2010 Olympic hockey preview

Make no mistake, hockey is the sport to watch at the Winter Olympics. Don’t believe me? The last gold medals to be awarded in Vancouver are in hockey. An estimated 75 percent of the population of Canada will watch the men’s gold medal game if the Canadian team is in it, making the Super Bowl’s 50 percent in America look like a joke.

To say the United States and Canada are the favorites on the women’s side is an understatement. When the U.S. lost to Sweden in the semifinal of the 2006 tournament, it was the first time either the U.S. or Canada had lost (other than to each other) in international competition.

The U.S. team has two goaltenders with which Mercyhurst fans are all too familiar. Brianne McLaughlin was the goalie for Robert Morris the last couple years, and she had more than a couple great games against us in that time. Jessie Vetter, from the University of Wisconsin, shut us out last year in the National Championship game, and I hope she plays that well in Vancouver.

For the Canadian team, Meghan Agosta is representing her country and Mercyhurst in her quest for a second gold medal. I don’t have to tell you to watch, on national TV, somebody who goes to Mercyhurst.

On the men’s side, let’s start with those teams that don’t have any chance whatsoever of getting a medal. Norway, Switzerland, Latvia, Germany, and Belarus should already book their return flights for after the preliminary rounds.

Now to the good teams of the Big 7 that can’t compete with the best of the best. The Czech Republic is living off the fumes of their gold medal in Nagano. Tomas Vokoun is not Dominic Hasek, and 2010 Jaromir Jagr is not 1998 Jaromir Jagr. The Czech defense is solid, and the offense is nice on paper, but I just don’t think they have what it takes.

Slovakia is thinner up front but with better big names: Jaroslav Halak, Marion Hossa, Marion Gaborik, and Zdeno Chara, just to name a few. However, the depth just isn’t there like the four juggernauts of 2010.

Finally, Finland tries to build on their silver medal from Torino. With solid goaltending (Niklas Backstrom and Antero Niittymaki), brotherly love (the Ruutus and Koivus), Teemu Selanne, and the
“-nens” (Kukkonen, Pitkanen, Timonen, Immonen, Jokinen, Kapanen, Lehtinen, Miettinen, Peltonen), Finland could definitely make a run.

The Bronze Medal Game: USA vs. Sweden. Sweden is here by virtue of the top two teams being so utterly dominant. The Swedes boast roughly the same lineup as that in 2006, minus Mikael Samuelsson, who was less than pleased about not being chosen (read his comments, they’re stunning http://www.thelocal.se/24104/20091229/). Sweden packs a punch with depth, talent and teamwork. Henrik Lundqvist, one of the biggest reasons Sweden won gold in Torino, is back in net and ready to stand on his head for two weeks straight. The defense is probably the second best in the world, sporting puck-movers like Nicklas Lidstrom, Tobias Enstrom and Matias Ohlund, and bruisers like Douglas Murray and Nicklas Kronwall. The forwards are amazing, with guys like Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Backstrom, along with the Sedin twins and a supporting cast of largely recognizable NHL regulars. Special mention to Peter Forsberg, my favorite forward of all time, who made it back from his 9,000th injury to play in Vancouver.

The U.S. is my dark horse for the Olympics mainly because there are so few guys with experience on the team. However, that’s half the reason why this may just work. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Chris Drury, and alternate captain Brian Rafalski are the only players with Olympic experience, and baby-faced newcomers and Tim Thomas fill out the rest of the roster. This team doesn’t have the skill that the other teams have, but they make up for it in sheer grit. Playing on NHL-sized ice at the Olympics helps the North American teams in that they are used to playing on it and there is less space for the talented European squads to utilize. The blue line will look for Rafalski, Ryan Suter and Erik Johnson to provide offense, while Tim Gleason and Brooks Orpik will aim to check opponents into next month. Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek both have injuries that will keep them from playing in Vancouver, so Gleason and Ryan Whitney will compete in their place. Despite Canadian media claims that Zach Parise is the only American good enough to play for the Canadian team, the U.S. top two lines are nothing to laugh at. I’m guessing Parise, Paul Stastny and Patrick Kane/Phil Kessel will man the top line, with Dustin Brown, Drury and Kane/Kessel powering the second line. The third and fourth lines consist of almost entirely sandpaper type, gritty, in-your-face, ham-and-egger players: David Backes, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Kesler, Langenbrunner, Ryan Malone, Joe Pavelski, and Bobby Ryan round out the roster. Coach Ron Wilson may try to keep Parise and Langenbrunner together because they play on the same line in New Jersey, but I think Parise will get better chances with Kane or Kessel on the off-wing. If the European teams can’t get away from the American hitters, Ryan Miller continues to be the best goalie in the world, and they have a little luck, the American squad may just find themselves with some heavy metal to bring home to the states.

The Gold Medal Game: If someone tells you Canada and Russia won’t be here after looking at the teams on paper, they’re lying. The only weakness in either of these teams (and I’m making a stretch to call it a weakness) is the Russian defense. Russian GM Vladislav Tretiak (sounds familiar, right? He was the Soviet goalie for the Miracle on Ice in 1980) constructed a back line with Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar as the big names and Anton Volchenkov, Denis Grebeshkov, Dmitri Kalinin, Fedor Tyutin, Ilya Nikulin, and Konstantin Korneyev filling it out. What the Russian team lacks in defense, though, they make up for in offense. A first line of Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alex Ovechkin drives hockey fans insane just imagining it. After that, it’s a bunch of no-name players like Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov, Alex Semin, Alex Radulov, Aleksy Morozov, Viktor Kozlov, and Max Afinogenov. While Ovechkin will likely play with Semin and Fedorov considering they all played for the Caps the past few years, the first powerplay unit will almost certainly feature the aforementioned dream line. The Russian goalies are as solid as any, with Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov holding the starting and backup positions, respectively.

Canada has easily the best roster in the world, and they’re playing on home ice with the entire nation rooting for them. The only thing against them is the unfathomable pressure to win gold. Anything less is a national crisis, and if you think I’m kidding, ask one of the players from Canada on the Mercyhurst hockey teams. Marc-Andre Fleury will never see a game barring an injury to starter Martin Brodeur and backup Roberto Luongo (yes, backup Roberto Luongo). The defense could shut out most NHL teams and still have enough time to score three goals: Dan Boyle, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, captain Scott Niedermayer, alternate captain Chris Pronger, Brent Seabrook and Shea Weber. Seeing the forwards makes me giddy with excitement. Sidney Crosby will likely center Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash on the first line. The second line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley comes prefabricated from the San Jose Sharks. The third line will likely be Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Eric Staal, and the fourth line rounds out the roster with Mike Richards, Brenden Morrow and Jonathan Toews. Patrice Bergeron could slip in for Staal or any of the fourth line guys, but I doubt he’d crack the top two lines and is really only there if a player gets injured and because of his two-way versatility. There are some lines that could be shifted around, but I expect Mike Babcock to keep Marleau-Thornton-Heatley and Perry-Getzlaf together because chemistry is so important in a short tournament format.

On paper, this is how I think the Winter Olympics will play out in hockey. However, stranger things have happened like the Belarus-Sweden upset of 2002 or the Miracle on Ice in 1980. On an interesting American side note, Brooks Orpik was named after 1980 US Olympic coach Herb Brooks. In a practical sense, that probably means nothing at all, but it’s interesting nonetheless.