The most-anticipated hockey tournament ever begins today, and the buzz around the city and the world is undeniable as teams prepare to battle for Olympic glory.
For the first time in four years, every player's focus is on the Gold, not the Stanley Cup, as the NHL takes a break from its prolonged season.
In both pursuits, a team's goaltending can make all the difference, and it's especially the case in a short tournament like the Olympic Games where anything can happen on the strength of a stellar performance between the pipes.
For the top contenders—Canada, Russia and Sweden—it will often determine which country takes home the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal.
For a long shot like Switzerland, fighting an uphill battle against the world's best, a strong netminder is an absolute must if there's at all hope to compete for a medal.
Similar to any Stanley Cup champion, past Olympic champions have often sported a great goaltender that steals a game or two throughout the tournament en route to the Gold medal.
At the 1998 Nagano Games, the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek single-handedly won the Gold for his country, while breaking the hearts of other nations. Hasek was a brick wall during the medal round with only two goals against in the three games, including a 1-0 shutout victory over Russia in the final.
In Vancouver, where the greatest international hockey tournament ever will unfold in the next two weeks, the goaltenders will never be more important.
Bleacher Report breaks down the goaltending of top contenders and how it might determine what color medal, if any, their nation brings home.
Canada is talented all-around and has the upper hand in net with three quality goaltenders, any of which could backstop their country to a much-anticipated Gold medal victory on home ice.
There are two Stanley Cup champions in the group, Martin Brodeur and Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as Roberto Luongo, who will start the opener against Norway.
While the Canuck will get the nod to begin the tournament, Brodeur is expected to take over after the and carry the team. He has the experience of playing in two Winter Games, leading Canada to a Gold medal in 2002 to help the country break a 50-year Olympic drought in Salt Lake City.
The lone concern for the Canadian contingent is the fact both Brodeur and Luongo are coming into the tournament playing subpar. The top goalies have put in shaky performances in the last week, allowing a combined nine goals in their last starts before the Olympic break.
Canada has the offensive prowess up front to make up for less-than-stellar goaltending, but brilliance from any one of them can solidify the team's spot as tournament favourites with a dazzling showing in front of a roucous home crowd.
Undoubtedly, both have to regain their form as the tournament moves on if they hope to guide Canada to its greatest sporting achievement in the country's history.
Russia may be able to score its way to an Olympic medal, but the likes of Evgeni Nabovok and Ilya Bryzgalov will have to put forth a few Gold medal performances if the team wants to win it all.
The Russians possess of the most lethal firepower offensively out of any team in the tournament with the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk.
However, Russia's backend is still a question mark entering the Olympics, with only veterans Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov. The group might not be able to hold up as well against the offensive talent of other contending countries—especially compared to their offensive superstardom.
Nabokov has been a big part of San Jose's first-place showing leading into the Olympic break, posting a 2.26 goals against average over the season. The Sharks goalie who will start the tournament may not receive a whole lot of attention amongst a star-studded Russian squad, but the faithful hockey fans back home know Nabokov has to be great.
For his part, Bryzgalov has had a great season in the desert—a big reason why the Phoenix Coyotes have experienced a remarkable turnaround in 2009-2010, sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference. He's posted six shutouts this season with a 2.30 goals against average skating into Vancouver.
Coupled with the third-string netminder Semyon Varlamov of the Capitals, both men just may have to stand on their head to earn Russia the Gold as the country prepares to host the 2014 Winter Games.
The defending Olympic champions enter Vancouver with that prestigious title largely because of Henrik Lundqvist, who was a big factor in Sweden's breakthrough performance at the 2006 Torino Games to win Gold.
It was the country's first Gold medal since 1994, and the New York Rangers goaltender was a standout. Coupled with an offensive explosion in the medal round (Sweden scored 16 goals in the three games), Lundqvist made big saves at the right time, especially in the narrow 3-2 victory over Finland in the final.
Four years prior to the Olympic glory in Torino, it was massive failure for the country—with the focus squarly on poor goaltending. Tommy Salo allowed the infamous "off the helmet" goal that resulted in Sweden's quarterfinal upset loss to Belarus in 2002.
The Rangers haven't put together the greatest of seasons in 2009-2010, currently in 10th spot only a point back of a playoff spot. But Lundqvist has been consistent, posting a 2.41 goals against average, and enters the tournament on a hot streak having allowed no more than two goals in his last four games—out of which New York has won three.
