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                                     2010 Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Preview

                                

 

Lets start with a quick look at the format, because the format will play a key role in this tournament.

Format:

The twelve teams in the men's event will be split into three groups of four teams.  In the preliminary round, each team will play the other three teams in their group once, so each team plays a total of three preliminary round games.  Following the completion of the preliminary round, all teams will be ranked 1 through 12 based on points.  The top four ranked teams will receive byes to the quarterfinals, with the remaining eight teams playing for the remaining four quarterfinal positions.  It is extremely important to be ranked high, because the number one seed will play the lowest ranked team in the quarterfinals, and of the eight teams in the quarterfinals, a projected seven will be real strong and there will be only one weak team.  Following that, the final 8 teams will compete in a playoff to determine the gold medalist.

Note: Each team is allowed to have 20 skaters and up to three goaltenders, all of whom must be citizens of the country they represent.

 

Now that the format is out of the way, lets take a look at each of the three groups and the four teams in each group individually.

Group A:

If I were to rank the three groups in order, I would rank Group A as the number two seed.  It is led by powerhouse Canada, then medal contending USA, and followed by the Swiss and Norwegians.  Lets break down each team individual.

Norway

The Norwegians have not qualified once since NHL players have entered the Olympics, so this is their first time qualifiying for the Mens Ice Hockey at the Olympic games since 1994, when they finished 11th.  In fact, the highest they have ever finished in an Olympic competition for Mens Ice hockey was 8th in '72, and they have never medaled in a World Championship either.  Norway is clearly the weak link of Group A.  Their roster this year around consists of exaclty one player playing in North America, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.  Don't expect too much from this team.

Switzerland

The Swiss are a stronger team than Norway, but will be hard pressed for a medal.  Switzerland has not won a medal at a major ice hockey tournament since a bronze medal at the '53 World Championships.  But, Switzerland is currently ranked 7th in the IIHF World Rankings.  Last Olympics they finished 6th (higher than the Canadians) and were led by great goaltending.  In the preliminary round they shocked the World when they upset the Canadians 2-0, with Gerber stopping all 49 shots he faced.  Gerber will be returning as the backup for these Olympics, but he wont have any impact this time around.

In '06, both David Aebischer and Martin Gerber played terrific, and for the Swiss to have any impact in the 2010 games, they will need the same from Jonas Hiller.  I believe that Jonas Hiller is fully capable of stealing games for the Swiss, he is just that type of goalie.  Hiller this season is posting his second straight .919 SV% campaign, and has a career .921 SV%.  Last season, we all witnessed Hiller steal a playoff series against one of the best teams in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks, and he followed that up by pushing the Detroit Red Wings to the edge, and in his great playoff run he posted an unbelievable .943 SV% and a 2.23 GAA!

But, for the Swiss to win games, you will have to score.  The Swiss offence is led by a defenceman, powerplay specialist Mark Streit.  Streit is the captain, and one of the best powerplay quaterbacks in the NHL, in fact on a bad NYI team he has 38 points in 60 games, and last season he had 56 points in 74 games.  Among the fowards, the Swiss have no NHL players, and will try to play an extremely defensive game and cash in on their few chances they get. 

United States of America

After a disappointing 8th place finish in Torino, the USA will look bounce back to their '02 form when they won Silver and they will try to do this with a youth movement.  The States will be led by Ryan Miller between the pipes, and he should be an improvement between the pipes after the last two Olympics having John Grahame and Mike Dunham.  This season Ryan Miller has a league leading .931 SV% and a great 2.15 GAA.  However, Ryan Miller has cooled off during the last ten games, maybe because of fatigue since he has played in 50 of his teams 58 games.  As I said, he has cooled off in his last ten games, posting a .908 SV% and going 2-6-2, clearly a far drop off from the rest of his season.  But if Miller can't get it done, the Americans have last seasons Vezina winning goalie backing him up, in Tim Thomas.

On defence, the Americans will give large minutes to Brain Rafalski and Ryan Suter as their top defenceman, especially after Paul Martin and Mike Komiserak were forced to drop out due to injury.  The Americans definitley don't have the strongest defence core, but it will have to do.

