The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games will go down in Hockey history as the greatest level of competition the fastest game on ice has ever seen. Regardless of the outcome, people will be talking about the hockey tournament for decades to come.
Six of the twelve teams in the three groupings have very legitimate shots at coming home with the coveted hockey gold. Canada, The USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and
the Czech Republic are all poised to leave Vancouver atop the medal podium.
With these six team's rosters dominated by NHL stars, the intensity level will make every game seem like a Stanley Cup game 7 final. The key to any of these teams success is a combination of three factors: Great goal tending, consistent scoring, and choosing the right moment for bold moves.
Good goal tending will not get gold. Great goal tending will and its the bare minimum. Nothing less will cut it no matter how goals you can score, if your net minder isn't stopping 99% of all the shots he faces, you'll be watching the gold medal match from the cheap seats. Just ask Vladislav Tretiak, Jim Craig and Martin Brodeur about the importance of a hot goalie.
Normally goal scoring wins games and defense wins championships. In Olympic hockey
its the other way around. The more you score, the better off you are - not only in win column but also getting a better seed in the next round. Teams that eke out 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 victories advance but wind up drawing the tougher teams as a result. So score early and often...
Bold moves are what make indelible Olympic memories and mistakes lend to these opportunities presenting themselves. The level of play is so heightened, that if a player tanks on a play, the result can be a game changer, costing his team a medal, even a gold. No one can take a shift off. Losing a face off will come back and bite you in the ass. Think that lobbing a floater in at the goalie is a waste of a shot? Think again...
That being said, here's how I see the road to Olympic Hockey gold.
FAVORITE: Canada. It's unlikely that Canadians will ever get to see their Winter Olympians compete on their home, snow-covered turf again. Team Canada has the weight of the hockey world on their shoulders. They endeavor to win gold on home ice in front of their hometown fans for the first time ever. Anything less than a successful completion to this mission will be seen as another Olympic choke by Canadian athletes and an unmitigated failure by all Canadians.
Team Canada has to step up and make it happen. It is imperative for Canada's national psyche to win gold on home ice in order to maintain ownership of hockey. Winning gold in Vancouver will ultimately be seen as the greatest hockey victory for Canada, surpassing the legendary 1972 Summit Series vs the former Soviet Union.
The pressure is immense for this very young and talented squad, and deservedly so. Team Canada has sent their version of the Dream Team on blades in the past, in 1998 and again in 2006 as defending gold medalists and both times came away empty. But this time it will not be the case for the Canadians.
Team Canada's edge is their depth at every position. In nets, Canada has the best triumvirate of goalies a coach could hope for. The odds-on favorite to see the most action has to be future Hall Of Famer, Martin Brodeur. The all-time leader in shut outs, wins and games played, Brodeur backstopped Team Canada in 2002 to their first Olympic Hockey gold after fifty years.
With three Stanley Cup rings, a ton of trophies and awards, Brodeur redefines the term "Being Money" every season. He thrives and is at his best, the more there is at stake.
Coach Mike Babcock can also call on Marc Andre Fleury, who anchored Pittsburgh's upset win of the Stanley Cup last June. Hometown Canuck goalie, Roberto Luongo got
a shut out in Canada's first match, facing only 15 shots in pummeling Norway, 8-0.
The defense corp for Team Canada is lead by the dynamic duo of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. Past Olympians and future Hockey Hall Of Famers, they will mete out a ton of punishment that few if any opponents will relish. The cadre of younger players signals a move by Team Canada to build a core group of players you can expect to see compete for them in the few Winter Olympics.
The forwards Team Canada brings to the tournament is led by face of the new NHL, Sydney Crosby. In only his third NHL season he lead Pittsburgh to an upset Stanley Cup win last June. Now he is being heavily relied upon to lead his country to Olympic gold. Though he's only 21 years old, don't bet against it.
CONTENDER: USA. Though they don't have the same motivations for gold as their hockey neighbors to the north, Team USA has plenty of impetus to stoke their Olympic flame. 2010 is the 30th anniversary of the the Lake Placid Olympic's "Miracle On Ice." They are also looking for pay back against Canada on their home ice for winning gold by beating the US in 2002 at the Salt Lake City games. Team USA also knows an Olympic gold in Hockey will propel the sport to the next level.
Anyone who doesn't think these reasons aren't a big deal deserves a one-way ticket to the minors. Had the "Miracle On Ice" not occurred in 1980, its unlikely Team USA would be were they are today in Vancouver. Beating Canada for the gold in front of their fans
and winning another hockey gold is as important to the sport as winning gold back in 1980. Back then only a handful of Americans were good enough to make it to the NHL.
Now more than 15% of NHL players are born in the USA.
Ryan Miller has been a stud in goal all season for the Buffalo Sabres and a big reason why they have exceeded expectations this season. If he continues to play like he has in nets for the US team, watch out! Like Team Canada, the US team is younger, but not to taken lightly. They are big, tough and physical.
CONTENDER: SWEDEN. The defending 2006 gold medalists bring back half the players that won the gold in Torino, to Vancouver. The Swedes are methodical, disciplined and have as much talent up front as Canada and Russia and that's saying a lot. The big question for Sweden is which Henrik Lundqvist will show up in nets? The guy who has struggled this season between the pipes for the New York Rangers, or the guy who won five games for his country en route to gold in Italy, in 2006.
This veteran team is not as high profile as some of the other top six teams, but with talent like Nicklas Backstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, the Sedin Twins, and Nicklas Lindstrom, and legend Peter Forsberg, Sweden is counting on their experience to repeat.
CONTENDER: RUSSIA. The Big Red Machine isn't the steamroller they used to be, having not won Olympic Hockey gold since 1992. But no one is looking forward to facing their top forwards: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin and Ilya Kovalchuk. The last time time they had this must talent up front, they were the USSR and featured the legendary Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, and Alexander Maltsev.
Russia's success may lay with their goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and not Evgeni Nabokov. Bryzgalov has been a break out star for the stability-challenged Phoenix Coyotes. Nabokov has been been stellar again this season for San Jose, but continues to come up short in the playoffs for the Sharks. Russia's defense isn't as strong as Team Canada's.
The X factor for Russia is their sense of history in being up for big games. Playing Team Canada is a given. But playing the US transcends hockey. Remember 1980?
DARK HORSE: CZECH REPUBLIC. This squad doesn't have to be the best or most talented team on the ice to win gold. Just score enough goals, avoid mistakes and get the same level of performance in nets from Tomas Vokoun that led to to the medal podium four years ago.
The Czechs can't go toe-to-toe with Canada, the US, or Russia but they will score goals and make their presence felt. Montreal Canadien Tomas Plekanec is a star on the rise and will center the Czech's top line. Former NHL'er Jaromir Jagr will play for the Czechs in his fourth Olympic Games.
DARK HORSE: FINLAND. Don't laugh but Finland is primed for an upset at Vancouver.
They surprised the hockey world by beating the US and Russia to advance to the gold medal game against hated rivals Sweden, going home with a silver medal. How good are the Finns this time around? Antero Niitymaki who was named the top goalie in the 2006 Torrino games, is the third-string goalie on this team.
Mikks Kiprusoff is having an MVP-type season for the Calgary Flames and he can be expected to up his game with so much on the line. Five of the top ten scorers at the 2006 Torino games were Finns and all five, Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Olli Jokinen, Jere Lehtinen, and Ville Peltonen are all back. But their biggest weapon might be Saku's kid brother Mikko Koivu who is averaging a point a game for the Minnesota Wild.
The only question about Finland is if they will be able to give Teemu Selanne a gold medal in his fifth and probably final Olympic Games.