Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympic Men’s Hockey Tournament preview

By Rick Morris

One of our favorite events at FDH is the quadrennial Olympic hockey tournament. With the blend of national pride, the quest for Olympic gold and the nature of an all-star tournament with the overwhelming majority of the best players in the world suiting up, there really is nothing quite like it.

Here’s a look at the teams we forecast seeing on the huge quarterfinal Wednesday, February 24:

^ Switzerland: With NHL-caliber goaltending and first-line defense, the Swiss look like the best team outside of the “Big Seven.” They could conceivably end up as more than that, based on their mega-upset wins over Canada and the Czechs in ’06 – but the odds are highly against it. Forecast to lose in the quarterfinals.

^ Finland: Here’s the irony – the Finns made a strong run to the silver medal game last time without the benefit of the strong goaltending they’ll have this time – but they won’t go nearly as far. They have solid NHL-level players, but little explosiveness and not much youth. Finland generally counts on winning with defense, and another run can’t be completely discounted this time, but as with the Swiss, the odds are not with them. Forecast to lose in the quarterfinals.

^ Slovakia: They can put up a first line that can skate with just about anybody and they’ve got great “O” from their “D.” How about “D” from their “D?” Eh, not so much, and their unproven-on-the-big-stage goaltending will suffer for it. They can put out a few lines that would be very competitive with other countries, but depth is not their friend to the extent it needs to be. Forecast to lose in the quarterfinals.

^ Czech Republic: The Czechs have lived and died on the prospect of world-class goaltending in the past three Olympic tournaments. That won’t necessarily be the case this time, but they are more than solid up and down the line offensively and defensively – albeit in a fairly white-bread manner. If they made it to the medal round or even the gold medal game, it wouldn’t be a huge shock – just fairly unlikely in light of the explosiveness of other teams. Forecast to lose in the quarterfinals.

^ USA: American hockey is still in the trough that 2006 exposed it as being in, albeit on the back end of it. By 2014, Uncle Sam could be back in strong contention for gold. This time, a lack of experience will hurt, as will the lack of explosiveness beyond the first line or two. On the other hand, young legs and physical skaters are well-suited for this tough event and their goaltending comes in on a huge run. Forecast to lose in the bronze medal game.

^ Russia: Nobody, but nobody can put together the power play potential of this unit. SportsTalkNetwork.com hockey analyst Kyle O’Rourke predicts a staggering 40-50% success rate. They will also have plenty of breakaway goals, especially in preliminary games against much weaker teams. Due to mixing in the KHL players, though, their depth does not match that of Canada and their goaltending is suspect in the big games until proven otherwise. Forecast to win the bronze medal.

^ Sweden: The defending champs can almost match explosiveness with Russia and can probably match goaltending with Canada (as the NHL’s New York area rivalry spills over into international competition). But they will miss the bigger ice of Turin, as they will have a difficult time contending with physical play. They’ll also have to rely disproportionately on their top four defensemen. Having said that, they have outstanding goaltending and the best depth of scoring outside of the Canadians. On neutral ice, they could well be co-favorites. In Vancouver, they are not. Forecast to win the silver medal.

^ Canada: The chalk pick is never exciting, but it is unavoidable in this case. Canada has unmatched big-game goaltending, the best offensive depth of any team and defense that may not appear as overwhelming as in past Olympics – but has great chemistry due to roster composition. The size of Team Canada is well-suited to the NHL ice rather than the usual international dimensions and let us not forget the mother of all home-ice advantages. While upsets are possible when other teams in the tournament are very skilled as well, it’s undeniable that failure to win this event with all the starts in alignment will cause utter national misery and for good reason. Forecast to win the gold medal.

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