Up front, the Americans are real young, and have a extremley skilled set of top six forwards, and some physical bottom six.  They have skilled wingers in Parise, Kessel, Ryan, and Kane who can score with the best of them.  The bottom six forwards include physical players that still have a great skill set, and will get in the other teams best players face, led by Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Malone, and David Backes.  But, the United States real weakness is centre.  They do have one legit scoring centre in Paul Statsny (who can rake up the assists but struggles to put the puck in the back of the net), but after that they don't have much depth.  The other centres include Ryan Kesler, who can score but will most likely be on a shutdown duty against the other teams best lines, Chris Drury, who only has 20 points in 55 games, and finally Joe Pavelski, who will be the number two centre and has 16 goals, 35 points in 45 games.  The US is really going to relay on their goaltending and scoring wingers.

Canada

The favourites in this tournament will face all the pressure in the world.  After being on top of the World in '02 the Canadians crashed back to earth in '06 with a 7th place finish.  The only player to really show up to the games in '06 was Martin Brodeur.  Ever since that 7th place finish, Canada has been looking towards the games in Vancouver.  Canada Place (aka GM Place) will be rocking, and will give Canada a clear home ice advantage.  There is no question Canada has more depth than any other team in these games.

The masked men for Canada will be Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, and Marc-Andre Fleury.  Broduer will most likely be the starter, and he has more experience than any other player in these games.  Brodeur has the NHL all-time win and shutout record, to go with his three Stanley Cups and a pair of great Olympics under his belt.  Broduer not only has the edge of Luongo in these Olympics because of his expeirence, but also because he is a great puck handler, (and remember their is no trapezoid in these games), and his head coach, Lemaire, is an assistant coach for Team Canada.  Broduer this season has a .916 SV% and a 2.28 GAA.  Luongo will more than likely get at least one start, and his SV% is .919 and he has a 2.33 GAA.

Canada will have the best defence at these Olympics.  Canada has 7 defenceman that can log big minutes, and play a shutdown role or play the powerplay.  The powerplay will most likely be quaterbacked by Dan Boyle / Scott Niedermayer and Shea Weber, and they will provide the offence from the backend.  To shutdown the best players in the tournament, Canada will likely go with any of the pairs, but I feel that Keith and Seabrook will get the nod to stop the other teams best because they are great at both ends of the ice, while Weber will be paired with Niedermayer (questionable this season in his own end)  and Pronger will be paired with Boyle (solid defensively, but not the best).

Canada will be deep up front and will have four scoring lines.  He is just a quick projections of the forward combinations:

                                            Staal - Crosby - Bergeron

                                           Nash - Getzlaf - Perry

                                      Marleau - Thornton - Heatley

                                       Morrow - Richards - Iginla

                                                     Toews

Bergeron and Crosby have great chemistry from the World Juniors in North Dakota, and Bergeron on that line will make it great defensively as well as on offence.  Eric Staal on has been on a tear after his slow start, and can dominate any game and take it over.  The second line consists of great size and skill.  All three players are big and great around the net, they provide a great net presence and have a great skill set.  The second line may turn out to be Canada's best line, and they have shown they can get it done in the playoffs.  The third line is the real question mark of team Canada, Marleau and Thornton have both really struggled in the playoffs and under the big time pressure, but you can't leave off two players that have been in the top five of goal scoring and points all season.  However, although this line has struggled in the playoffs, both Thornton and Marleau have had great success in international events (Thornton 27 points in 27 games).  Heatley has been one of Canada's best goal scoring wingers over the last 5+ years.  The fourth line is a great physical line that can provide lots of offence, kill penalties, shutdown players, and just plain out pound the other team.  Iginla will be on the fourth line because of his physical presnece, and not on the top line because during the orentiation camp him and Crosby had zero chemistry.  Canada should have no shortage of offence.

