Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Slightly Biased Olympic Preview, Part Deux

It would be easy to look at the Olympic men’s hockey tournament on paper and come up with a preview and predictions. Just going by the seedings and analyzing raw talent, it wouldn’t be difficult to hand the gold to Canada, the silver to Russia and the bronze to Sweden. Or you could just draw those three team’s names out of a hat and place them in any order and probably have as good of a chance as anyone of predicting the final outcome. But that’s not fun, and I guarantee you that at least one of those teams does not medal.

Other than the United States, those three teams have rosters stacked full of more NHL talent than any of their competitors. Only the U.S. and Canada have lineups completely comprised of NHL-level players, but clearly Canada, Russia and Sweden have more seasoned, elite NHL and international veterans than the young up-and-coming Americans – or anyone else in the field. Canada has the deepest squad, Russia has the most skilled and explosive group and Sweden is the most balanced.

Canada, Russia and Sweden justifiably are the tournament’s top-three seeds, in that order, followed by Finland, the Czech Republic, the U.S., Switzerland and Slovakia. The Fins, Czechs and Americans all look to be at about the same level, with Slovakia just behind them in terms of talent. Finland and the Czechs have more international experience than the U.S., but American head coach Ron Wilson has a young, talented and energetic group that is solid at both ends of the ice. That’s just the kind of team the dry-witted, oft-sarcastic but well-prepared Wilson can help overachieve.

Switzerland only has two NHL players on its roster, but the Swiss have played spoiler in the past and have one of the league’s top young netminders in Jonas Hiller, who just happens to be one of the only goalies in the tournament playing well as his team prepares to get the Olympic hockey competition started today with a 3 p.m. tilt vs. the U.S. in Vancouver.

Hiller provides an important segue at this point. You can’t simply look at talent to predict the outcome of a short tournament with a one-and-done playoff format. This isn’t the Stanley Cup playoffs, where a more talented team can fall behind two games to none and then grind out a six- or seven-game series victory. Teams get three games in the preliminary round to mesh and get to know one another before being reshuffled into a single-elimination playoff.

If a goaltender such as Hiller catches lightning in a bottle for one game, a team and nation such as Canada can see its gold medal hopes dashed just like that. Each of the top eight teams in the draw has enough NHL and international experience – and the type of goaltending – to beat any other team on a given day or night. Just look at the NHL: The talent is distributed widely enough that the top teams have to be on top of their games almost every night or they can easily fall to any opponent. This tournament is no different – except that it is played on an international stage and that one loss can lead to four years of nationwide disappointment.

Two intriguing teams flying below the radar are the United States and Sweden. Russia and Canada appropriately have been propped up at the top of the field, but the U.S. and Sweden are lurking as potential sleepers. Sweden shouldn’t be a sleeper, having won the gold in 2006, but the Swedes just aren’t getting the attention given to the Russians and Canadians. For pure hockey excitement, many purists are hoping for the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup in the gold medal game, which certainly would be a classic, but there is a tremendous amount of pressure on those two teams. That type of pressure can have a tremendous impact on athletes of any skill level – especially in a one-and-done situation.

Sweden has an incredibly talented team that possesses great skill and is committed to playing both ends of the ice. The Swedes also have a netminder, Henrik Lundqvist, who loves the big stage. He’s been inconsistent this year for the Rangers, but to steal a quote about Jim Craig from Herb Brooks, “Have you ever seen him when his game is on?” The Swedes just might have the best combination of talent, experience and two-way players in the tournament. In the past you might say that the smooth-skaters from Sweden would be at a disadvantage playing on the smaller NHL-sized rink, but nearly all of these players are used to the day-to-day rigors of life in the NHL.

That will not be an issue this year for them, just like it won’t be for the Russians. For my money, it’s really hard to bet against a lineup that includes seasoned Stanley Cup winners such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen sprinkled with younger stars such as the Sedin twins, Niklas Backstrom, Loui Eriksson, Patrick Hornqvist and Toby Enstrom. Throw in Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Forsberg, two of the most dominant players in the world for the past decade, and it’s hard to bet against the Swedes. Their biggest advantages may just be their even-keeled approach as a unit and the relatively low expectations. And keep in mind that there will be very little adjustment period for this group, many of whom have competed together many times dating back to their junior years.

