By Steve Silverman
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There are plenty of reasons to feel anguish about Olympic hockey. While it may be the most exciting and interesting sport to watch in Sochi, the potential for a devastating injury impacts nearly every NHL team.
And the idea of losing a star like Henrik Lundqvist, Jaromir Jagr or John Tavares is a nightmare scenario for all New York-area hockey fans.
But the time for hand-wringing is over. The NHL made its decision to compete in Sochi, and it’s clearly exciting to the players who will be competing and fans all over the world. So, even though Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma will be coaching Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh, it’s time to suspend disbelief and embrace it.
The hockey competition was stellar in Vancouver in 2010, and it should be the same this time around. It’s the depth of talent that makes this tournament so watchable. When they play basketball in the Summer Olympics, it’s a nice exhibition. You know the U.S. is going to come away with the gold if it wants to send its best players and if any team can give the Americans a real game for more than a half, you have a great story.
But in hockey, you have at least six countries that have a real chance to win gold this time around. The Russians are going to come with everything they have to win on their home ice. The Canadians think it’s their birthright to win hockey gold and the Americans have unfinished business after losing the gold medal to Crosby and the Canadians in overtime the last time around.
Sweden has won gold before and has the “King” in goal and a very deep team. Finland has taken some shots recently on the injury front – Mikko Koivu (ankle), Valtteri Filppula (ankle) — but the Finns have perhaps the most goaltending depth in the world with Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi. Slovakia will field a team with Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa, while the Czech Republic has Jagr, David Krejci and Tomas Plekanec to carry the load.
All of these teams know they have a chance to bring home a medal and the play on the larger Olympic ice (200 feet by 100 feet) should be stellar.
The Russian team will be tough to beat, but the pressure may be crushing. Alex Ovechkin is once again enjoying a stellar season, as he has already bypassed the 40-goal mark. His vicious shot will be on display and he will try to carry his teammates on his back.
That may be the problem. The team is too good to let one player dominate. Evgeni Malkin is probably a better all-around player than Ovechkin, and Pavel Datsyuk is clearly a magician with the puck. However, if it becomes the “AO” show, the Russians may go down in flames.
Canada and the United States would seem to have a tough time adjusting to the bigger ice surface. Crosby should be at his best and will be able to make the adjustment, but it’s going to be tough for the majority of his teammates. Still, it’s hard to find fault with a roster that includes Tavares, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and the redoubtable Marty St. Louis.
But Canada has one little problem that most of their flag-waving pundits don’t like to admit. They are not up to par in goal with Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith. Of the three, I’d go with Smith, but he’s going to be sitting on the end of the bench or up in the press box while Price and Luongo pour gasoline on the fire.
The Americans don’t have the overwhelming talent of Canada or Russia, but they are smart, tough and have a real shot at gold if they can perform well on special teams. Additionally, Zach Parise and Ryan Miller remember the sting of losing to Canada in overtime with the gold medal on the line, so they have added motivation.
The team to keep your eye on is Sweden. Obviously, it has a dynamic performer in goal in Lundqvist who can shut the door on any opponent. The Swedes also have big-play performers in Erik Karlsson, Alex Steen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Loui Eriksson.
Eriksson could be the player that makes the biggest difference. A former 36-goal scorer with Dallas, he has been hit with two concussions this season with Boston. He has not hit his stride with the Bruins and is likely to be overlooked every time he hits the ice. That will give him the freedom to make big plays and help Sweden bring home the gold.
No guarantee on that prediction. However, once the elite teams in this tournament start playing each other, the hockey will be at a level that is rarely seen.
Savor it and enjoy it.
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