The Puck Drops on Men's Olympic Hockey

The Puck Drops on Men's Olympic Hockey

I love the Winter Olympics. I really do. One of my earliest sporting memories is watching the “Battle of the Brians” between Brian Boitano and Bryan Orser in figure skating at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Four years later, I made my parents bring me to the Boston Garden to watch the 1992 U.S. hockey team play against the Bruins. In 1998, I may have been one of the only people awake at 2 a.m. watching the hockey coverage. In 2002, my dedication to watching every game of the hockey tournament was borderline OCD.

As you can tell, most of my Winter Olympic fanaticism surrounds the men’s ice hockey tournament. Besides a brief infatuation with sparkly costumes and triple axels, the hockey portion of the Olympics is what keeps my eyes glued to the screen. Never mind the fact that the addition of the NHL players in ’98 makes this arguably the most star-studded event in either the Summer or Winter Games, I was like this way back when Team USA was filled with the best college players the Bay State had to offer. Following basketball’s lead and bringing together the absolute best in the world at what they do has only upped the fascination.

Think about it. There are 12 teams in the men’s hockey tournament in Vancouver – each with NHL talent on its roster. Sure, some teams like Norway and Latvia are not powerhouses like Canada and Russia, but they feature legitimate world-class players. Unlike the basketball competition at the Summer Games where there is really the United States and then two or three teams behind them competing for silver and bronze, the hockey tournament is wide open. Any of the top six seeds in the tournament could win the gold medal. All six of those teams are filled with either NHL players or the best pros in Europe. Teams like Slovakia (with Bruins Zdeno Chara and Miroslav Satan) and Germany (with Marco Sturm) could win a game and sneak into the medal round where it becomes a series of one-game eliminations.

The pressure in those quarterfinal games will be most heavily laid at the feet of Team Canada. The top seed in the tournament based on the pre-rankings, the Canadians will be looking to win gold on their home ice for the first time. Luckily for them, Alex Bilodeau broke the entire country’s drought with gold in moguls. Now, the Canadian hockey players just have to worry about not letting down the entire country with a lowly silver medal. Seriously, if Team Canada doesn’t win gold, the entire country will be crying in their Molson at Tim Horton’s. Sidney Crosby will be as revered in the Great White North as Bill Buckner used to be at Fenway.

If those crazy Canucks don’t win gold, there are two teams most likely to break Canada’s heart – Russia and Sweden. The Swedes are the defending champions, with 2006 standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist back between the pipes. Russia only has the biggest collection of firepower this side of Red Dawn in Alex Ovechkin, Geno Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.

All three of those teams are expected to finish pool play at the top and occupy the first three seeds in the quarterfinals. After that, Finland, the Czech Republic and the U.S. should all find themselves in the quarterfinals. The fun part will be figuring out which surprise teams will slide into the final two spots.

You know what else is also great about the men’s hockey games? They are like those first two days of March Madness. Today’s U.S. game is at 3 p.m. They play again on Thursday at 3 p.m. Pretty much every day between now and Feb. 28 has a game at that time. So, fire up an old spreadsheet on your monitor and tune your innerwebs to the game for a little “afternoon delight” puck style. Not sure who you are watching or which squad to cheer for when the Yanks aren’t playing? That’s what your resident hockey guru is here for. Get to know your Olympic hockey squads…

Teams listed in order of pre-Games ranking

1. Canada

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Why they will win: This group could be the best collection of hockey talent ever assembled. Top to bottom, this team on paper is the best in the tournament. In fact, they could have fielded a B team of players left off the roster with guys who have scored 40 goals in the NHL or who lead their team in scoring at the moment. They have arguably the best goaltender in the NHL in Martin Brodeur and two superb goalies behind him in Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury. Coach Mike Babcock has announced that Luongo, who plays his NHL hockey in Vancouver, will start against Norway today and that Brodeur will get the nod against Switzerland. The guess is that whoever plays better will get the go against the U.S. in the final game in Pool A. Add in the fact that there has never been a home-crowd advantage quite like the one waiting for Team Canada, and things are lining up quite nicely for the guys with the Maple Leaf on their chest.

