Finnish team will give the Swedes a push, but there’s not enough quality on the team to overtake their rivals. The team has quite a few stars (Teemu Selanne, Sami Salo, Joni Pitkanen and Saku Koivu) but a lot of secondary players, like Niklas Hagman, Toni Lydman and Antii Miettinen. They’ll have to win the chemistry test to have a shot at winning the group. The team should be set in goal, however, with Miikka Kiprusoff holding what will be the tournament’s hardest wall to breach. Still, without the relative quality in front of him, Kiprusoff will see that his Fins will be chasing the Swedes too much to ultimately succeed in the group.

3. Germany (8). Hockey in Germany has a long tradition, and the Deutsch Eishockey Liga (DEL) is one of the top leagues in Europe (it boasts the highest number of Canadian and American players outside of North America). As such it should be no surprise that there are some quality players on this team, such as Marco Sturm, Jochen Hecht, Marcel Goc and Christian Ehrhoff, but don’t expect a world-beating performance, though the presence of Hecht and Goc means they’ll be tough to break down defensively. They’ll likely battle Belarus for third in the group and win it based on having more depth than the Byelorussians do, but as far as competing against bigwigs Finland and Sweden, it’s not going to happen.

4. Belarus (10). Belarus was Switzerland in 2002, defeating the Swedes in the quarterfinals when then goaltender Tommy Salo misplayed a long-distance shot late in the third period (showing why the team needed Lundqvist). They’ve seen their stock rise a little in the NHL, with a few stars populating NHL rosters (Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn of the Montreal Canadiens and Ruslain Salei, who was on the 2002 team, of the Colorado Avalanche) and have always been competitive, but they’ve never been much of a factor. The same is the case here. This will be a team with quite a few fine players but there’s just not enough quality on this team for them to have a serious shot at the group title.

Preliminary Round Games

(5) Finland 5, (12) Switzerland 1. If it weren’t for Hiller, this game would be a disaster for the Swiss. With the Finns buzzing around the net all game long, they’ll eventually break through for the flood of goals that will always look like coming. Hiller will give the Swiss the chance for an upset, but Swiss resistance will eventually break down.

(6) Czech Republic 9, (11) Latvia 0. The Finland-Switzerland game will look like a blowout. The Czech-Latvian game (or rather, the Czech-Dinamo Riga game) will be a blowout. Dinamo will have no match for Havlat, Elias, Plekanec, Jagr, Zidlicky and any other Czech player the Czechs throw out there, and the goaltending won’t be enough to keep the score close. There won’t be an easier preliminary round game than this.

(10) Belarus 4, (7) Slovakia 3 (OT). There’s just something about those Byelorussians that makes you think “upset” doesn’t it? You only need a few reasons why this result is possible- goaltender Andrei Mezin was in net during Belarus’ shock win over Sweden, the Byelorussians do have enough offensive firepower to break Slovakian resistance and Slovakia, as a team, doesn’t have enough skill to be a truly dominant team at this tournament, especially in net. This will still be close, but Belarus will shock the hockey world once again, with an overtime goal by Grabovski set up by the Kostitsyn brothers, as the parties will have patched up their differences by Vancouver.

(8) Germany 4, (9) Norway 2. The feather in the Norwegian cap was the fact that in the 2009 World Championships they were in a 2-2 tie with Canada after half of their quarterfinal game before completely falling apart in allowing six unanswered goals. The same will happen here, although Germany doesn’t have the firepower to make this an 8-2 thrashing. With a sound defensive game and just that much more offence than the Norwegians can muster, a 4-2 German win is the most plausible outcome.

Medal Round

Quarterfinals

(1) Canada 9, (10) Belarus 1. When Belarus upset the Swedes, what was their present? A 7-2 drubbing by the Canadians. So it should be no surprise the same will happen here, because the quality gap still remains; with a higher scoreline because the Canadians will be buoyed by their home crowd.

(8) Germany 2, (2) Russia 1. “What? Really?” Yes, really. You wouldn’t think of Germany being the kind of team to expose the weaknesses of the Russian defence, but it’s just these kinds of situations where weaknesses get exposed. You have a German unit that’s competent enough defensively with Hecht and Goc to shut down the Russian attack, and the quality of the German attack matches up nicely with the Russian blueline, meaning the Germans won’t have any problems generating scoring chances. Plus German goaltender Thomas Griess will be motivated to outshine his teammate Nabokov, which will frustrate the Russian shooters even more. It’ll be close, but it’ll be the Germans providing the upset of the tournament.