The Americans have gone with a youth movement, leaving them in a similar position as the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, which was picked by many to finish as low as seventh before shocking the world exactly 30 years ago this month.

That role is perfect for Wilson, who guided the 1996 U.S. team to an upset victory at the World Cup and led the fourth-seeded Washington Capitals to a surprising Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Wilson is a straight shooter with a sharp tongue and a quick wit. His style can wear on veteran players over an extended period of time, but with this young group he may have the perfect approach. Wilson is a preparation freak who will keep his team loose and allow them to bond on and off the ice. There is no question he will be prepared – probably over-prepared.

Yesterday, instead of practicing as a team, Wilson held a long team meeting – no doubt to make sure that his players understand exactly what he expects from them and to pound home the style and systems that he thinks will give them the best chance to succeed. He knows these guys have been skating hard since NHL training camp in September and have had 60 games in a little more than four months jammed down their throats. Many of them played two games in three days leading up to the Olympics and then had to travel cross-continent to get to Vancouver. In his mind, an extra day of rest paired with an in-depth skull session was more important to his young group than skating. I think under the circumstances I would concur. The team isn’t going to play any better together after a 75-minute skate, so why not make sure that they all are on the same page. Wilson isn’t afraid to go against the grain, which is precisely what makes him a good fit for this team.

His most important decision will be who to play in goal. He has given the job to Ryan Miller, who was the NHL’s best netminder through 45 games before struggling in the last month or so. Is Miller tired from playing so many games in Buffalo? Maybe. But Wilson is hoping that perhaps Miller was looking ahead to the Olympics and will be in the proper mental frame of mind as the Games begin. If Miller struggles in the opening contest, Wilson has the luxury of taking a look at Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina winner who has also been inconsistent this season, or wild card Jonathan Quick of the Kings, who arguably has been the NHL’s hottest goalie in the past month. Quick has been playing well enough to take this team a long way and should be Wilson’s choice if Miller falters.

A lot will be gleaned from today’s opening matchup with the Swiss. The youthful Americans will have some nervous energy to get out of their system, but if Miller plays well and the U.S. can grind out a workmanlike victory, the Americans will be in a great position going forward. On the other hand, if they play tight and Miller struggles, it could be difficult for them to recover.

Seasoned veterans such as Bryan Rafalski, Chris Drury (a big-game player who has been very inconsistent since signing with the Rangers) and Jamie Langenbrunner will need to provide veteran leadership for a roster full of young players who are just beginning to make names for themselves. Look for Phil Kessel to show the world what the folks in Toronto already have learned – that he is a poor man’s Alex Ovechkin without the physical edge – and for youngsters such as Zach Parise, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Callahan and Patrick Kane to open eyes with their speed and skill. A solid opening-night performance, along with Wilson’s proclivity for bringing teams together quickly and a roster that has speed and two-way ability, gives the U.S. a legitimate shot at a medal.

Don’t count out Finland, the fourth seed, either. You never can rule out a group of superior goaltenders such as Niklas Backstrom, Mikka Kiprusoff and journeyman Antero Niittymaki, who has been playing very well of late. The Fins usually are a physical group that is solid defensively. Their style and experience will be a nice fit on the smaller ice surface.

The Czechs are a talented team, but will be hard-pressed to emulate the success they enjoyed early in the decade when Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr were in their primes. Slovakia is a team that has the ability to be a big surprise if the other more highly touted nations treat them lightly. A lot will depend on a solid, but unspectacular goaltending trio that includes Montreal up-and-comer Jaroslav Halak, and whether Zdeno Chara can return to his Norris Trophy form of a year ago. The health of recently injured Marian Gaborik also will play a big role in determining the fate of the Slovaks.

Now, on to the favorites. Canada is stacked and should not have to deal with the offensive struggles that plagued its 2006 Olympic performance. Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatly, Jerome Iginia, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Mkie Richards, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton, and the list goes on – what an incredible combination of speed, skill, grit and playmaking ability. Combine that with several character guys who will battle and play both ends – along with budding superstar Jonathan Toews – and you have a recipe for success. On the defensive end, however, and in goal – oddly enough – is where I think the Canadians may struggle a bit.