Why they will not win: That home-ice advantage will go only as far as the first deficit the Canadians face. Every person in Canada feels that winning this gold medal is their birth right. If the Norwegians come out and score first today, expect lots of “Take off, you hoser!” and “How aboot a save, eh?” to be rained down from the rafters. Still, it will take a lot of boos to rattle a team loaded with Stanley Cup champions and future Hall of Famers. At the end of the tourney, it will come down to what type of draw Canada receives in the medal rounds. A match-up with Russia in the semifinals will be a tension-filled affair. Babcock would also like one of his two stud goalies to stake claim to the job. Any sense of a goalie controversy will only heighten the media attention and pressure, something Team Canada does not need.

Bruins tiein: Patrice Bergeron is the only Bruin on Team Canada, but he will be a very visible player. In Monday’s practice, he skated with Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash on what looks to be the top line. Bergeron’s ability to win faceoffs and play the middle can open up the ice for Crosby and Nash to fire away. Bergeron is the only player on this team who didn’t take part in the orientation camp in August, showing how far he has come and how highly he is regarded by the coaching staff. Bergy played with Crosby before in World Junior tournaments and they have chemistry together. If Canada claims gold, Bergeron will have a big part in that. Old friend Joe Thornton is also on the Canadian squad, probably skating with San Jose linemates, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau.

2. Russia

Why they will win: Because goals win hockey games and the Russians have maybe the deadliest firepower in the Games. Two of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy last season are on the Russian team – and they won’t be on the same line. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best players in the world and they will be giving opposing coaches fits throughout the tournament. Expect Ovie to play with his Washington Capitals teammate Alexander Semin and Detroit Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk. Russia’s second line (more like 1A) will be Malkin with Ilya Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov. To be concise, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and Semin are three of the top-eight goal scorers in the NHL and that will be difficult to overcome. Any team which takes frequent penalties is in danger of a long night.

Why they will not win: They will probably be public enemy No. 1 in Canada based on the danger they present to the hosts. That probably will not faze Ovechkin who seems to enjoy pissing off opposing fans. However, it could rattle the goaltending. You have to assume Evgeni Nabakov will be the horse for the Russians with Ilya Bryzgalov behind him. Those two have combined for 66 wins so far in the NHL, but Nabakov’s San Jose Sharks are known as much for their playoff flame outs as they are for the awesome Starter jackets they inspired in the mid 1990s.

Bruins tie-in: There are no Bruins on the roster, but ex-Bruin Sergei Gonchar is expected to play on the second defensive pair and feature on the power play.

3. Sweden

Why they will win: They have been there before, winning the gold in two of the last four Olympics – including 2006. The Swedes return 13 players from that team, a lot of experience to bring to an unpredictable tournament. They should have an easy road to the quarterfinals with games against Germany and Belarus before a rematch of the ’06 final against Finland. The Swedes have the most offensive talent outside the Canadians and Russians. Henrik Sedin is second in the NHL in points, forming a dynamic pairing with his brother Daniel. They will be the top line for Sweden, probably with Mattias Weinhandl at center – someone they have played with before. Behind the Sedin twins is Niklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s running buddy in Washington. He is fourth in the NHL in points and could shine in his role as the second-line option against a team’s second wave of defense. Whoever is on the ice up front for Sweden needs to simply give Henrik Lundqvist a clear view of the puck. He won five games in Torino with a GAA of 2.33. That was his coming out party to the world and he will need to replicate it if the Swedes are to repeat.

Why they will not win: If the defense and goaltending is not as superb as it was in Torino, they will have a tough time keeping up with Russia and Canada. Behind King Henrik in goal is Toronto rookie Jonas Gustavsson and some guy Stefan Liv. The defense has seven of eight playing in the NHL with a mix of veterans and young players, but needs to focus on playing a simple game rather than get too involved. There are some injuries to worry about with Tomas Holmstrom and Peter Forsberg nursing some injuries as the games begin.

Bruins tie-in: None. P.J. Axelsson was not named to the team after winning gold in 2006, depriving Bruins fans a chance to watch him play shutdown defense in the slumber-inducing yet ridiculously effective way he used to for the B’s.

