The Winter Olympics have officially begun, and all eyes are on men’s hockey. The two favorites at the moment are Canada and Russia, but several teams are looking to upset the field.
While the odds of a major upset are not great (don’t expect Latvia to take down Alex Ovechkin & Co.) there are several match-ups that might not go as expected.
To give all of you Olympic fans a better look at the teams, here is how they rank in my book:
4. United States
6. Czech Republic
Now an upset would be any team of a lower rank, beating a team of higher rank—even if it is Russia beating Canada.
Keep in mind when reading this that it’s the Olympics, anything can happen in one game. While a lot of people think that the gold medal will come down to Canada, Russia, or Sweden (myself included in that group),it takes just one mistake for a powerhouse to fall.
So, with no further ado, let’s move on to the potential upsets.
The first game of the Olympics could provide the first upset. A lot of attention is being paid to the United States team, and you better believe that the Swiss team would like nothing more than to come in and shut out the Americans.
Switzerland will not be relying on its offense to get the job done in Vancouver, as 11 of the 12 Swiss forwards play in the Swiss League. While Switzerland’s offense is nothing to write home about, their defense is primed and ready to go.
Switzerland’s young defense (which includes two members from the World Junior Championship team) is in good hands, with veteran Mark Streit leading the way.
But the backbone of the Swiss team is in between the pipes.
The Anaheim Ducks’ Jonas Hiller will attempt to lead this underdog into the medal round, but he’ll have to get past the likes of either the United States or Canada in order to do that.
Don’t underestimate Hiller—if he can lead his team past the Presidents’ Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks in the NHL playoffs, he can certainly lead Switzerland past a very questionable United States team.
While Russia will be well rested, the Slovakian offense and goal-tending could spark an upset.
Look at the Russian team like the Washington Capitals— with a better offense and a goaltender who can carry the workload (yes, that was a dig at Jose Theodore).
But if you think the Russians are unbeatable, you are sorely mistaken.
Odds are that Jaroslav Halak will be starting for the Slovakian team. Halak has had a fantastic season for the Montreal Canadiens, and you better believe he is as ready as he will ever be for these Olympics.
Slovakia’s offense may not equal that of Russia, but with Marian Gaborik (assuming he stays healthy), Marian Hossa, and, oh yes, Ziggy Palffy, this offense can get the job done. There are also several former NHLers in the mix who add a lot of balance to this lineup.
If you have any doubts about Slovakia, I forgot to mention they have 6’9” Zdeno Chara standing at their blue line.
While the Slovakians do not have a lot of depth, their “big names” might be able to do enough damage to pull off an upset.
It wouldn’t be the biggest upset, but it would be an upset, nonetheless.
Sweden repeating for the gold medal is a definite possibility, but it won’t be easy for the Swedes. Sweden, in possibly the most well-balanced preliminary group, will have to go up against the likes of Belarus and Germany.
And let’s not forget about a Finnish team that is going to be foaming at the mouth to get their revenge on the team that defeated them in the finals of the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Finland has one of the best goalie tandems in the Olympic tournament. Starting in net should be Mikka Kiprusoff, who has been a model of consistency for the Calgary Flames over the years.
Backing up Kiprusoff up will be Niklas Backstrom (who is having an uncharacteristically bad season) and Antero Niittymaki (who is having an uncharacteristically good season).
The balanced Finnish defense is led by Joni Pitkanen, the NHL’s leader in ice-time. Assisting Pitkanen with the defensive duties will be Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo, two fantastic defensemen.
Of all of the forwards playing for Finland, just two were not a part of the 2006 silver medal team. Veterans like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu will lead the way for this very underrated gold medal contender.
Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin—and that is just Russia’s top line. Scary, isn’t it?
Like many of the other games, the goalie will be the key to this potential upset. But if the Czechs could have any goalie in the world (I know they can’t, but just go along with it), Tomas Vokoun would be their netminder of choice.
Vokoun is used to facing a lot of shots—the most in the NHL, to be exact—which will give the Czech’s a chance against a Russian squad that will have its offense firing on all cylinders.
Also, the Czechs mix well up and down their roster. (Let me rephrase that, but I just had to get a “Chex Mix” line in there.)
The Czechs have several Stanley Cup champs in their lineup (10 players with Olympic experience) and a number of young and talented skaters that will keep the opposition on its heels.
And just a little tidbit of information in case you forgot: the Czech Republic defeated the Russians by a score of 3-0 in the bronze medal game back in the 2006 Olympics. Don’t think that the Russians have forgotten that.
If you could summarize the United States’ men’s hockey team in one word, it would be “inexperienced.”
With the exception of Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin (who will not be playing due to injury), Chris Drury, and Jamie Langenbrunner, not one player on the team has played in the Olympics.
To be fair, not all of the Canadian team has played in the Olympics either. The only difference is that one of the players for Canada who has never played in the Olympics happens to have the last name Crosby.
But don’t sell this young U.S. team short.
GM Brian Burke feels that he has selected a well-balanced team that will be able to get the job done. With players like Paul Stastny, Zach Parise, and Patrick Kane, the United States can do some serious damage in this tournament.
Also, keep in mind that the U.S. team has one of the best goalies in the NHL right now. While Buffalo’s Ryan Miller has been a little shaky as of late, critics are attributing this shakiness to the Olympics, which have clearly been on his mind.
There is no doubt that if the United States wants to make a serious medal-run and get past Canada, Miller is going to have to be at the top of his game.
It might not be 1980, but this “miracle” could happen.