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Gold is the Goal: Olympic Men’s Hockey Preview

Tim Thomas (Image from USAHockey.com)

Beginning Tuesday, the world’s greatest hockey players will convene in Vancouver, British Columbia for the 2010 Winter Olympics. A dozen teams, featuring the best pucksters from around the globe, all vying for Olympic gold. For true hockey fans, does it get any better than this?

But what can we expect to see over the 13-day tournament? Let’s now get up close and personal with each of the 12 squads, from the contenders to the pretenders.

Russia

Names You’ll Know: Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Konstantin Korneyev
Keys to Victory: With a strong trio of star scorers, led by arguably the greatest player on Earth in Alex Ovechkin, the Russians will need to lean on their offense to cover up what is no better than an average blue line group. Goalies Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov have played well this season for their NHL teams, and if their stellar play continues, I see Russia going a long way in this tournament. They’re my gold medal pick. When they win it, you come back here and pat me on the back, OK?

Canada

Names You’ll Know: Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Patrice Bergeron
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Scott Niedermayer (Ok, you got me, you know that one.)
Keys to Victory: Executive Director Steve Yzerman’s Canadian team is loaded with NHL’s finest, and will surely have home-ice advantage on their side. The roster is stacked with talent, but will the pressure of Canada’s rabid fan base be too much to live up to? This team has no reason to not score a medal out of this tournament, but fans from the north country really want gold and nothing less.

Sweden

Names You’ll Know: Daniel Alfredsson, the Sedin twins, Nicklas Lidstrom
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Mattias Wienhandl (Isn’t that a fantastic last name?)
Keys to Victory: The defending gold medal winners from the Turin Games of ’06, the Swedes return 13 of 23 players from four years ago, meaning experience is on their side. The roster is deep, especially on the blue line, and the team features a great mix of veteran presence with young playmakers. Everyone will be gunning for the Swedes, but they should live up to the task and be a major player in this tournament.

Finland

Names You’ll Know: Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, Miikka Kiprusoff
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Lasse Kukkonen
Keys to Victory: The Finns came away with a somewhat surprising silver medal in Turin back in 2006, losing in a classic match-up to the rival Swedes in the gold medal game. They return 15 players from that team, hoping they can gel just as quick and make a similar run at gold. With a trio of solid NHL goaltenders at their disposal, Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff, Minnesota’s Nicklas Backstrom, and Tampa Bay’s Antero Niittymaki, teams will have a hard time lighting the lamp against the Finns.

United States

Names You’ll Know: Tim Thomas, Phil Kessel, Ryan Miller
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Jamie Langenbrunner (Again, you may know him, but his last name is pretty darned fun.)
Keys to Victory: The U.S. team is extremely young compared to some of the other contenders, with 13 of their 23 players at 25 years old or younger. Their youth should lend themselves to playing a fast style of hockey, with hopes that their strong goaltending can take care of their back end. The Americans are looking for their first gold since the miraculous team of 1980, and to do it again this year, they will have to shock the world yet again.

Czech Republic

Names You’ll Know: David Krejci, Jaromir Jagr, Tomas Plekanec
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Roman Cervenka (“Cervenka” is almost like “cerveza,” which is Spanish for “beer.” Just sayin’…)
Keys to Victory: Score enough goals to cover their questionable goaltending. It will likely be Florida’s Tomas Vokoun who gets the nod in net more often than not, but the Czechs are hoping the likes of Patrick Elias, Martin Havlat, and Martin Erat are able to provide plenty of offense to take the pressure of the back end. The Czechs were able to nab the bronze medal away from the Russians last time around, and are hoping for an even better performance this year. I just don’t see it, there’s very little room for error here for this team.

Slovakia

Names You’ll Know: Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Branko Radivojevic (I’m adopting “Branko” as my new nickname, I love it!)
Keys to Victory: The Slovaks have a nice roster, with a mix of NHL stars and KHL role players to complement them. If Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak can solidify the goaltending situation for the Slovakian team, they have a real shot at medaling. Otherwise, well…not so much.

Switzerland

Names You’ll Know: Jonas Hiller, Mark Streit, Yannick Weber
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Thomas Deruns (Insert your funniest poop joke here.)
Keys to Victory: With just three roster members currently in the NHL, the Swiss have their work cut out for them in this year’s tournament, as they look for their first gold medal in hockey ever. They hope to build on their sixth place finish in the last Olympic games, and if goalie Jonas Hiller can stand on his head and deliver some near-perfect performances, the sky’s the limit for this year’s Swiss team.

Germany

Names You’ll Know: Marco Sturm, Dennis Seidenberg, Thomas Greiss
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Korbinian Holzer (I read that his teammates call him “Das Situation” though…he lives on the German Shore.)
Keys to Victory: Feed their opponents a heavy dose of Beck’s beer and German sausage. There’s no chance the Germans are a serious factor in this tournament, seriously. With six NHLers on their roster, none of which have a ton of talent, Germany will rely on luck and luck alone to see how far they can get. Don’t bet on the Germans…in hockey or in World Wars. Ha, take that Germany!

Latvia

Names You’ll Know: Let’s be honest, even die hard hockey fans haven’t heard of these puckers. It’s Latvia, for crying out loud!
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Georgijs Pujacs (What the Latvians lack in hockey talent, they make up for in fun names… the roster is loaded with giggle-worthy names, it’s fantastic.)
Keys to Victory: The Latvians came in dead last in 2006, going 0-4-1 in the preliminary round. (Who’d they tie, you might ask? The U.S., of course!) Latvia boasts a pair of NHL “stars,” in defensemen Karlis Skrastins (Dallas) and Oskars Bartulis (Philly), but really, what good are they going to be? Watch out if you’re the Americans, but otherwise teams should skate all over the weak Latvians.

Belarus

Names You’ll Know: Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Mikhail Grabovski
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Viktor Kostiuchenok (Say it three times, really fast… you can’t do it, can you!?!)
Keys to Victory: Again, how often do you hear about great Belarusian hockey legends? OK then. The Belarusians didn’t even qualify for the Olympics in 2006, and just barely squeaked into this year’s tournament. Good luck Belarus… you’ll surely need it.

Norway

Names You’ll Know: You won’t, trust me.
Name You Won’t Know, But It’s Fun to Say: Mats Zuccarello Aasen (I was really hoping for better names from the Norwegians… just the first of many letdowns you’ll get from the Norwegian hockey team.)
Keys to Victory: The Norwegians find themselves in the field of Olympic hockey teams for the first time since they hosted the Winter Olympics in 1994. They have just one NHL dude on their roster, none other than household name Ole-Kristian Tollefsen of the Flyers, so yeah, they have that going for them. If Norway keeps it close in any of their games, consider it a moral victory…but you don’t get medals for morality, last I checked.

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