4. Finland

Why they will win: This is another team with a lot of experience. 15 players who played in the gold medal game in 2006 will be back for the Fins. The goaltending trio is formidable, led by Miikka Kiprusoff. He will be making his first Olympic appearance, but is rolling in with a 2.18 GAA.

Why they will not win: There just isn’t enough firepower. Mikko Koivu has the most points of any player on the team with 56. His brother Saku is a capable player and veterans like Teemu Selanne and Jere Lehtinen give the Fins poise and leadership. However, there is no real game-breaker up front like the teams in front of them have. The defense is solid, and Philadelphia Flyer Kimmo Timonen is fun to watch and a player who could create offense from the blueline. Still, it is hard to rank them as a favorite in their quarterfinal game and they will need Kipper to steal games for them to seriously challenge for the gold.

Bruins tie-in: None. There were thoughts Tuukka Rask may sneak onto the team as the third goalie. He lost that spot to Antero Nittymaki of Tampa Bay. Hard to imagine that Rask, who leads the NHL in GAA and is third in Save Percentage couldn’t find a spot on this team, but his time will come in 2014 if the NHL sends its players.

5. Czech Republic

Why they will win: They picked up the bronze in 2006 and won gold in 1998, medaling in two of three games featuring NHL players. This team is not as loaded as those squads and does not feature Dominik Hasek in goal. However, there is some interesting possibilities up front. Jaromir Jagr is the face of Czech hockey and will be counted on to lead the team. He has done that before and could do it again. Patrik Elias of the Devils is another scoring threat. Tomas Fleischmann of the Capitals has some big numbers, but will have to prove it isn’t all Ovie’s doing. If the Czechs are to medal, they will need to receive offensive support from their defensemen. Two of the top 10 Czech-born scorers in the NHL this season are defensemen – Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. They get the majority of their points by making passes and getting shots on net for players to pounce on.

Why they will not win: The goaltending leaves a lot to be desired. Tomas Vokun and Ondrej Pavelec are the two NHL goalies, but neither has a winning record. Vokun should be the starter, but his name doesn’t strike fear in any team.

Bruins tie-in: David Krejci will suit up in his first Olympics for the Czech Republic. He will center either the second or third line and should see action on the penalty kill as well. His point numbers are down this season like every other Bruin, but he has stated his dream has always been to play in the Olympics ever since watching the 1998 games. Expect his play to improve, just as it has been for the B’s of late.

6. United States

Why they will win: Because it is an Olympics ending in 0. The last two Olympics to come at the start of a decade have seen the U.S. win gold (1960, 1980) and the Americans are due. This is a very inexperienced team Olympic-wise, with only three players having previously played in an Olympics. That may play into their favor, however. While the Russians may be the biggest recipient of aggression at the Games, the U.S. team will also need to overcome some vitriol and they have the ignorance of youth to help with that. Hockey people know that goaltending is the key to winning any tournament usually, and the Americans are strong in net. Ryan Miller is expected to start every game and enters the Olympics with an NHL-best 2.16 GAA. His backup, Jonathan Quick, has the most wins of any NHL keeper with 35. If Miller plays like he has for the Sabres most of the season, the Americans will be a tough out. Don’t count out a win over Canada on Sunday propelling them all the way to the gold, either.

Why they will not win: Can they score enough? That is the big question. Team USA needs to come out against Switzerland and get some confidence on offense. While Miller can and probably will steal a game at some point, that can’t be counted on. Players like Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Paul Stastny need to announce themselves on the big stage quickly or they could be back preparing for the NHL season before the medal round. Team USA wants to win tight, grind ‘em out games but those could be to gutwrenching for such a young team.

Bruins tie-in: Tim Thomas is the feel-good story of Team USA, earning a spot after a vagabond career. However, where he was once a possible No. 1 goalie, he is most likely No. 3 at the moment as he has lost his starting job with the Bruins. While he wants to play as much as possible, it is unlikely he will see any time. Still, if another miracle does happen, there will be no one more excited. Also, how will Bruins fans cheer for Phil Kessel? He is considered persona non grata in Boston when the Leafs come in, but what if a medal is on his stick in a week? He does have a knack for big goals at big times, will he do it again?

