Browsing Posts in Olympics

Written By: Mike Ulatoski

#1 SEED United States (5-0-0-0, 22 goals for, 6 goals against) vs. #6 SEED Canada (4-0-1-1, 32 goals for, 14 goals against), 3:15 ET, NBC

What to Watch For:
Most of the NHL’s best players going at it with reckless abandon for 60 minutes, with the home side defending the honor of “their sport” and the visiting neighbor continuing its quest for hockey respect.

If you tune in late, you’ll probably miss a few thunderous bodychecks. If you blink you might miss a perfect breakout pass that leads to a breakaway. If you look away, you might miss a perfect, top shelf wrist shot. Don’t count on anything other than minute after minute of rivalry-fueled hockey. Nobody puts more on the line than NHL players, and we’ll be able to see that today.

Team Reports

Canada – This has hardly been the march to gold that many expected before the tournament began. Canada stunningly was extended to a shootout against Switzerland, which Sidney Crosby and Brodeur pulled out, and lost to Team USA in group play. And after obliterating overmatched Germany in the quarterfinals and blasting Russia, Canada survived a major scare when Slovakia came within a desperate Luongo save with 8 seconds left of erasing a 3-0 deficit in Friday’s semifinal. Through six games, the Canadians have played stretches of awe-inspiring hockey that prompted Slovak star Marian Hossa to compare them with the legendary Soviet teams of the ’70s and ’80s. But, Canada also has had some inexplicable hiccups. These have prompted head coach Mike Babcock to shake up his lineup, almost every game, and change starting goaltenders.

United States - Center Ryan Kesler said last August that Team USA would beat Canada in the Olympics, and that they would win a medal. Patrick Kane said, “We’re not coming here just to win bronze or silver.” Nobody outside of the American’s locker room believed any of this was possible.

The Americans have been more consistent and focused than any team in the tournament, and they have never trailed in any game so far. They hammered the opponent (Norway) they were supposed to crush. They patiently outlasted a dangerous Switzerland team, twice, and did what was necessary to upset Canada. Then, amazingly, Team USA destroyed Finland with a six-goal first period in the semifinals.

Ryan Miller has been spectacular in net, the no-doubt MVP of the tournament, and will need to be one more time. The best goaltender in the NHL this season, the Buffalo Sabres’ netminder leads these Games in both goals against average (1.04) and save percentage (.954). And he hasn’t allowed a goal in his last 111:38 of play – since Sidney Crosby beat him late in the third period of their pool play finale.

When Patrick Kane erupted for two goals against Finland, it meant that every American was doing the job for which Burke had selected him.

Still, even if it is the No. 1 seed as a result of pool play and gets to wear its blue sweaters, Team USA remains the underdog going into this game. There’s still the question of whether this group of young, brash Americans have enough jam to win on the biggest stage most of them have ever played on, in front of the most intense atmosphere most of them have never quite experienced.

Total NHL Players - All 46 are on NHL rosters. This is an NHL All-Star Game, played at the intensity level of a seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Puck Drop
It’s not 1980 in Lake Placid. The U.S. is not facing Russia, the greatest team to ever play hockey, in the midst of the Cold War. It’s 2010.  It’s Vancouver, and Team USA is facing Canadians on home ice. Again. And while nothing will ever compare to the Miracle, a U.S. win today would be miraculous.

Miracles can happen.

USA 4, Canada 3

Shot Calling – goal for Zach Parise

Written By: Mike Ulatoski

#1 SEED, UNITED STATES (4-0-0-0) vs. #4 SEED, FINLAND (3-0-1-0)

What to Watch For:
This game will be played like a Stanley Cup Playoff game, as a trip to the gold-medal game is on the line. Both sides have skill and physicality, and this game will be more about which side can impose its physical will on the other, especially late in the game. “We need to make sure we are outworking them to go along with the talent we have in our lineup,” said David Backes. “I think if we win the work-ethic battle, we like our chances.”