Note: Getzlaf injured his ankle, MRIs came back negative, will try to play Saturday for the Ducks and prepares to head to the Olympics.  Jeff Carter has been phoned and asked if he can come to Vancouver with the team in case Getzlaf can't go.

 

Group B:

In my mind this is the strongest group.  It consists of a powerhouse in Russia, a Czech team that is always strong, a big sleeper in the Slovakians, and the weaklink is a solid weak link in Latvia.  I don't expect Russia to finish as the number one seed coming out of the group stage because this group is so strong.  So lets get into this:

Lativa

Last Olympics Lativa qualified, but finished dead last coming in 12th out of the 12 teams.  Latvia has no real stars up front or in the net, and don't have any great defenceman.  However, Lativa does have two NHLers, both on the backend, Karlis Skrastins of the Dallas Stars, and Oskars Bartulis of the Flyers.  I wont be surprised if Lativa even gets any wins in the Olympics, but they will put up a strong fight against anyone.

Slovakia

My dark horse for the games is this Slovakian team, a team that finised 5th last games.  This team has a solid mix of veterans and young guns, and has tons of threats.  But, lets start with the Slovak goalie.  The goalie for Slovaks is Jaroslav Halak, who has played great for the Canadiens, posting a .927 SV% and a 2.45 GAA, while going 17-9-2 on a weak Canadien team.  Halak will provide solid goaltending in net.

On defence, the Slovaks will have one of the best, if not the best shutdown pairs with reining Norris winner Zdeno Chara being teamed up with defensive defenceman Andrej Meszaros.  With Halak and this pairing, the top lines will find a hard time scoring.  To quarterback the powerplay with Chara, the Slovaks will have Lubomir Visnovsky, who when healthy is an elite offensive defenceman.  The other four defenceman on the Slovaks are nothing great, but solid.

The Slovaks have some great forwards that can score at will.  The top scorers for the Slovaks will be NHL superstars in Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik.  These two right wingers can score, and score often.  The Slovaks also have Handzus, Satan, Demitra, and Zednik up front.  But, keep an eye on Ziggy Palffy, yes that Ziggy Palffy, the man you spent 11 seasons in the NHL and had three 40+ goal seasons in the NHL, and six 30+ goal seasons.  He hasn't played in the NHL the last two seasons, nor four of the last five, but he has stayed in shape playing Europe.  I really like this Slovakian team, keep an eye on the.

Czech Republic

We all remember Hasek's great performance to clitch the Czech their greatest hockey victory ever in the '98 Olympics when they captured Gold at Nagano.  Since, not much has happened for the Czech national team.

Like the '98 team was led by Hasek's goaltending, the 2010 team will be led by Tomas Vokoun's goaltending.  Vokoun is a great goalie, and in Florida and Nashville he has quietly had a really good career.  This season he has a fantastic .931 SV% behind a shaky Panther defence core.  He is use to facing 40+ shots a game and stealing games, and don't be shocked if he does that against an elite team like Russia.

The defence is good, not great, but good.  This team unlike many European teams has seven of their eight defenceman in the NHL.  They will have a solid powerplay with elite powerplay specialist Tomas Kaberle to go with Pavel Kubina or Filip Kuba.  They also will have Zidlicky, Hejda, Polak, and Michalek to top of their defence.  This defence with Vokoun should led to some low scoring games.

The forwards have depth, but no elite players.  Elias and Havlat will be the Veterans (to go with a player I'll mention later), and still have something left in the tank.  Mean while, they also have Milan Michalek, David Krejci, Tomas Fleischman, and Tomas Plekanec as the young guys to put the puck in the net.  Plekanec will be the Czech's top centre for the Olympics, as in Montreal he has 17 goals, 60 points, in 61 games.  Now if their is one player to watch in this tournament, it is Jaromir Jagr.  Jagr has said he wants to return to the NHL next season, and he is out to prove that he can still play at an elite level with the best players in the World, even though he hasn't played great in the KHL.  This Czech team is going for a medal.