(3) Sweden 5, (6) Czech Republic 3. If this was 1998, the Czechs would win because they’d win the goaltending battle. However, this is 2010, where the Swedes have Lundqvist and the Czechs have Voukoun. Who would you take? Thought so. Plus Sweden is the most complete team in the tournament outside of Canada, with a roster depth the Czechs won’t be able to match up against at all.

(5) Finland 3, (4) United States 2 (SO). This one is hard to call. Both goaltenders are elite level netminders (Miller and Kiprusoff) and both sets of skaters complement each other very well- the Finns win the speed and skill game while the Americans win the size and strength game, with enough skill to get by. Given how much these two teams offset each other, it’s easy to see how this will go down to the shootout. Once there, Miller and Kiprusoff will match each other save for save, but the Finns’ advantage in skill and speed will eventually find themselves a way through, although this will be very close.

Semi-finals

(1) Canada 4, (8) Germany 0. Thoughts of Salt Lake City will be running through Canadian heads in the lead-up to this game, as there and here the Canadians will draw what appears to be an “easy” semi-finalist. However, Germany will be no cakewalk. The Germans will again bring the defensive game they used to shut down the Russians and while it’ll pay dividends early, the talent level of the Canadians- especially on the backend, where the mobility and puck movement of Keith and Niedermayer will split open the German trap- will mean that German resistance will ultimately break down, though it won’t be easy.

(3) Sweden 3, (5) Finland 2 (OT). This is a game between two fierce rivals, so no matter how far the talent gap may be, it will always be close. The Finns don’t really match up well with the Swedes except in goal, where Kiprusoff matches up well in net against Lundqvist. It’ll be Kiprusoff who will keep the Finns in the game, because much of this game will be played in the Finnish end. Finland’s game is much like the Swedes- lots of mobility with a great two-way game- but the Swedes have more horses. The rivalry pushes this game into overtime, but the depth of the Swedish team will push them through to the gold medal game.

Bronze Medal

(5) Finland 3, (8) Germany 2. For the Germans, just being able to reach this game will be a sense of accomplishment, as this will be their highest finish since getting the bronze medal in 1976. For the Finns, there will be disappointment even in victory, since this will be their second bronze medal since NHL players started to participate at the Olympics and there will be questions about why this team can’t break out and win the gold. The game itself will be close, with two tight-checking and mobile teams trading scare scoring chances, although it’ll be Finland winning the medal just on the basis of having that much more talent (especially on defence) and the far better goaltender.

The Gold Medal Game- Canada vs. Sweden

The anticipation before this game will be unprecedented. Chances are that for the hours this game will be broadcast (6PM-9PM local time and 9PM-12AM Toronto time) no one in Canada will be working, with everyone out to watch what is this country’s biggest sporting event since Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. The pressure placed on the Canadians will be immense, as nothing less than a gold medal would be acceptable for arguably the strongest team in the tourney on paper.

All that pressure- plus the ease at which the Canadians got to the gold medal game- will get to the Canadians early, as Sweden jumps to an early 2-0 lead. After that wakeup call, the Canadians will rediscover their legs and work their way back into the game, tying it up before the first period is done. The second period sees both teams trade goals to produce a 3-3 tie heading into the third, where Canada scores early to take its first lead of the game. Canada will press for the fifth goal, but Lundqvist will stand his ground against the Canadian assault, knowing another goal would kill his team’s chances. All the saves will eventually pay off, as Lidstrom- still the world’s best defenceman- starts one last rush deep into the final minute of the game, getting the puck down low to the Sedin twins who work their cycling magic for a dramatic last-second tying goal, sending the game into overtime. It is there in overtime where the Swedes finally prevail, on another rush orchestrated by Lidstrom. The game won’t be fondly remembered in Canada, but it’ll be remembered nonetheless.

Now, for those of you who wonder why I’d pick against Canada when the odds are stacked in Canada’s favour (home ice, strongest team) need to be aware of this fact: at the 2008 IIHF World Championships (where NHLers who are not in the playoffs participate) Canada lost on home ice in the gold medal game to Russia. The same thing happened this year at the 2010 World Junior Championship (only this loss was to the United States). Also, there isn’t a Canadian defenceman who can anchor a defence quite like Nicklas Lidstrom can. Lidstrom is still a premier puck moving defenceman and shutdown artist all in one, a quality that no one on the Canadian roster can compare to. Scott Niedermayer is supposed to fill into that role but he’s lost a step, and while Drew Doughty looks like he can fit that role, he’s not there yet. The Swedish team is also better capable of taking advantage of the lack of speed in Canada’s game, because the Swedish team is much more mobile than their Canadian counterparts. Canada may have more depth, but Sweden has enough talent to stay with their opponents, so they can exploit the weaknesses Canada has; and that will be the difference in the championship.

Sweden 5, Canada 4 (OT)

-DG


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-DG

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