THE HAT TRICK: Olympic Preview

Matt SitkoffCorrespondent IFebruary 14, 2010

TURIN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 19: Alexander Ovechkin #8 of Russia controls the puck during the men's ice hockey Preliminary Round Group B match between Russia and Latvia during Day 9 of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 19, 2006 at the Torino Esposizioni in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

With the opening ceremonies done and the last NHL games being played, I must remind you that the Olympic break is not a break from hockey.

It doesn’t’ matter what your opinion is on the subject of the NHL taking a break during the season, the next couple of weeks will give the hockey fan some exciting action.  The Swedes are the defending champions winning the tournament in Torino after defeating the Finnish team in the gold medal game, while the Czech team won the bronze medal game over the Russians. Now let’s get to the Pucking Awesome Hat Trick or the top three story lines I will be watching in Vancouver.

Home Ice Advantage:

The pressure is always on Canada to win gold but none more apparent when the team is the host country. After a gold medal performance in the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, the Canadians fell to a dismal seventh place finish last year in Torino. Steve Yzerman is the executive director this season and has put together a formable 23-man team—not including taxi-squad.

Who will mind the nets will be the biggest question heading into the games.  Martin Brodeur is having a bounce-back year and has been the man in the previous two Olympics. While, home-town hero Roberto Luongo got to see two contests in last Olympics, many think it is his time to shine and lead Canada to the golden promise land.

This year’s squad is filled with past winners who know what it takes to go through a tournament like this as a champion. In fact only Duncan Keith on the current roster is the only Canadian player that has not won either a Stanley Cup or a gold medal at the Olympics, World Championships, World Juniors or World Cup of Hockey.  In other words, this team is loaded for a big run in front of the home crowd.

U.S. Youth Movement:

When Brian Burke, Team USA General Manager, was putting together his squad for this years Olympics, his thought had to be, give the young kids a chance.

The 2010 team is comprised of 17 players yet to reach their 30th birthday and 13 that are 25-or-younger. Although no word has come out if the NHL will compete at Sochi in 2014, it seems that Burke is planning for the future, having only three players with previous Olympic experience on the roster (Brian Rafalski, Chirs Drury and Jaime Langenbrunner). 

What if the future is now for the United States?  Can this team of upstarts and youth follow the path of the most famous US Olympic team? The 1980 team was of course amateurs, thus young guys trying to go up against the mighty Russians. This year’s team will not be favored to medal but does have a strength in the most important position needed in a short tournament, goaltending.

The rise of Ryan Miller to a top goaltender in the NHL has been steadily, and good news for Team USA. The East Lansing native was passed over in 2006 for the likes of Robert Esche and John Grahame on his way to the taxi-squad for that team.

Flash forward to four years and it is almost laughable that those two made it over Miller, who this season has been near the top of all NHL goaltending categories. The 29-year-old Miller will be the key to US success, although US and Sabres fans hope that fatigue does not set in. Miller has played in 52 of the Sabres 60 game so far this season.

The Other Teams:

We can’t forget that the Swedes won the tournament, the Slovaks went undefeated in Pool play last time, the Russians are stacked offensively, and we will have a Jaromir Jagr sighting for the Czech’s. So many storylines surround the ice of the Olympics.

The Swedish Olympic team has brought back 13 of 23 players from the gold medal team. That will include Olympic hero Peter Forsberg but not team leader Mats Sundin, who had eight points in the eight games played in 2006. They will be backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist again. Lundqvist posted five wins and a 2.33 goals-against average in Torino.  With the Sedin twins up front, with Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson—who had ten points in last Olympics—and break out star Nicklas Backstrom, the Swedes are primed to defend their Olympic gold.

Alex Ovechkin not only captured the Calder Trophy his rookie year but exploded on the Olympic scene with five goals in Russia’s fourth place finish. All Alex the Great has done since his rookie year is score 209 goals and dominant the sport of hockey.

Combine Ovechkin with the scoring likes of Iyla Kovalchuck—329 career goals in 600 GP), Evgeni Malkin (368 points in 296 GP), and Pavel Datsyuk (571 career points in 585 GP) and you will have a frightening offensive attack. Not to mention that Ovechkin’s teammate Alex Semin is having a breakout season with 30 goals and 65 points already. And don’t forget Sergei Federov is on the Russian roster. 

Speaking of former NHL stars playing in the Olympics, these games will give us a chance to see Jaromir Jagr against NHL players.  he 37-year-old former NHL MVP left the league in 2008 to play for the KHL where he has 95 points in 104 games played for Omsk Avanguard. It will be interesting to see this talented player amongst NHL players again.