The countdown is on to the 2014 Winter Olympics. As anticipation builds, so does the speculation about which players will embrace the spotlight and take their game to another level in pursuit of the elusive Olympic gold.
Sochi will mark the fifth Games since the NHL started allowing its players to participate back in 1998. Every four years, new memories are added to the NHL's Olympic legacy.
Here's a look back at some of the most outstanding individual performances we've seen over four Olympiads in Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver. If you have a favorite, share it with us in the comments.
What He Accomplished: Pavol Demitra was the engine that fueled Slovakia's unexpected fourth-place finish in Vancouver. The Slovaks lost the bronze-medal game to Finland, but won the hearts of hockey fans with their impressive effort throughout the tournament. Demitra led all players in points and was the only non-North American named to the tournament all-star team.
What We Remember Most: With Canada leading Slovakia 3-2 in the dying seconds of the semifinal game, Canadian goaltender Roberto Luongo robbed his Vancouver Canucks teammate Demitra on a shot along the goal line, ending Slovakia's fairytale run.
Why He's Here: Demitra had 10 points in seven games for the Slovaks, but ultimately failed to get his team on the medal podium. A great performance, but not worthy of ranking above the others on this list.
What He Accomplished: Hull was the offensive leader for Team USA in Salt Lake City, scoring five goals and eight points as the Americans recovered from an undisciplined outing in Nagano with a silver medal win on their home turf.
What We Remember Most: Hull dazzled on a top line with Mike Modano and John LeClair. They led the Olympics in scoring, but came up empty against Canada in the gold-medal game. Martin Brodeur's sliding toe save on Hull with less than five minutes remaining may have been the deciding moment of the tournament.
Why He's Here: Hull and his teammates exceeded expectations in Salt Lake City, which is why he's on the list. If he'd delivered when gold was on the line, he'd rank even higher.
What He Accomplished: Miller was the most valuable player in Vancouver, backstopping an inexperienced Team USA to a 5-0 record. The Americans never trailed until they met Team Canada in the gold-medal game.
What We Remember Most: How Miller helped his team build momentum. His group gained confidence as it rolled through its round-robin wins, ultimately grabbing first place in the final preliminary-round standings with a decisive 5-3 win over the host team, Canada.
Why He's Here: Miller makes the list because he was such a key part of the success of Team USA in 2010. He would have placed even higher if he'd stopped that Sidney Crosby shot in overtime.
What He Accomplished: Called upon to backstop Team Finland after injuries to Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen, the 25-year-old journeyman posted a 1.34 goals-against average and .951 save percentage in leading Finland to a 5-1 Olympic record and a silver medal. Unlikely hero Antero Niittymaki was named most valuable player in the entire tournament—the pinnacle of his goaltending career.
What We Remember Most: Three shutouts in six games. Niittymaki got lots of run support from Finnish stars like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, but he allowed just two goals in the preliminary round while shutting out the Swiss and the Canadians. Niittymaki went on to pitch a goose egg as Finland downed Russia 4-0 in the semifinal game before his team eventually fell to Sweden.
Why He's Here: Nittymaki and Ryan Miller had similar achievements and put up similar numbers. Antero gets the edge because of his shutouts.
What He Accomplished: Bure won silver as the captain of Team Russia at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. His team finished first in the round-robin and cruised through the medal round before being shut out by Dominik Hasek and the Czechs in the gold-medal game.
What We Remember Most: Bure's five-goal game in the semifinal against the Finns was one of the greatest individual performances in Olympic history. He pushed his team out to a 3-0 lead with a natural hat trick before the Finns battled back to tie, then scored twice more to give the Russians the 7-4 win. Three of Bure's goals came on breakaways thanks to his amazing speed. He also had a power-play marker and an empty-netter.
Why He's Here: The Nagano tournament was seriously short on scoring and excitement, making Bure's offensive performance even more memorable. He'd rank even higher if he'd managed to best Hasek to bring home the gold.
What He Accomplished: Martin Brodeur steadied a discombobulated Canadian team after its tournament-opening loss to Sweden in 2002, stepping in for Curtis Joseph and backstopping Team Canada to its first gold medal in men's hockey in 50 years.
What We Remember Most: Brodeur got stronger as the tournament wore on. After a narrow win over Germany, he found his stride as the Canadians beat Finland and Belarus, then bested the host Team USA for the gold. That game was a nail-biter. With a 3-2 lead for Canada in the third period, Brodeur made some huge saves before Jarome Iginla sealed the deal with four minutes to go.
Why He's Here: There weren't a lot of individual standout performances at the Salt Lake City Games. Mats Sundin was the tournament's leading scorer, but his Team Sweden couldn't get past Belarus in the quarterfinals. Brodeur's performance was steady behind Team Canada, and that steadiness is what the group needed after a rough start.
What He Accomplished: The third time was the charm for Nicklas Lidstrom at the Olympics. At the 2006 games in Turin, Team Sweden bounced back from its upset by Belarus in Salt Lake City by claiming its country's first-ever Olympic gold medal in men's hockey. With the gold medal alongside his Stanley Cup wins and 1991 World Championship victory, Lidstrom also joined the Triple Gold Club.
What We Remember Most: The gold-medal game-winning goal against Finland. The Finns had a great tournament, and Antero Niittymaki was virtually unbeatable, but the Swedes broke a 2-2 deadlock off the third period's opening faceoff. Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin controlled the draw and dropped a pass back to Lidstrom, who scored the tournament-winning goal just 10 seconds into the frame.
Why He's Here: For the gold-medal win, with a bonus point for his body of work. Lidstrom played in four Olympics for Sweden and eventually served as captain in 2010.
What He Accomplished: Backstopping a team with just 11 NHL players, Hasek led the underdog Czechs to gold at the first Olympics to feature NHL players. The unorthodox netminder made a name for himself with medal-round wins over the USA, Canada and Russia.
What We Remember Most: The semifinal against Canada went to a shootout. Hasek stoned Theoren Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan—while Wayne Gretzky sat on the bench. Robert Reichel's lone goal eventually vaulted the Czechs into the gold-medal game.
Why He's Here: Though officials hoped that inviting the best hockey players in the world to the Olympics would lead to an exciting, dynamic tournament, Hasek single-handedly ensured that the end result would come down to the last line of defense. His playing style had been regarded with some skepticism in North America, but Hasek used the Olympic stage at Nagano to confirm that he was, at that time, the best in the world.
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