Even if one of these teams wins the work-ethic battle, the game could still be close. This game will be a showcase of two great goaltenders – Team USA’s Ryan Miller, and Finland’s Miikka Kiprusoff.

Last game - United States defeated Switzerland 2-0 and Finland defeated Czech Republic 2-0 in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Team Reports

United States – The Americans have yet to lose in this tournament, but they refuse to get too far ahead of themselves and look to the next opponent. They continue to have the mindset of “one game at a time”, and Coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke have done a great job of keeping this team focused on winning the next game. They aren’t focused on anything else happening outside of that ice.  They are focused on the task at hand and they know that they can play with anyone in this tournament. If they hope to get to the gold-medal game, they know that they need to get better in several areas – most notably on the power play and with their play in the neutral zone, something that was lacking against the Swiss on Wednesday.

Despite the fact that the Americans got the game-winner on the power play in Wednesday’s quarterfinal game against the Swiss, they have struggled on the man advantage. In four games, the Americans have earned 16 power-play opportunities and scored four goals (one in each game). On the other hand, Finland has seven goals. How bad was the American power-play against the Swiss? “We were wondering if we could just decline the penalties and pick up the flag like they do in football,” Backes joked.

Against the Canadians, the U.S. dominated the play between the blue lines.  They were physical, maintained puck control, and they dictated the flow of the game in the neutral zone. They were able to infiltrate the Canadian defensive zone, and that led to their success.  In their last game, it was a different story. There were some power plays where the U.S. couldn’t even get the puck across the blue line. There’s no doubt Coach Wilson addressed this concern during practice, but we’ll see how well it translates to success in a game.

While the power play is struggling, the U.S. penalty kill has been outstanding, thanks in part to the defensive play of forwards Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan (both of the NY Rangers).  These two have been terrific, playing great zone-defense in their own zone and sacrificing their bodies to block shots.  In their previous game against Switzerland, 3 consecutive shots were blocked on the power play; Drury blocked one and Callahan blocked one.  If Finland gets on the power play today, watch how many U.S. players drop down to the ice to block an oncoming shot. When the U.S. is killing a penalty, pucks rarely get to the net.

One player to keep an eye on is Ryan Kesler. In many ways, Kesler symbolizes the identity of this U.S. team. When the Americans have been at their best in this tournament, they crashed and banged, showed incredible patience and tons of resilience. A little sand, a little swagger … a lot like Kesler.

Finland – Finland plays a very similar style to that of the U.S. This is a group of talented and hardworking forwards, who go after loose pucks and finish their checks, and they succeed when they get the defense involved in offensive zone.  They have been struggling when playing 5-on-5, however. The Finns haven’t scored an even-strength goal in their past two games. They won Wednesday’s quarterfinal against the Czechs with a power-play goal by Niklas Hagman and an empty-net tally. Three days earlier, in the final group game against rival Sweden, the Finns were shut out. So, scoring is a big issue, especially because Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu have yet to manage a goal. But, it doesn’t slow this team down.

“We won’t score four, five goals against top countries, so we have to play defense well,” Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen said. “We have to snuff them out, maybe let them score one goal, maximum two goals; and then we have a chance to win the game.” Finland can play this way because Kiprusoff has been terrific in net. He has two shutouts through four games and leads the tournament in save percentage.

Finland has 18 NHL players on their roster, including Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames), Selanne (Anaheim Ducks), Koivu (Anaheim, formerly Montreal), Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild, and Saku’s younger brother), and Olli Jokinen (NY Rangers).

Puck Drop
These two teams have a history in international hockey, as they have met 11 times in the Winter Games. The Americans have won six times, including a win in the 1980 gold-medal game. Finland has won three times, including the most recent 4-3 win in the quarterfinals in 2006, and the other two games have ended in ties.

This will be a bone-crunching game on both sides, with two of the most physical teams in the whole tournament.  “It’s always kind of fun to play (physical games), as well,” said Finland center Mikko Koivu. “That’s the way it should be.”

