Olympic Hockey Preview: Swimming with Sharks
With the first game of Olympic men's hockey minutes away, it is time to do a preview of the tournament.
It is important to note that the tournament will have a couple changes this year.
For one, it is being played on an NHL-sized rink, with NHL rules for penalties...you know, a different set of rules for stars, based on the score, how much time is left in the game, and the whims of each individual referee. (What, that's not a standard, just a practice? Well, we can hope it won't apply to the Olympics, then, but to me, the judging there has always been subjective for all competitions.)
For another, there will be three groups instead of two, and thus only three preliminary games, not five. Instead of taking the top four teams in each group to the medal round, the top four teams overall will receive a bye into the quarterfinals of the medal round, while the other eight teams will have a play-in game.
To me this favours teams at the bottom and the top: The four teams that earn a bye can rest up, and even bad teams can get a medal by simply being hot for two games.
Being a Sharks writer, I will focus this preview on the teams that feature Sharks players, which happens to be all but one of the medal-contending teams plus Germany. Since I have already given away that I do not believe the nation of my maternal grandmother has a chance, I will start there.
This team has a distinctly Shark-flavour: Of eight players with NHL experience, five started their careers with the San Jose Sharks, including current netminder and Sharks backup Thomas Greiss.
Greiss has shown promise in limited action in net for the Sharks, and will go into this tournament auditioning for more playing time down the stretch. He will have to play exceptionally for this team to even make the medal round. The team's best forward, Marco Sturm, and best defenceman, Christian Ehrhoff will need to play exceptionally as well.
However, none of those players is a bonafide first line/pair/starting goalie in the NHL, and no one else on this team is better than fourth line/third pair.
There are seven other teams that are quite superior to Germany (Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic and United States), as well as a comparable team in Switzerland.
Germany's only real chance at a medal is to get a favourable matchup in the play-in round (they could legitimately earn a final-eight spot). If they can get hot for two of three games—the quarterfinal and either the semifinal they could earn silver or bronze medal.
If they earn a medal at all, it will be a remarkable achievement.
This team has a lot of speed, but is very young. The defense is diverse enough and offers scoring ability from the point, but the forwards feature few true scorers and the team overall has too few marquee players.
The Sharks Joe Pavelski should play a major role as a scoring line center and penalty killer, and his faceoff prowess will help Team USA keep better teams' scoring chances down.
However, the team's success relies on its one major strength, goaltending. With 2009 Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas as a backup (2010 Vezina front-runner Ryan Miller will start), Team USA is second to Canada in net.
If Team USA's speed can keep Miller from being overwhelmed, he can keep them in games. They will need to play as much as possible at even strength, as they cannot match the scoring ability of Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
This plays to the strengths of coach Ron Wilson's disciplined style. A key play by one of the few stars or a gritty goal by one of the many role-players will give Team USA victories.
Contrary to some hyperbole being bantied about, this team is nowhere near the underdog the Miracle on Ice team was—Team USA should make the quarterfinals and maybe even the semifinals—but any medal here is an accomplishment.
With all the talk of Canada and Russia in this Olympics, people are overlooking a very good Swedish team that, by the way, is the defending gold medal team. They have all the pieces: world-class goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist, a fantastic blueline headed by perrenial Norris Trophy winner Niklas Lidstrom, and a stable of forwards led by the home ice Sedin brothers and Henrik Zetterberg.
At the beginning of the season, one would have supposed that goaltending would be this team's biggest asset. However, with Lundqvist not having one of his better seasons in New York, they have only the third or fourth best netminding in the tournament—not a weakness, but this is not what will carry them to a medal.
Instead, they will turn to the blueline, the only one better than Team Canada's. The Detroit Nicks (Kronwall and Lidstrom) combine with underrated Mattias Ohlund and up-and-coming Tobias Enstrom to give Sweden three fantastic two-way defensemen and make them absolutely deadly on the power play.
Add in great defenders such as the Sharks Douglas Murray, the most physical player in the league (if you get a chance to see him play, you can note that the majority of times someone tried to check him it is they who go to the ice), Johnny Oduya, and Henrik Tallinder and teams will struggle to score on Sweden.