7. Switzerland

Why they will win: Every other country repays them for years of chocolate, watches and neutrality. The Swiss haven’t medaled since 1948, and aren’t likely to do so here. Jonas Hiller is a very good goalie for Anaheim and should give them a win over Norway and keep them in the game against the U.S.

Why they will not win: Because they do not have a forward on the team good enough to play in the NHL. Seems like something you would want in a tournament like this. When your best player is arguably a 19-year old defenseman playing junior (Luca Sbisa) you are in trouble.

Bruins tie-in: None.

8. Slovakia


Why they will win: If the Slovaks win the gold, it will be thanks to the Super Marian Brothers – Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa. That is a big ‘if’ though. Gaborik, who has 35 goals this season is injured and is questionable to go in the first game against the Czechs. Hossa missed a lot of time this season as well. Pavol Demitra is a proven NHL player who has only skated in 11 games this season due to injury as well. If their games are on right now, they could give the Czechs and Russians some trouble in the toughest group of pool play. The defense should help keep games close, led by Zdeno Chara and Andrej Meszaros. Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak should play the majority of games in goal and is having a decent season.

Why they will not win: There is not a lot of scoring on this squad after the three injured guys. Even Miro Satan will be hindered by his sliced hand suffered in the Bruins’ game in Tampa last week. They could be out of it by Thursday as they play the Czechs and Russians on back-to-back days.

Bruins tie-in: Chara and Satan are going to be focal points of the team. Hopefully a good tournament from Chara is something he carries over to the stretch run for the Bruins.

9. Belarus

Why they will win: Um…Because….Well…Not gonna happen. However, they were fifth in 1998 and fourth in 2002, the last two times they qualified. So, they are a lock for the bronze, right?

Why they will not win: Because their best players are the evil mobster Kostitsyn brothers who play for Montreal. If they win, it’s because the games are fixed.

Bruins tie-in: Hating the Kostitsyn brothers.

10. Germany

Why they will win: The other 11 teams are overcome by the awesome power of the STURM FACE.

Why they will not win: There are only six NHL players on the team. Besides Marco Sturm, Jochen Hecht and Marcel Goc are forwards who will be counted on to score. The defense from Christian Ehrhoff and Dennis Seidenberg has to be top-notch to keep pucks away from three goalies who don’t give you much confidence.

Bruins tie-in: Marco Sturm is the leader of this team and will be the heartbeat of the Germans. He is without question a passionate player and should thrive on the excitement of the Olympics – his third Games.

11. Latvia

Why they will win: Familiarity. No team in the Olympics can say it has 16 players who play on the same team during the regular season. They all skate for Dinamo Riga. Not exactly the Detroit Red Wings, but they should have no trouble playing as a team.

Why they will not win: Because they won’t defeat any of the three teams in their group. Makes it difficult to advance.

Bruins tie-in: Martins Karsums was a Bruins prospect before he was traded to Tampa Bay as part of the Mark Recchi deal last March. Thanks Marty!

12. Norway

Why they will win: They also have some chemistry on their side. 21 of the 23 players on the roster played at the World Championships in 2009. They also helped win the qualifying tournament that gave Norway its first berth in the Olympics since 1994 – when they qualified as host.

Why they will not win: Only one NHL player – Detroit’s Ole-Kristian Tollefson and another who plays in Russia’s superleague, the KHL. They have a tough go against Canada and the U.S. and should look to the game against Switzerland as their chance for an Olympic Moment.

Bruins tie-in: None.

So, there is the quick info on the 12 teams set to chase after the gold medal. My predictions are as follows:

Gold Medal: Russia. Too much firepower and nothing to lose helps Ovie finally break Sidney Crosby’s heart.
Silver Medal: Canada. A country weeps as the Canadian anthem is silenced.
Bronze Medal: Sweden. Henrik Lundqvist plays out of his mind again, but the Swedes can’t match goals with the two teams above them.
United States: Fourth Place. A great run by the U.S. falls just short of a medal.

What do you think is going to happen? Any surprises? Which Bruin has the best tournament?

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