Look for players on both teams to go hard on every shift, fly after loose pucks, and finish every check.  Combine that physicality with the offensive skills of both teams and the spectacular goaltending, and this has the makings of one of the best games of the tournament. The Americans will need Ryan Kesler – whom Wilson has referred to as “a warrior” and who has been the team’s most consistently “on” player – to be at his best. Kesler plays with the mentality that he has one shift for the rest of his life: fighting for loose pucks, going hard every second, making big-time plays, playing with tireless effort. Those are the kinds of qualities that the Americans will need if they are going to advance in this tournament.

Prediction
Team USA was my pick to win silver, and they are on the verge of something extraordinary.  This group is young and aggressive, and has so much momentum heading into this game. They are focused entirely on the task at hand, Finland; not “who do we play next”, but “who do we play now”. The U.S. forwards will be aggressive on the forecheck, which will create turnovers in the Finland defensive zone. The U.S. wins the work-ethic battle, highlighted by Kesler, Drury, Bobby Ryan, captain Jamie Langenbrunner and David Backes. Ryan Miller will be terrific once again between the pipes. Finland will keep it close with their aggressiveness, goaltending, and offensive ability.  But I predict a USA victory.

Team USA wins, 4-2.

Shot Calling - Paul Stastny – 1 goal, 1 assist

Written By: Mike Ulatoski

United States (3-0-0-0, 9 points) vs. Switzerland (0-2-1-1, 5 points)

NOTE: records are presented as: three-point wins (regulation win), two-point wins (OT or shootout win), one-point losses (OT or shootout loss), zero-point losses (regulation loss).

What to Watch
On the line is a berth into Friday’s semifinals. The U.S. last medaled in Olympic hockey in 2002, winning silver. Switzerland hasn’t been on the podium since 1948, when they won bronze. These teams have met in the Olympics eight previous times, resulting in seven wins for the U.S.

Having already met in the first game of the tournament last week, it will be interesting to see if either team takes a different approach in this rematch. Obviously, both squads have had the opportunity to forge better chemistry and a lot has changed since meeting just 8 days ago. In that contest, the U.S. took a 3-0 lead after two periods and coasted to a 3-1 victory. Bobby Ryan, “Real American” David Backes, and Ryan Malone scored, and the U.S. held a 24-15 advantage in shots. Goaltender Ryan Miller made 14 saves and came within 10 minutes of posting a shutout in his Olympic debut.

“This was a very good opening game for the whole team,” said U.S. coach Ron Wilson. “It was the first Olympic experience for a lot of our players and I loved our discipline. We’re learning more about each other every day and we want to get better with each game.”

Since then, the Americans have built incredible momentum heading into the single-elimination portion of the tournament. Confidence is sky-high after knocking off arch-rival Canada and getting the #1 seed for the rest of the Olympics. Their two highest scorers are defensemen, Brian Rafalski (4 goals, 1 assist, 5 points) and Ryan Suter (0-4-4).  Out of the 20 U.S. skaters, 15 of them have recorded at least one point. Miller has the third-best save percentage (.929) after the preliminary round and has played every second in net.  He may be the MVP of the tournament after his performance against Canada.

Switzerland has produced 10 regulation goals in four games. They have received workmanlike goaltending from Jonas Hiller (.896 save percentage in preliminary round), who also has played every second for his team.

Watch for the U.S. to come out aggressive, as they did against Canada, and for the defensive game to be improved.  After surrendering 45 shots against Canada, positioning and backchecking were certainly some things Ron Wilson’s club worked on over the last 3 days.  Look for the U.S. to be aggressive again but this time a little more relaxed and composed.  Also, look for the defense to control the tempo of the Swiss attack, and play their best game of the tournament.

Last game - United States defeated Canada, 5-3, on Sunday in the preliminary round. Switzerland defeated Belarus, 3-2, in a shootout on Tuesday in the qualification round.


