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The view from Vail: Breaking down men’s hockey

Gary Defina
Vail, CO Colorado
FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010 file photo, Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, runs into Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, in Washington. Since Jan. 1, Ovechkin and Crosby are the NHL's two most productive goal scorers with 16 goals each through Tuesday's games. It's the perfect scenario for the NHL, which is shutting down for two weeks to showcase its stars on a world stage and obviously wants its best playing at their best. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
AP | FR596 AP

Hockey fans, hold onto your hats, or get ready to throw them onto the ice if you are a fan of the high-flying Russian team. The men’s tournament begins Tuesday, and we should see some of the best hockey ever played.

This year’s games will be played at GM Place (aka Hockey Place), an NHL-sized sheet of ice, not the wider Olympic sized surface. Personally, I am a fan of the NHL dimensions. Games on the wider sheet seem resemble no check games at times, and that is not hockey the way it was meant to be played.

Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the USA-Canada final of the World Junior Championship (under 20) last month got a taste of some great international hockey. The United States won that game, and also won the World U-18 championship as well. Can they complete the sweep this year in the Olympics?

Although they are a serious contender, the Americans will certainly have their work cut out for them, battling defending Olympic gold -medalist Sweden, the high scoring Russians, defending silver- medalist Finland, and of course the Canadian squad. Regardless of how the U.S. squad finishes in Vancouver, the future certainly looks bright for USA hockey.

Those five teams seem to have separated themselves from the pack, and should be battling for the medals. Rounding out the “Big Seven” are the Czech Republic and Slovakia, although both seem to have taken a step back in recent years. The rest of the 12 team field consists of Switzerland, Germany, Belarus, Norway and Latvia. The preliminary round groups look like this:

Group A: Canada, United States, Switzerland, Norway

Group B: Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia

Group C: Sweden, Finland, Belarus, Germany

Let’s take a look at the field team by team. We’ll do six nations today and the other six Monday.

Belarus

Led by the Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei and Sergei, along with Mikhail Grabovski, this team at least has some scoring ability up front. Injuries to those players may be an issue however. Avalanche defenseman Ruslan Salei leads the back end. Goalie Andrei Mezin is capable. This team has pulled off upsets is prior Olympics, and may play spoiler in this tournament.

PREDICTION: Ninth Place

Canada

Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman undoubtedly had the toughest job picking his team, with the depth the Canadians have. Canada could probably field two teams that could compete for a medal.

Four years ago in Italy, Team Canada did not gel at all, had trouble scoring goals, especially on the power play, and paid for it with a seventh-place finish. Anything less than a gold medal this time will be a disappointment.

Yzerman addressed the chemistry problem by including players from the same NHL squads, hoping the short time together will not be a factor. Most of the teams in the Olympics will have only one practice together before games begin. San Jose forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley will most likely play together, as will Chicago defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.

All eyes will be on coach Mike Babcock to see which goaltender he will call on, Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo. Look for Brodeur and his three Stanley Cups and one gold medal to get the call first. Sidney Crosby has been on a roll leading up to his first Olympic games, and of course will be one to watch.

One interesting aspect of the Canadian roster is that of the 13 forwards, eight are centers, so several will be asked to move to the wing for the team. How this plays out will have a lot to do with Canada’s prospects for gold.

The rabid Canadian fans will help this team for sure. If you are a hockey fan and have never been to a game in Canada, you need to do so. The Olympics being in Vancouver will only take that to another level.

KEY STAT: Canada’s roster has nine players who are captains of their NHL teams.

PREDICTION: Gold medal

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic took home the bronze medal in Italy, but will find this year much more difficult. Having said that, this team has a gold and bronze in the last three Olympics, making it the most successful team since NHL players have been participating.

Unfortunately for this year, the Avalanche’s Milan Hejduk and Ales Hemsky of the Edmonton Oilers are out with injuries. Taking the top-two scorers off of any team’s roster poses a big problem.

Jaromir Jagr will have to come up big, along with Patrik Elias and Martin Havlat. Tomas Plekanec is having a terrific year in Montreal. The defense is led by Tomas Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky, but I cannot explain why Radim Vrbata and Roman Hamrlik are not on this team. The streaky Tomas Vokoun will man the nets, and he will need to be great with the lack of depth on defense.

KEY STAT: 38-year-old Jaromir Jagr has 1,599 NHL career points, the most of any player in this Olympics.

PREDICTION: Seventh place

Germany

Marco Sturm brings speed and scoring up front, along with Marcel Goc and Jochen Hecht. Christian Ehrhoff and Dennis Seidenberg patrol the blue line. Thomas Greiss has international experience in the net. Coached by former Avalanche defenseman Uwe Krupp, the Germans will try to play as defensively as they can to make up for a lack of scoring and experience.

PREDICTION: Tenth place

Finland

Finland surprised many by winning a silver medal in 2006, led by Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.

The good news is both have returned from injuries this season and should be good to go for the games. The bad news is they are still the two leaders of this team at 39-years-old ( Selanne) and 35 (Koivu). Saku’s younger brother Mikko will have to pick up the slack, and is having a great year in Minnesota.

Finland is set in net, with Niklas Backstom and Mikka Kiprusoff. Expect Kiprusoff to get the first shot. The defense is not spectacular outside of Kimmo Timonen, so the goaltenders will have to be great. Up front there are lots of good two-way forwards, but no real snipers. This team will be in tough to claim another medal.

KEY STAT: This is the oldest team in the tournament, with an average age of 30.7.

PREDICTION: Fifth place

Latvia

Although the Latvians may be a little better than Norway, they are in that same brutal Group B with Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Former Avalanche defenseman Karlis Skrastins will captain this team, and they will certainly play defense-first hockey.

Young winger Martins Karsums will have to supply some offense. Most of the team plays for Dynamo Riga, a team in the Russian KHL that is not having a good year. The Latvians are in a tough spot to avoid relegation.

PREDICTION: 12th place

Gary Defina is the coach of Battle Mountain hockey, a longtime player as well and a diehard Colorado Avs fan. Defina will be breaking down all the hockey action from the Olympics in next few weeks.


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