Normally if you have Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo in net you are set for about 80 games of outstanding netminding. Both have struggled of late, however, and each one will get a shot to prove something in the team’s first two contests. On the blue line, veteran Stanley Cup winner Scott Niedermayer is being counted on to provide leadership for youngsters such as Drew Doughty and Shea Weber. Niedermayer has seen his better days – even he says so - and quite frankly will struggle against speed-oriented lineups. Chris Pronger was the NHL’s best defenseman 10 years ago. His best years have passed him by as well. Weber and Doughty have never played under the type of pressure they will face in Vancouver. That leaves talented blueliners Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Dan Boyle, players with limited international experience, to step up and become the next wave of elite Canadian defensemen. Surely this is a talented group, but their success is not a slam dunk by any means.

When I first looked at the Russian lineup I wondered aloud who could possibly shut it down. What a combination of speed and skill, along with some wily, battle-tested vets. Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin, Semin, Datsyuk and Fedorov. Wow. What a mix! It will be interesting to see the makeup of their third and fourth lines and how tough those trios can play along the boards, in front of the opposing net and in their own end.

Upon first glance, the Russian defense seems to have some holes. I really thought there could be some issues along the blue line, but those fears were eased somewhat after I watched Anton Volchenko block 11 shots against the Caps last week. Volchenkov is a quite a talent, even though he is a relative unknown toiling in Ottawa. Now, however, the uncertainty of stalwart backliner Andrei Markov’s health casts some doubt on the Russian unit. I’m just not sure that players such as Fedor Tyutin, Ilya Nikulin, Denis Grebeshkov, Dmitri Kalinin and Konstantin Korneyev can match up with the talent of some possessed by some of the forwards they will face. Certainly Sergei Gonchar will be a steadying influence on the blue line, but if Markov is not 100 percent, this team will struggle in its own end. Gonchar also has a tendency to be careless with the puck in his when under heavy pressure.

Of course the Russians will be able to run and gun their way past some of the lesser teams and probably would be able to pound a team like Finland, Switzerland or Slovakia into submission with their offensive ability. They may be in for a surprise, however, against teams that are solid at both ends and have some talent up front.

To predict the results of an elite-level hockey tournament such as the Olympics, you have to really look at each team game-by-game. I look for Canada to edge the U.S. by a couple goals in the key Group A matchup while rolling through its other two preliminary contests. The Americans will get off to a strong start vs. the Swiss and handle Norway easily.

In Group B, Russia will take care of the Czechs and get a tough battle form the Slovaks, rallying to edge them by a goal. Slovakia will win the swing game against the Czechs, and all three teams will handle Latvia with relative ease.

Group C will feature the preliminary-round’s biggest upset, with Germany handing the Fins a low-scoring loss. Sweden will best Finland by a pair and easily take care of Belarus and Germany. That will leave the surprising German’s with a 2-1 record in the opening round.

Qualification Round: Slovakia vs. Latvia, Finland vs. Switzerland, Czech Republic vs. Belarus, Germany vs. Norway. Winners – Slovakia, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany.

Quarterfinal Round: Slovakia vs. Sweden, Finland vs. U.S., Canada vs. Czech Republic, Russia vs. Germany.

Sweden fights past the Slovaks in one of the best games of the tournament, winning by a goal. The U.S. beats Finland in a shootout. Canada buries the Czechs. Russia rolls.

Semifinal Round: Sweden vs. U.S., Canada vs. Russia.

Sweden’s experience is just too much for the Americans, who fall by a pair on a late empty-netter. We get the matchup that everyone wanted between Canada and Russia, and the Russians win it in an epic shootout.

Bronze Medal Game: U.S. vs. Canada. The overachieving U.S. team jumps out to an early lead against the deflated Canadians, but the Vancouver crowd brings their boys back into the game, but it’s not enough. The real Ryan Miller stands up, then stands on his head, and holds off the rallying Canadians. A U.S. empty-netter seals the upset win.

Gold Medal Game: Sweden vs. Russia. Sweden holds off Russia’s early attack and then systematically wears down the Russian defense en route to a 5-3 win and a sescond consecutive gold medal.

There you have it. These predictions are intended only for your enjoyment, are guaranteed to anger you and should not be the basis for any wager – monetary or otherwise. Let me state this condition, however: If the U.S. manages to beat the Canadians in the preliminary round, I give the edge to Canada if the two countries meet a second time in the playoffs. Enjoy the tournament!

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