Olympic Hockey Previews and Predictions
The finale of the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament set the ‘gold’ standard for all things North American hockey. Zach Parise tied the game at 2 with just 25 seconds left in regulation, but the US finally faltered in overtime thanks to a goal by the best player in the game, Sydney Crosby. This marked the second time in three Olympics that Canada defeated the US in the Gold Medal game.
One difference between those two occurrences that not many have mentioned is that the 2002 and 2010 Games were held on NHL-size ice, favoring the North American players. The 2006 tournament was won by Sweden in Turin, Italy… on the international-size rink. As a matter of fact, neither team has even medaled in the last two Olympics played on the international ice. Enter Sochi….
GROUP A: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has all but stated that these Olympics are a failure if the home team doesn’t win gold, so there is no question which team has the most pressure on them to perform. Should they succeed, they will move the needle with talk of the KHL being every bit as good as the NHL. This would be a farce on many levels, least of which is that 16 of the 25 players on the Russian roster are NHL’ers. Amongst the notable KHL stars are former Predators forward Alexander Radulov and recent NHL ‘retiree’ Ilya Kovalchuk. Russia will have some decisions to make as to who will start between the pipes between Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov, although I believe it’s a slam dunk to start the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Bobrovsky. Another question mark was the health of team captain and long-time Predator killer Pavel Datsyuk. Although he hasn’t practiced yet, he has stated he is ready to go on Thursday against Slovenia.
Slovenia has but one NHL player on their roster in Anze Kopitar, with Jan Mursak of the KHL being the only other skater of great significance. The rest of the roster is comprised of good players, but those of other European leagues and should not be a factor.
Slovakia is comprised of 14 NHL players and 8 KHL players. The most notable skater is the 6’9” beast of a defenseman known as Zdeno Chara. The Slovaks are a strong team, and with the potential of Jaroslav Halak in net to steal games, anything is possible with them. They have few top-end scorers aside from Marian Hossa, since Marian Gaborik is out due to injury. This team can’t be underestimated however as they finished with a strong 4th place finish in Vancouver, including an upset over Russia in the preliminaries and Sweden in the quarterfinals before being narrowly defeated in the semi-finals by eventual champion Canada.
The first team to face the upstart Slovaks will be the Americans. General Manager David Poile came under fire after announcing this roster last month. The last time they won gold, head coach Herb Brooks stated, “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones”, and this team certainly fits that mold with several snubs that had Poile and the rest of the committee answering questions. Amongst those not on the team… Keith Yandle, Dustin Byfuglien, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, and Kyle Okposo— but none of them were as big a shock as Bobby Ryan. Ryan has 21 goals and 22 assists this season for a very average Ottawa Senators team. Brian Burke publicly questioned Ryan’s intensity as one of the main factors for not choosing him. Ryan didn’t do himself any favors by scoring just 2 points in 6 games at the 2010 Olympics. This year’s version has a great combination of size, speed, grit and intensity. They will also have some chemistry built in on some of the forward lines with Blues teammates T.J. Oshie and David Backes, Rangers Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan, and Maple Leaf snipers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. The Americans also have leadership to spare with several NHL captains on the roster, eventually choosing Parise to lead the way. One of the primary reasons the US got a silver medal in Vancouver was the outstanding play of netminder Ryan Miller. They were the top seed out of the preliminary round and over 6 games, gave up only 9 goals. They really can’t afford to test the waters with anybody else in net with their two toughest preliminary games right out of the gate. That Vancouver experience, I believe makes Miller the front-runner to start in Sochi over Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick.
GROUP A PREDICTION: USA, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia
GROUP B: Two of the three medalists from Vancouver find themselves in the same group this year. The defending bronze medalist, Finland comes into the Sochi games with high hopes and stingy goaltending looking to medal for the 3rd straight Olympics, something they’ve never done. As a matter of fact, they are the only country to medal in the last two Olympics. They also have the unique distinction of bringing three completely different goaltenders to Sochi (Rask, Niemi, Lehtonen) than they had in Vancouver (Kiprusoff, Backstrom, Niittymaki). Before giving up 6 goals in their semifinal against the US, Finland had given up just 4 goals in 4 games. This team certainly has some age this time around with the likes of the “Finnish Flash” Teemu Selanne, Olli Jokinen, and former Predator Kimmo Timonen. The influx of youth could help them with 21-year old Mikael Granlund and 2013 top 5 pick Alexsander Barkov. Another familiar name to Preds enthusiasts is Antti Pihlstrom, who played 53 games for the club in the 08-09 season. They are not expected to have any problems in their first game against Austria, so I would expect them to look for the right line combinations to use for tougher games later in the tournament.