Team Reports

United States - After defeating Switzerland in the preliminary round, Backes said, “A win’s a win, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to be where we want to be.”  There’s no better place to be now than the No. 1 seed in the tournament. But that’s not the ultimate goal of this team.  The pressure is on, and some of it is coming from within.  Despite beating Canada on its own turf Sunday, GM Brian Burke said his team was fortunate to escape with a win. Burke said the U.S. was outplayed for two periods and was bailed out by a heroic effort from Ryan Miller.

“You guys are probably going to be shocked by this, but I’m not happy with the way we’ve played to this point,” Burke said the day after the game. “If that’s how we play, we’re going to have a hard time getting to where we want to get here and medaling.”

Typical Burke. The U.S. was outshot 19-6 in first period and 14-4 in the third. Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur faced only 22 shots and the U.S. was fortunate to capitalize on his poor puckhandling, which may have made all the difference in the final outcome.

“We got out-chanced 2-1,” Burke said. “Our goaltender stole us a game. That’s what happened. People can say that Canada didn’t play well. I don’t agree with that. Except for the goaltending position, we didn’t deserve to win that game.”

Miller was spectacular, and the U.S. might not have had more chances but they were the ones that capitalized. However you look at it, this team is here to win and has done nothing but win so far.  They aren’t here just to say they played in the Olympics; they’re here to take home a medal, and they realize just beating Canada does not get you a medal. These players realize their work is not done yet.

On a side note, the U.S. was the least-penalized team in the preliminary round, as they played shorthanded for only 14 minutes (seven minor penalties) in three games.

Switzerland - Since the 3-1 loss to the U.S., the Swiss have regrouped nicely and have not been easy to play against. A 3-2 shootout loss to Canada, a 5-4 overtime win against Norway, and the 3-2 shootout victory against Belarus have taken this team on a wild roller-coaster ride. They should be ready for anything that comes their way in a rematch against the U.S.

After the back-and-forth victory against Norway, captain Mark Streit (defenseman for the Islanders) admitted his squad plays its best as underdogs. Streit will be a central figure and has to play better Wednesday if the Swiss have any chance at an upset. He has 3 assists in four games while averaging a team-high 26:26 of ice time per game. He played over 30 minutes against Belarus and might not be fully recovered in 24 hours to play a much faster U.S. side.  Goalie Jonas Hiller will have to stand on his head to give the Swiss a chance, but he is more than capable of doing so.

Puck Drop
You can argue that both teams have momentum heading into this quarterfinal match. Switzerland is bringing momentum from Tuesday’s nail-biter win against Belarus. The U.S. is coming off an emotional win – some might say its biggest and best Olympic win since 1980.

“Thank God there are some guys pulling on the rope, but we need everyone pulling on the rope,” Burke said. “… They don’t hand out any medals for finishing first in the preliminary round.”

“I would still say we would be the underdogs on our lack of experience, certainly now that the tournament takes on a whole new meaning with single elimination. We do need to get a lot better,” said Chris Drury.

Prediction
You can call the USA’s victory over Canada lucky, but thanks to their tough-love GM there is no mistaking that this team is focused on the big prize, which is only three wins away. If the U.S. plays a tighter defensive game and shows a better killer instinct, Switzerland will have little to no chance of moving on. Depth of their forwards, size, speed, goaltending … the U.S. holds every clear advantage. I see a 4-0 win for the Red, White, and Blue.

Shot Calling – goal today for Zach Parise.

Written By: Mike Ulatoski

United States (2-0-0-0, 6 points) vs. Canada (1-1-0-0, 5 points)

NOTE: records are presented as: three-point wins (wins in regulation time) – two-point wins (wins in OT or shootout) – one-point losses (loss in OT or shootout), zero-point losses – (loss in regulation time).