Sweden's undisputed No. 1 netminder will have to continue to shine if the Swedes hope to repeat as Olympic Gold medalists, or at the very least win a medal in Vancouver.
Finland wasn't expected to contend in Torino four years ago—until Antero Niittymaki took over the net and willed the country to the Gold medal game.
For a player who wasn't even named to Finland's original 23-man roster, Niittymaki stole the show and earned tournament MVP, posting three shutouts out of the three games. Without his effort, the Fins wouldn't have come to close to competing for the Olympic title, but his stellar performance single-handedly put the team in a position to win.
In Vancouver, Niittymaki may be called upon as Finland's backup, but the focus turns to starter Miikka Kiprusoff. The Calgary Flames goaltender is making his Olympic debut after a hip injury forced him to miss out on a Silver medal in 2006.
While consistency has been an issue with Kiprusoff in the past, it's a short tournament and he's proven he can shine on the big stage, leading Calgary on a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.
More recently, he's been playing good hockey in net with a 1.86 goals against average in the month of February heading into the Games.
Finnish general manager and NHL legend Jari Kurri has said repeatedly that goaltending is the team's strength with depth between the pipes. It will have to be strong if Finland hopes to make another magical run at the Winter Olympic Games.
Entering Vancouver, the Americans are flying under the radar after general manager Brian Burke went with the youth movement, snatching up all the young talent he could find within the national borders.
Many of the players are making their first appearance in the Olympic Games, and a team of tournament rookies will have to rely on great goaltending.
Ryan Miller will be the U.S. starter, presumably throughout, and any result will hinge on the play of the Buffalo Sabres netminder.
Despite the presence of dynamic goal scorers up front like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise, the U.S. doesn't possess the kind of depth offensively to keep up with the elites, needing Miller to play lights out to have a chance at Gold.
In addition, the Americans' defensive core won't scare a lot of teams in the tournament either. Olympic rookies such as Ryan Suter, Erik and Jack Johnson, and even Brooks Orpik will have a lot of trouble shutting down the top lines of Canada, Russia, and Sweden.
The positive for the U.S. is that Miller has been played like a Vezina trophy candidate all season in Buffalo, holding a second-best 2.16 goals against average. A rough stretch in February may loom large, but in the Vancouver 2010 Games it will come down to one game and we know Miller can get it done.
Without question, though, Miller has to stand on his head to give the U.S. a legitimate shot at Olympic Gold.
Over a decade following their surprise Gold medal victory in Nagano, the Bronze medalists from Torino have returned to the underdog role for 2010—despite the triumphant return of Jaromir Jagr to North America and Tomas Vokoun between the pipes.
The Panthers netminder was stellar in helping the Czech Republic earn the Bronze with a 3-0 shutout victory over Russia in 2006 and returns to the net four years later.
However, the concern is that Vokoun may not be playing his best hockey coming into Vancouver, as the Panthers dropped six in a row before the break- with Vokoun giving up three goals in four of the six losses.
Nevertheless, if the Czech hopes to be part of the medal ceremony on February 28, Vokoun will have to steal a game against one of the powerhouses and get timely scoring up front.
The Slovak goaltender Jaroslav Halak is new to the Olympics, but possesses the confidence needed to guide his home country to a podium finish.
The Canadiens goaltender is used to the pressure and attention, playing in a crazed hockey city like Montreal, and is confident that he can be a difference-maker in Vancouver.
His last start—a 5-2 home loss to Philadelphia on Saturday night—wasn't the best way to enter the tournament, but he'll bounce back and be a big piece in helping Slovakia redeem itself after the disappointment in Torino.
Four years ago, Slovakia returned home with no hardware after a hot 5-0 start to the tournament. A devastating 3-1 quarter-final loss to the rival Czechs ended any medal hopes following a perfect mark in the round robin.
Now the Slovaks are back with a similar group to the 2006 team, and with the addition of Halak to the mix they have a legitimate shot to medal—as long as he's a brick wall. Otherwise, it's simply not happening for them.
Switzerland's slim chances to win a medal in Vancouver solely rest on the pads of starting goaltender Jonas Hiller.
The country might be hard-pressed to make it back to the quarter-final—grouped with Canada and the U.S.—but anything can happen, as the Swiss proved in 2006.
They pulled off a historic 2-0 upset of Canada four years ago on the strength of Martin Gerber's standout 49-save performance, earning them second in Group A and a spot in the quarter-finals in Torino.
The team lost in the quarters to the eventual Olympic champion, Sweden, but if Hiller can get on a hot streak anything can happen over the two-week tournament.