Russia

Gold medal favourites, this may be one of the most explosive team EVER!  But here is my problem with this team, after being pressured by the Russian media and fans to pick KHL players, team Russia went with nine out of the twenty players from the KHL, leaving off many NHLers including Frolov and Kovalev, in favor of many players that were cut by NHL teams.  However Russia has won two straight World Championships, but have struggled in the past two Olympics finishing a disappointing 3rd and 4th.  But lets take a closer look at this team.

In net, the Russians will go with Nabokov and Bryzgalov to battle it out for the starting job, and have Varlamov as the third goalie.  Nabokov has struggled in past playoffs (.890 and .907 SV% the past two playoffs), but has played good this year with a .927 SV%.  The other masked man is Bryzgalov who has posted a strong .921 SV%.  The Russians should have solid goaltending, no the best in the games, but will rank right up there.

One of the real weaknesses for this Russian team is the defence core.  They are led by two veteran all-star defenceman in Gonchar and Markov, but after that they are thin.  Tytuin and Volchenkov will play key roles, as will Grebeshokov, but none of those three are top defenceman on their NHL clubs, and will struggle to stop other top lines.  Russia will have a lot of problems when they face of against strong lines (like a Hossa-Gaborik line in their own group), as they have no true shutdown pair.

There will be no shortage of offence from the top two lines on this sqaud.  They have maybe the two best pure goal scorers in the world as their top to LWers with Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.  Down the middle they will have Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk and on the right wing they got Alex Radulov and Semin.  No two lines will be able to score like the Russians, however to go with the Russian weak defence, these two lines really only have one player that plays defence (Datsyuk) so that will be a serious problem.  After the top two lines, the Russians don't really have a real scoring threat nor shutdown line.  Their third and fourth line centres will be Yashin and Fedorov!  I don't see this team being able to stop elite lines at all if they don't get the goaltending.  This team will be exciting to watch with a ton of offence, and not very much defence. 

 

Group C:

Any group that has the defending Gold and Silver winning teams would be the strongest.  However, this I feel is the weakest division.  Yes, Sweden is a powerhouse, but the Finns have dropped off, and then this division has two weaker teams with Belearus and Germany.  For that reason, I think Sweden will come out on top, getting the number one seed after the group stage.

Germany

This is the weakest team in Group C, and wont do much damage.  Last Olympics they finished 10th, and the Germans have now qualified in all five winter Olympics since West and East Germany reunited.  But this team just doesn't have what it takes to win.  They do have six NHL players, including their captain Marco Sturm who will be leading the way.  The defence will be led Christian Ehrhoff, who is putting up solid numbers this season in Vancouver, with 29 points in 58 games.  Don't expect the Germans to get any further that the quarters.

Belearus

In 2002 this team had the shocking up set of the Sweden team, after Sami Salo got hit in the head with a puck that was shot from centre ice and it twinkled across the line.  The Belearus would go on to lose their next two games, but still finished 4th, the best they have ever finished.  Take a look at this video of the up set:

                    

But last Olympics this team did not qualify.  This time they will like to repeat what they did in '02 and finishing 4th is like winning a Gold for them.  They have four NHL players on their team, and it will be intersting to see how Grabovski and the Kostitsyn brothers get along.  Grabovski is currently injured, but rumor has it that he will be back.  Now if you don't know, the Kostitsyn's and Grabovski were teammates in Montreal, and they hated each other.  Since then Grabovski was traded to Toronto and when they play each other, they always seem to get in shoving matches.  There is a deep hatred between this players, but they are also Belearus' best forwards.  Lets take another video look at their rivalry:

                    

                    

Those videos are just the tip of the iceberg, Grabovski vs. the Kostitsyn's may be the biggest rivalry in hockey.  But besides for that, this team is still weak and will lack the chemistry to get anything big done.

Finland

Last time around, they won Silver and were oh so close to a Gold, losing by one goal in the Gold medal game. This time around, they are a lot older.  Once again they are led by goaltending as this small nation just keeps producing NHL goalies.  The starter this time around is Mikka Kiprusoff, as he missed the '06 games due to injury.  Kiprusoff will be the starter for sure, because he said if he wasn't, he was going to head straight back home.  Miikka is currently posting a .924 SV% with the Flames.  Finland's backup is Nik Backstrom, and '06 star Niittymaki.

The Finns have a weaker defence.  They will be led by veterans Timonen and Salo, and to go with them they have Joni Pitkanen.  This defence core has lots of puck moving defenceman, and should spark a good powerplay, but they lack the big, physical shutdown defenceman.

The forwards are very similar to the forwards they put out when they won the Silver in 2006.  They were old in 2006, and they are old now.  Selanne will led the way at the age of 39, and the offence will also consists of the Koivu's, Hagman, Jokinen, and the Ruutu's will provide a physical presence.  This team has no real threats offensively, as all the forwards I have named have struggled and have had bad seasons so far, with the exception of Hagman, who is on pace for 30+ goals.

But although this team doesn't look strong on paper, the Finns always seem to pull together and play really good in international events, finishing second in the last two biggest hockey events, in '06 the Olympics and in '04 the World Cup.

Sweden

Last time around, they won it all.  In '02 they were cruising through and were the number one seed before a shocking upset, thanks to poor goaltending.  This team has it all, and are part of the big three powerhouse hockey nations.

In net they are as solid as they come.  King Henrik should play every single minute of this tournament, barring injury.  For a really bad Ranger team, Lundqvist currently has a .919 SV% and a 2.43 GAA.  Henrik is arguably a top five NHL goaltender and with him in net, the Swedes finally have the goalie they have been searching for, for so long.  In '06 he was amazing, playing every minute of the games, and the Swedes hope to ride him just as much this year around.

The Swedes only weakness may be a thin defence core.  However, they still got a pretty good defence core compared to most teams in the Olympics.  Lidstrom will log big minutes, and all the other defenceman on this team like Lidstrom are pucking moving defenceman, with Oduya, Enstrom, Murray, and Ohlund all having a similar mole.  The only real shutdown guy they have is Kronwall, so the question surronding this team is, do they have enough defensive defenceman?

The forwards are among the best in the Olympics.  The Sedin's are playing amazing in the NHL, as Henrik is among the league leaders in points, and Daniel would be right up there with him, if he did not suffer an injury.  The Sedin's like Team Canada will have home ice advantage, they know Canada Place inside and out, as well as the city.  They have the option to sleep in the comfort of their own bed instead of staying at the Olympic village.  The Sedin's actually have the best home ice advantage in the games, as they don't have the pressure on them like the Canadians do.  But the Swedes are definitly not a one line team.  They have 35+ goal scorers like Alfredsson, and Eriksson.  They also got one of the best, playmakers on the planet with Nik Backstrom.  Don't forget one of the best net presences in the world with Tomas Holmstrom, and elite two-way player that is having one of his best offensive seasons in Henrik Zetterberg.  They also got great checkers led by Pahlsson.  Oh yeah, they also have an ex-NHL greats, looking to prove he still has it and he will have to play great if he plans on making a NHL comebacks next season, with Peter Forsberg. The only big questionaly pick was why they didn't take Johan Franzen, who said he woud be ready and back from injury by the Olympics, and he is!  But even without Franzen and past Swedish greats like Mats Sundin and Markus Naslund, this is still a team to beat.

 

PREDICTIONS!

Rankings after the Preliminary Round:

#1- Sweden: In the easist group stage, should glide through, with some big wins.

#2- Canada: Should go 3-0 in their group

#3- Russia: I think will go 3-0, but will get a scare from the Slovaks and hurt their goals differential

#4- USA: I think that Group B is too hard for the Czech's to get the last bye, and I'm not a fan of the old Finn team

#5- Finland: Although I don't like them, they are in an easy division

#6- Czech Republic: Vokoun could do some damage

#7- Slovakia: My darkhorse pick could make some damage

#8- Switzerland: The Swiss do have a history of committing some upsets led by great goaltending, and Hiller is capable of stealing games

#9- Belarus: Don't expect them to do to much, but the #9 seed will go to the winner of Belarus vs. Germany

#10- Germany: They get this seed because they are in a weak group and may go 0-3 but they will have a low goal differential

#11- Norway: Will need a miracle for them to do any damage

#12- Latvia: In the strongest division, this could get ugly

 

Let the Knockout Stage Begin:

Finland vs. Latvia- I may not like the Finn's and their old team, but they always do play good in international competition.  The Latvians just aren't a match for the Finn's.  Prediction: Finland 6-1

Czech vs. Norway- This Czech team is strong, but for them to make a deep run, they need Vokoun to pull a Hasek.  But, Norway is just another weak link in the tourny.  Prediction: Czechs 4-2

Slovakia vs. Germany- I said I really like this Slovak team, and they wont get knocked out by the Germans.  Prediction: Slovaks 5-1

Switzerland vs. Belarus- This will be a low scoring game, with both teams goalies playing good.  Hiller though will win the game.  Prediction: Swiss 2-0

 

Quarter-Finals:

Sweden vs. Switzerland- I see Hiller coming up with another big game, and will steal the show.  But, the Swede's are just too strong of a team, and Hiller can't do it all by himself.  Prediction: Sweden 2-1

Canada vs. Slovak- As a Canadian, this game will worry me a lot.  But, the Slovak's one shutdown pair wont be enough to hard off hold off four scoring lines.  However I can see Gaborik and Hossa scoring on the few chances they get to keep this game very, very close and make me nervous.  Prediction: Canada 5-3

Russia vs. Czech- Although Vokoun could steal the show, I don't see him holding off the explosive offence of the Russians.  Although the Russians have a weakness on playing defence, the Czech's don't have an explosive enough offence to capitalize.  Prediction: Russia 6-1

USA vs. Finland- If this was the Slovaks, Swiss, or Czech's against the Americans, I would have them winning.  But, my predictions seem really, really boring as I have all of my top four seeds advancing to the final four.  Boring or what?  Anyways, Prediction: USA 4-2

 

Semi-Finals:

Sweden vs. USA- This game will be close.  I see Ryan Miller and the Americans keeping it real close, right until the final buzzer.  Then, after the final buzzer the game will be tied.  But the Swedish team will just be too strong.  I predict that with Tomas Holmstrom infront of Ryan Miller in OT screens him as Zetterberg beats Miller with out him every seeing the puck.  Prediction: Sweden 3-2 (OT)

Canada vs. Russia- I know this is the dream match everyone wants to see, but they want to see it in the finals, not semis.  The game will be close, but the difference in this game will be depth.  The Canadians will have 7 defenceman they can role out to stop the Russians, the Russians have no real shutdown defenceman.  The Canadians have four strong lines, and a clear shutdown line, the Russians don't have a strong third or fourth line, nor a true checking line.  The Canadians also have a big advantage when it comes to faceoffs and penalty killing.  Not to mention that I see Canada being the home team and getting the last change.  Prediction: Canada 6-4

 

Bronze Medal Game:

Russia vs. USA- Russia is like Canada, Gold or Bust.  If Russia doesn't get to the finals, they will be disappointed and not really show up for a bronze medal game.  The Russians will be deflated, and have no energy.  On the other hand, the Americans would love a shot for a bronze medal game, and will come out flying with energy.  Ryan Miller will continue to play strong.  Prediction: USA 4-3

 

Gold Medal Game:

Sweden vs. Canada- With the pressure of an entire nation on them, the Canadian players will never face more pressure in their lives.  The Swedish team will be looking to repeat, and have a real strong team.  I predict the Sedin's have the game of their life, but I think Brodeur one ups them, and keeps Canada in the game.  Late in third, Canada will be down one goal when Eric Staal gets a garbage goal on the powerplay.  The game head to OT with momentum on Canada's side, and 7 minutes in to OT, Rick Nash scores on a 2-1 with Ryan Getzlaf feeding him the puck.  Prediction: Canada 4-3 (OT)

 

 

 Hope you enjoyed.  Leave you predictions in the comment section.

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