What To Watch For:

This game will decide the Group A title, which gives the winning team a bye into Wednesday’s quarterfinals. Despite the one-point difference between the teams, the winner of Sunday’s game will advance. If the Canadians win in overtime or a shootout, the teams will be tied with seven points, but Canada would get the bye because of the preliminary round’s head-to-head record against the Americans. The second-place team in this group would still be in the running for the fourth bye into the quarterfinals, given to the team with the best record of the three second-place finishers. If the loser of Sunday’s game does not get the fourth bye, it will have to play in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home qualification game against one of the bottom three teams in pool play.

This game is about a lot more than seeding. It is about national pride between two mortal enemies, a rivalry that brings out the best in both teams. The winner will get an unbelievable boost in confidence heading into the quarterfinals, while the loser will have precious time to do some serious regrouping.

Last game – United States defeated Norway, 6-1, on Thursday; Canada defeated Switzerland, 3-2, in a shootout on Thursday.

Team Reports

United States - Despite winning the first two games of the tournament in regulation, the Americans are still looking for answers as this game approaches. They have been able to get their first line – Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Paul Stastny – on track.  Now, the U.S. is thinking about playing Kane with Bobby Ryan and Ryan Kesler, to give Kane more freedom to freelance. This means that New Jersey’s Jamie Langenbrunner would likely move up to play with Parise, his Devils’ teammate, and Stastny.

So far, the Americans have been carried offensively by traditional power forwards. Ryan Malone has a goal in each game, and The Real American David Backes has been devastating on the forecheck. They are also confident in goalie Ryan Miller, who has been spectacular at times and on top of his game, despite not facing a ton of shots.  Much of the downtime for Team USA’s coaches before Sunday’s game was spent talking about the power play, which has struggled mightily in going 2-for-8 so far in the tournament. American coach Ron Wilson believes it is just a matter of timing on the breakout portion of the man-advantage scheme and that it can be readily fixed. He also wants his defensemen to shoot early and often on the power play, something they have been reluctant to do so far.

Canada - There are the slightest hints of panic in and around the Canadian camp after Switzerland erased a two-goal deficit Thursday to push the game to a shootout. In that game, a few holes were exposed in the Canadian lineup. Both coach Mike Babcock and GM Steve Yzerman have been trying to ease the worry, insisting that everything is fine. They can say whatever they want; there are questions surrounding this team.

First, who will play in goal going forward? Babcock has already said that Martin Brodeur is his goalie on Sunday, but Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo pitched a shutout against Norway and is the hometown favorite. There will be pressure to get him another game. Also, who will play wing on Sidney Crosby’s line? Several players — including Jarome Iginla, Patrice Bergeron and Mike Richards — have been given chances. We’ll have to wait and see who plays alongside Crosby on Sunday. Finally, can this team keep its cool as the pressure mounts? Defenseman Chris Pronger was in the midst of committing a retaliatory penalty when the Swiss scored the goal that tied the game 2-2 in the second period. The Canadians might not be able to keep their cool as the Games continue, and as the weight of winning gold gets heavier. Babcock admitted many of his players were squeezing their sticks in the last 10 minutes of regulation and throughout overtime against the Swiss, as the Canadian fans in the crowd grew restless. Is the pressure of winning gold on home ice too much for this Canadian team?

“I thought the game turned when they got their first goal,” Babcock said. “We tightened up. In every championship I’ve been a part of, your team has to go through adversity and we were able to survive it.” The fact that a close win is considered adversity shows how closely this team is being watched.

Total NHL players on rosters – USA 23; Canada 23.

Puck Drop

The Canada-USA game is the biggest matchup of the preliminary round, with both teams featuring some of the world’s best players.  With Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur between the pipes, Sunday’s game features the marquee goaltending matchup of the entire tournament.  Once this game ends, we are going to know whether Brian Burke’s youthful, energetic U.S. squad has the jam to play with the world’s best. We are going to find out a lot about this team’s character, intensity, and maturity, and even though it is not an elimination game, it looms as the biggest game in which most of these U.S. players have ever played. As a nation, the United States’ game Sunday night looms as its most important international contest since the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City in 2002.  This game will be a gauge of Team USA’s cohesion, chemistry, and will to win in big games.