Austria has but 3 NHL’ers on their roster, and haven’t qualified for the Olympics since 2002 when they placed 12th. I wouldn’t expect much better results this time around as Michael Grabner, Thomas Vanek and Michael Raffl can only carry them so far.
Far be it from me to say there are two ‘cream-puffs’ in this group, but another team that is in over their heads is Norway. Their lone NHL skater is Mats Zuccarello, and only have 2 KHL-worthy players. They’ve never finished higher than 8th in any Olympics and I don’t expect them to do any better this time around either.
A team that should be playing as loose as anyone is defending gold medal champion Canada. They have it all… scoring, defense, goaltending, and maybe above all else… chemistry. The Canadians have no shortage of NHL teammates on their roster from the Penguins (Crosby/Kunitz), Blackhawks (Toews/Sharp/Keith), Ducks (Getzlaf/Perry), Kings (Carter/Doughty), Sharks (Marleau/Vlasic) and even a defensive pairing from the Blues (Bouwmeester/Pietrangelo). Obviously the most notable amongst Pred fans is defenseman and Canadian alternate captain Shea Weber. Team Canada Coach Mike Babcock has placed Weber on a pair with Blackhawks blueliner Duncan Keith for the time being. There is no word as to whether they have reinforced netting in Sochi as Weber comes from the Olympics in Vancouver where he famously ripped a slap shot through the net. On paper, Canada should be the odds on favorite to take home gold again, but with the pressure off their shoulders, they could be had.
GROUP B PREDICTION: Canada, Finland, Norway, Austria
GROUP C: The last group could be the most unpredictable of the three. The Czech Republic boasts a very formidable front line with names like David Krejci, Ales Hemsky, Tomas Plekanec and Jakub Voracek. They also have a good amount of elder statemen with 42-year old Petr Nedved, 37-year old Patrick Elias, and Jaromir Jagr who turns 42 on Saturday. The team also includes a couple former Predators in Marek Zidlicky and recently traded forward Martin Erat, who has accumulated all of one goal this season for Washington. Along with Zidlicky, the Czechs have the majority of their blueliners from the NHL. The only goaltender that plays in the NHL is Winnipeg starter Ondrej Pavelec. He is a middle of the road NHL goalie and doesn’t have the propensity to steal games. This could be the undoing for the Czechs, who have been longing for a true replacement to Dominik Hasek for years.
The first test for the Czechs don’t have such a goaltending problem, and that’s Team Sweden. Henrik Lundqvist led the Swedes to their second ever Olympic gold medal back in 2006. Though they may not be wearing red, you could very well see five Detroit players on the ice at the same time as Gustav Nyquist was added to the roster last week as an injury replacement. He along with teammates Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson hope to put Sweden back at the top of the podium. This team is chockfull of playmakers and have a great mix of experience and youth that is likely to give every team fits. Look for the Swedes to make some serious noise in Sochi.
The Swiss are a vastly improved team with 8 NHL players. They finished 2nd in last year’s World Championships, including victories over Canada and Sweden in the preliminaries, then defeating the US in the semifinals. Unfortunately, they have yet to show similar success on the Olympic stage, not placing higher than 6th since 1952. Many Preds fans will pull for the Swiss with forward Simon Moser and defenseman Roman Josi on the roster, but it is unlikely to see them get past the quarterfinal stage. Jonas Hiller, as we saw in Nashville Saturday, can steal a game when he’s on, and will be the key to them possibly pulling off an upset in this group against the Czechs.
Finally we come to Team Latvia. There really isn’t much to say here aside from them being the sacrificial lamb of the group. Even if Arturs Irbe walked in that locker room, there’s nothing to see here. They have finished 12th each of the last two Olympics, and 9th in 2002. The good news for them is that they hadn’t qualified for 50 years before that, so on some level, there are signs of improvement.
GROUP C PREDICTION: Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia