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February 14, 2010

2010 Vancouver Olympics Mens Hocke Preview And Sunday Olympic Thread

Luge, Nordic Combined, Biathlon and other crazy stuff you only see in the Winter Olympics.

Most important however is the Men's Hockey tournament which gets underway on Tuesday. In a never ending effort to get you football heads to appreciate the great game that is hockey, tmi3rd put together a look at the tournament (see below).

If you don't know much about hockey take a look at this classic Peter Puck video. If your of a certain age, it's probably how you learned about the game. Yes, it's dated (ignore the bit about 'two line passes', that's been dropped from the rules) but it's essentially the School House Rocks of hockey.

Here's tmi3rd's preview...

Greetings, fellow Morons. As a college hockey vet and now just interested hockey fan, it’s nice to have the Olympics roll around every four years to have the rest of the country become distantly aware of a vastly-overlooked but great sport.

For those of you who don’t know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line, Drew and I (your faithful hockey scribes) will cheerfully educate you with only the requisite amount of humiliation that the Moron Nation demands.

So let’s get started. First of all, the Games are going to be in Vancouver- meaning that key matchups will be played in prime time, with a possible adjustment for the region (not unlike if you’re a Lakers fan living on the East Coast or in the Midwest). The hockey games will take place at what is being called Canada Hockey Place (capacity 19,300, and formerly calledGM Place, home of your Vancouver Canucks) and at UBC Thunderbird Arena (capacity 6,800 on the campus of the University of British Columbia).

The NHL has its top players in these games. This may come to an end in 2014, but we’ll enjoy this one. Hockey doesn’t lend itself to the “Dream Team”-kind of setup like with basketball, because no one country dominates the sport. Even Canada- hockey’s home country- ended a massive drought of gold medals in Olympic competition in the Salt Lake games. Russia went through a very dry patch after the breakup of the Soviet Union and has only lately begun to reassert itself. And, of course, the United States are usually solid but not spectacular.

Here’s a link to the complete hockey schedule.

There are twelve teams divided into three groups that play a round-robin format (3 games), and are then re-seeded 1-12 for elimination. Teams 1-4 will have a first-round bye, and they play single-elimination from there.

We mention this because the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) can’t ever make up its mind how it wants to handle the tournament year to year. So we just roll our eyes and make do.

So let’s break down some of the key teams by groups from here:

Group A: Canada, Norway, Switzerland, United States

Canada could probably ice two teams that would have a shot at a gold medal. They start with ridiculous depth in goal, with New Jersey’s future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo as their primary goaltenders. Their backup, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, made a game-saving save with two seconds left to win the Stanley Cup last year.

On defense, Canada boasts a ton of talent. Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer and Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger (bona-fide hockey rock stars) anchor a talented blue line that also includes Nashville’s Shea Weber and San Jose’s Dan Boyle. They combine size with speed and physicality, and do a fair amount of scoring in their own right.

At forward, one looks at Canada’s roster and has to kind of shake your head. Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Eric Staal, Jarome Iginla… the list goes on and on. These guys are a big chunk of the top-flight forwards in the game. Big, skilled, and physical.

Canada are obviously favorites to win the whole thing, especially on their home ice. The one thing they’ll be acutely aware of is how much pressure they’ll have on them to win from their fans… the Canadian press is known to turn on its hockey teams when they’re not perfect. Look for them to play a strong defensive game and be opportunistic offensively.

The United States historically pulls off a great tournament about once every 20 years. 1960, 1980, 2002, and so forth… they won the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 in front of a very hostile Canadian crowd over a three-game series. Expectations aren’t terribly high for this group, but it does have its strengths.

In goal, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller is coming in playing as well as anyone in the game. Boston’s Tim Thomas and LA’s Jonathan Quick have been streaky this year, but Quick is leading the league in wins, and Thomas had a great run with Boston last year.

The US lost two of its key defensemen to injury in Toronto’s Mike Komisarek and New Jersey’s Paul Martin. That hurts. They still have a solid corps in Nashville’s Ryan Suter, Detroit’s Brian Rafalski, and St. Louis’s Erik Johnson. They’re young and physical, and can occasionally chip in a fair amount of offense.

Up front, there isn’t a whole lot of star power. Given how young these guys are (average age is around 22-23 years old), the key for them will be disciplined play. They do have firepower in Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Toronto’s Phil Kessel, New Jersey’s Zach Parise, and Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan, but the depth leaves something to be desired. Look for them to play a more methodical game-very careful defensively, and more of a counter-punching strategy offensively.

Switzerland has a couple of talented players- former Colorado goaltender David Aebischer, to name one- and did pull off a couple of upsets last time. Norway lacks any real firepower or name players, and will likely trail the pack.