Only Sweden and Canada have enough forwards, including the greatest Swedish player ever, Peter Forsberg, to put three lines out that can score. This unit can really take advantage of the blueline's offensive skills with the man-advantage.
Clearly better than any NHL team, the Swede failure to win a medal would be a horrible disappointment. They are serious gold medal contenders.
This team is getting a lot of hype, and with good reason. A lot of people are looking for someone else to pick besides host Canada, and Russia is the most logical alternative, having great goaltending and some of the best scorers in the world.
So let's start with their "Achilles' Heel," the blueline.
With Andrei Markov apparently able to go, the team has two great power play quarterbacks (Sergei Gonchar being the other), plus Fedor Tyutin, Denis Grebeshkov, Anton Volchenkov, and Dmitry Kalinin. These players aren't much of a weakness, but teams know they do not excel in their own end.
So, how does Russia combat the scoring chances they will yield?
The first way is through incredible goaltending. Team Russia is right up there with the United States and Canada in net: Ilya Bryzgalov would start for any of these three teams right now with the season he is having, but Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov is the chief rival of Ryan Miller for the Vezina right now.
Russia will need to cash in on games of their own in order to combat the scoring chances they give up. The blueline is exceptional offensively, and that is nothing compared to having the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Pavel Datsyuk shooting from the slot.
This unit may lack the depth of Canada and Sweden, but is better at the top and will be deadly with a man-advantage.
With this kind of talent, anything less than a medal is a major disappointment, and the goal of this team is clearly the gold.
In the international game, skill outweighs defense, so their troubles in their own end will be minimized.
The gold medal favourites for a reason, you will note above that every time a team had a strength they were listed as comparable or even with Canada. Canada, Russia, and the United States have the best goaltending; Sweden has a narrow edge over Canada on the blueline; Russia and Sweden were compared to Canada among the forward lines.
In net, they can turn to, Martin Broduer, arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time, or his perennial Vezina runner-up Roberto Luongo.
On the blueline, they have former Norris Trophy winners in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and arguably the best pair in the league right now in Chicago teammates Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Not to mention All-Star Sharks blueliner Dan Boyle.
This depth of marquee players is why people are saying that, "Canada needs the gold medal, everyone else wants it." With the game on home ice and the talent so deep that the "Burger line" (as in Jumbo-Heated-Patty) from San Jose is actually currently the third line, anything less than a gold medal is a failure for this team.
(Mark my words: Thornton-Marleau-Heatley will get the most playing time as one line because it is the best line in the world. I know the shining star of the game Sydney Crosby has to go first, but Getzlaf-Perry-Staal second? C'mon!)
The only Achilles heel for this team is that Canada has been known to fold under pressure in the past. In the Turin Olympics four years ago, the team did not even play for the bronze, finishing seventh. In Nagano (1998), they lost the gold medal game. In fact, Canada has won only one gold medal in my lifetime, in Salt Lake City in 2002.
However, the game being played on an NHL rink aids them greatly—the biggest problem once NHL players were allowed in was adjusting to the international game. Thus, for even Russia or Sweden to beat them would take a major upset.
My final standings:
- Canada has too many weapons not to win gold, even if I really wanted to pick someone else
- I see Sweden as being more well-rounded than Russia and taking silver
- Russia will bring home the bronze
- The United States, in a mild upset, will advance to the bronze medal game but not be able to win it
- Finland is a serious contender for a medal, with the necessary goaltending and deep forwards to compete with anyone
- Watch out for the Czech Republic, who many people are overlooking despite great skaters and a good goalie in Tomas Vokoun
- There is a significant drop-off from the Czech Republic to their rival Slovakia, but this is still an NHL-playoff level team
- Team Germany will sneak into the quarterfinals as Greiss shows himself to be a legitimate NHL starting goalie
- Switzerland needs too much from Jonas Hiller to make it into the quarterfinals
- The Kostitsyn brothers give Belarus one legitimate scoring line, and that is more than the teams below them can say
- Latvia has two NHL defenders they can put on the ice to slow down opposition scoring
- Norway has no true NHL-level talent to work with and will have high scoring deficits from both the United States and Canada in the preliminary round
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