Written By: Mike Ulatoski

The 2010 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament begins today in Vancouver.  Team USA begins preliminary-round play against the Swiss National Team (puck drops 3 p.m. Eastern, 12-noon in Vancouver).  We last saw Team USA at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, where they went 1-3-1 in the preliminary-round before losing a tough 4-3 decision to Finland, who went on to win Silver in Torino..

The US team is in Group A, which features the juggernaut that is Team Canada, along with Norway and Switzerland.  Canada is the favorite to win gold; they’re playing in their home country, and this is possibly the greatest Canadian team ever assembled.  The pressure to win gold, however, on home ice will be immense.  Canada’s roster features 23 NHL players (20 skaters, 3 goalies), and is led by the (debatable) best hockey player in the world, Sidney Crosby.  Watching where he takes his game as the world watches will be mesmerizing.  Norway hasn’t been in the Olympic hockey tournament since 1994, when they were the host country.  The Norwegians feature one NHL player, defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, now an AHL player in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization, and one former NHL player, forward Patrick Thoresen, formerly with the Philadelphia Flyers.  In 2006, Switzerland stunned the Russians and the Canadians in the preliminary-round, before bowing out in the quarterfinals, losing 6-2 to eventual champion Sweden.  The Swiss have two NHL players on their roster: New York Islanders standout defenseman Mark Streit, and goaltender Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks.

Now, Team USA.  This is a different hockey team than what we are used to seeing in the past few Olympics.  Put together by Brian Burke (GM of Toronto), there is an abundance of first year Olympians and an abundance of talent on the roster.  The offense is led by scorers Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils).  All three forwards have the excellent scoring ability only elite snipers possess.  Center Ryan Kesler, of the hometown Vancouver Canucks, is having a breakout offensive season and is one of Team USA’s best defensive forwards.  David Backes (St. Louis Blues), American Hero, is out for Canadian blood.  Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche) has tremendous playmaking ability and is a great two-way forward.  Another outstanding US forward is Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings), who possesses an all-around game and can be an impact player as a bug, physical scorer.  The US features a well-rounded offensive attack; one that can create chances, score in big spots, and apply pressure on the backcheck.  I would say it’s one of the top all-around offenses at this year’s Olympics.

I see the defense, however, as a little bit of a weak point that could be exposed early in the tournament.  Injuries to Paul Martin (New Jersey) and Mike Komisarek (Toronto) have caused them to be replaced by Ryan Whitney (Anaheim) and Tim Gleason (Carolina Hurricanes).  There’s a reason Whitney and Gleason were selected as replacements from the group of alternates.  However, Martin will certainly be missed. Martin is very mobile, especially for his size, can log huge minutes, and has sound offensive instincts.  Komisarek, the 6’4”, 243 lb. Long Island native, has a tremendous physical aspect and is willing to hit anything that moves.  He stays at home defensively and keeps his game simple, and is a natural leader that excels at delivering game-changing checks.  I feel, though, that this team is much better with Gleason than they were with Komisarek.  This is a young crop of defensive players.  Five of the seven USA defensemen were born after 1983, and Brooks Orpik was born in 1980; only Rafalski is in his 30’s.  Jack Johnson (LA Kings) and Erik Johnson (St. Louis Blues) are both franchise defenseman on their respective teams.  Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins) plays a punishing brand of defensive hockey, and is named after the coach of 1980’s Miracle squad, Herb Brooks. Brian Rafalski (New Jersey) will be relied upon heavily as a top veteran presence to lead a defense filled with talent, but lacking experience.

Between the pipes is the NHL’s best goalie so far in the 2009-10 season: Ryan Miller.  Miller, of the Buffalo Sabres, has earned the starting job after having a stellar start to his season.  The United States’ brain trust believes teams that commit to using one goalie are the teams that win medals, so the goalie job is his to lose.  Like his Canadian counterpart Brodeur, Miller’s numbers have slipped a bit in the games leading up to the Olympics – just 3 wins in his last 12 starts, giving up a total of 32 goals during that stretch.  But, he remains the confident backbone to this collection of young players.  Tim Thomas (Boston Bruins) has struggled for most of this season, but could be a major factor in net if he catches fire. Jonathan Quick, of the LA Kings, is the young No. 3.  None of the US goalies have competed in the Olympics before.

Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey) is the captain of the US team.  He sports a good two-way game, leads by example, and wears the ‘C’ for the Devils; good candidate for captain.  The alternate captains are: Ryan Suter (Nashville Predators; Ryan’s uncle, Gary, played on the ’02 team, and his father, Bob, played on the 1980 Miracle team), Zach Parise, Brian Rafalski, and Dustin Brown.  Ron Wilson (head coach of Toronto) is the head coach of the US team.  He led the US National Team to the championship at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.  His assistants are Scott Gordon (head coach, New York islanders), and John Tortorella (head coach, New York Rangers).

The US has medaled only once since the Miracle in Lake Placid in 1980, and that was in 2002 at the Salt Lake games where Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano and co., led the US to a silver medal.  This is no longer the experienced US team we are used to seeing in the past few national tournaments.  The story of this tournament for the US will be if all the young talent on this team can supersede the lack of experience.  This time, there is no Keith Tkachuk, no Bill Guerin, no Modano, no Roenick.  This is the start of a new era in US hockey.

This US squad has the makings of a great team.  They have the offensive playmakers, they have the great goaltending, they have the toughness and an added defensive element.  If Ryan Miller can play lights out in net, and the boys along the blueline can come together and play at the same level as the forwards, the United States has a shot at gold.  That’s a lot of things that have to come together, but this team certainly has enough talent.  I predict a strong showing from this squad, with a few upsets early on heading into the medal round.

In today’s opening game, the USA will beat the Swiss, 3-0.  Ryan Miller announces his presence to the world with a shutout in game 1, and David Backes, American Hero, will score a goal.

Some Bolder Predictions
The Russian powerplay, headed by Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Andrei Markov, will convert 50% of the time.

After two weak performances in net, Martin Brodeur will be replaced in net by Roberto Luongo.
Gold: Canada

Silver: USA

Bronze: Sweden

4th Place: Russia
The Rangers send four players to Vancouver to represent their countries.  Chris Drury makes his third trip to the Olympics for Team USA, and Ryan Callahan will represent his country at the Olympics for the very first time.  Also for Team USA, Rangers head coach John Tortorella will be an assistant coach.  Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was in net for Sweden when they captured gold in ’06, and he’s between the pipes again for the Swedes.  If King Henrik goes on a hot streak, Sweden has a shot at the repeat.  Rangers star forward Marian Gaborik is set to miss Slovakia’s first two games because of an injury suffered one week ago in practice when his right knee was cut by Henrik Lundqvist’s skate.