Projected finish in group A: 1. Canada 2: USA 3: Switzerland 4: Norway

Group B: Czech Republic, Latvia, Russia, Slovakia

The Czech Republic last won gold in 1998 in Nagano with a defensively perfect game and some of the most boring hockey ever played. Since then, they haven’t done as well, but they have plenty of firepower from Jaromir Jagr, Colorado’s Milan Hejduk, and New Jersey’s Patrik Elias.

Defensively, they have some names, but guys like Montreal’s Roman Hamrlik and Minnesota’s Marek Zidlicky are going to need to spend more time playing defense than the scoring they’ve previously been known for.

In net, Florida’s Tomas Vokoun has been superb for years.

Slovakia will also play some tough hockey. It’s a shame fighting isn’t allowed in Olympic hockey, because the Czechs and Slovaks don’t like each other. In their World Cup of Hockey encounters, the games periodically would resemble a bar fight more than a game.

At forward, they boast names like the NY Rangers’ Marian Gaborik, Detroit’s Marian Hossa, and Pittsburgh’s awesomely-named Miroslav Satan. They’ll score a good number of goals.

On defense, the Slovaks boast two 6’7”, 230-lb defensemen- Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Kristian Kurdoc of the Swedish Elite League. They obviously have size, but will have some vulnerabilities.

In goal, the Slovaks have two middle-of-the-road goaltenders in Colorado’s Peter Budaj and Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak.

Russia is the favorite in this group, and maybe in the whole shooting match. Their firepower is unmatched. Up front, they may start a line of Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, and New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk. That’s a ton of star power, and it doesn’t really fall off from there.

Russia’s Achilles heel will be their defensive corps. Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar and Montreal’s Andrei Markov are the headliners on a group of defensemen who play on porous defensive teams. They lack stay-at-home defensemen to match up with their scorers, and that may cost them against solid defensive teams.

They make up for their defensive shortcomings in net- San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov and Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov are the equal of just about anyone in hockey at the moment.

Projected finish in Group B: 1. Russia 2. Czech Republic 3. Slovakia 4. Latvia

Group C: Belarus, Finland, Germany , Sweden

The two big hitters in this group are Finland and Sweden (insert Scandi jokes here). The Swedes won the gold against Finland in 2004, and both are quick, tough and physical. These are two teams that also don’t like each other.

Sweden boasts forwards like Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg and Vancouver’s Sedin twins, along with perennial pest Tomas Holmstrom of Detroit. Peter Forsberg has decided to give his gimpy ankles a run as well.

On defense, Sweden has future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit) to anchor a young defensive corps. Though solid, their lack of experience may be a bit of an issue.

In net, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist is the defending gold medal winner- although he’s been very inconsistent this year, just ask Drew (Drew says...Actually, he's had maybe 2, 2-3 game streaks where he wasn't great but overall he's been fantastic behind a very mediocre team. More importantly, he's playing his best hockey of the season the last week or two). He’ll be backed up by Toronto’s Jonas Gustavsson, who is on the rise but needs to gain experience.

Finally, Finland preaches a defense-first mentality that also has impressive counter-punching ability. They’re a little long in the tooth, but will still be quite formidable.

Up front, Teemu Selanne, Jarko and Tuomo Ruutu, Jere Lehtinen, and Olli Jokinen headline a very solid-two-way group of forwards. They’ll score enough goals, but will also suffocate other teams defensively. If Finland plays their game, they wll be a test of any team’s conditioning.

On defense, Philly’s Kimmo Timonnen and Vancouver’s Sami Salo lead a big, physical defensive corps that moves the puck well. Each of Finland’s six defensemen seem to have an ideal mix of defenders’ attributes with the puck skills to get the puck to the net.

In net, Finland may have the deepest goaltending outside of Canada. Minnesota’s Nicklas Backstrom, Calgary’s Mikka Kiprusoff, and Tampa Bay’s Antero Nittymaki are absolute rock stars. Any of the three can steal games on their own.

Group C Projected Finish: 1. Finland 2. Sweden 3. Germany 4. Belarus.

In the bigger picture, figure that Canada, Russia, Finland, and either Sweden, the Czechs, or the US will get the bye in the elimination round. Single elimination games are probably more precarious in hockey than even the NCAA basketball tournament. Case in point- in Salt Lake City, Belarus defeated Sweden in single elimination, after Sweden had dismantled eventual gold medalist Canada. Belarus won on one bad bounce, poorly played by Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo.

Translated: trying to guess beyond the first round is an exercise in utter futility.

Anyway, that’s a primer. Drew and I will weigh in down the road. Team USA’s first game is against Switzerland at noon on February 16.

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posted by DrewM. at 02:21 PM

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