As a number of U.S. players pointed out, the Canadians will embarrass them in a hurry if they don’t play smart.

But in the backs of their minds, they’re also thinking about the alternative – beating the Canadians in their own backyard, and announcing to the rest of the teams in this tournament that the Americans are here, and they are for real.

Prediction

This game will be a battle, plain and simple; great goaltending, tenacious hitting, and relentless offensive attacks from both teams. Both teams will come out looking sloppy for about the first ten minutes or so, given the atmosphere that will be in Hockey Place tonight and the emotions that will be running through every player. After the Americans slumbered their way through long periods of time of their win over Norway, they have ramped up all elements of their game. From forechecking to breakouts, to defensive play to the power play, this US team is focused on making big plays and doing all the little things right. The US announces to the rest of the hockey world that they are here to win a medal, and that announcement will be made tonight. The US pulls out a hard-fought victory over Canada, 3-2 in regulation.

Shot Calling – goal for Phil Kessel and Jamie Langenbrunner tonight.

USA (1-0-0-0, 3 points) vs. Norway (0-0-1-0, 0 points)

What to Watch For:
For Norway, all eyes will be on goalie Pal Grotnes, who was brilliant for two periods versus Canada before leaving with an injury, believed to be leg cramps.  If Grotnes is able to go, as he believes he will be, the Norwegians have a puncher’s chance.

For the United States, it will be interesting to see where their chemistry stands.  Against the Swiss, there were a few occasions where guys were caught out of position, and there were a number of ill-advised passes.  Team USA has only been together for three days and is still trying to find its way when it comes to line combinations and chemistry on the ice.  Will a full day of practice set the team right? We should find out early on against the Norwegians.

Last game
USA beat Switzerland, 3-1; Norway was defeated by Canada, 8-0.

Team Reports

Norway – The Norwegians threw a scare into the Canadians for one period on Tuesday by playing a passive forecheck that closed down the neutral zone and blunted Canada’s speed. Clearly, they will try to do the same against the Americans.  A “defense-first” style only works if you have the ability to counter-attack offensively.  The Norwegians have zero NHL players on their roster.

USA - The American fourth line was the team’s most dangerous in Tuesday’s game.  With goals from Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan, “Real American” David Backes of the St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone, the Americans have no goals yet from their top-six forwards.  But, the top line of Zach Parise, Paul Statsny and Patrick Kane did manage to fire 8 of Team USA’s 24 shots.  Look for that top line to produce Tuesday.  The Americans will also look to goalie Ryan Miller, who played very well against Switzerland and made the saves he needed to make.

Total NHL players - Norway: 0. USA: 23

Puck Drop
Don’t expect the USA to take the Norwegians lightly.  The Americans know they need to be hitting on all cylinders come Saturday’s showdown against Canada. Norway provides the perfect opportunity for a quick tune-up to work out any fixable setbacks.

“This is the first 60 minutes that these guys have played together and, with that yardstick, I’m pleased with the game,” American GM Brian Burke said. “Some of these guys barely know each other. You’re not going to get the reading off of each other that you get from units that play together on a regular basis. You’re not going to see that, not early in the tournament anyway.”

Prediction
The Americans find their offensive groove in this game and set the pace early on.  Team USA wins 5-1.

Shot Calling - goal for Phil Kessel.

Coming from someone who has never stepped foot in a pair of skis or on a snowboard, I have an unbelievable amount of respect for USA Snowboarder, Shaun White. The Artist Formerly Known as “The Flying Tomato”(due to his red hair) has been renamed, “Animal”; solely based on the Muppets character, Animal, who shares the same hair style as White(pictured below). For years, I have tuned in to exclusively watch White compete in various X-Game events. White competes in Snowboarding, Skateboarding, and Surfing. The guy can deny gravity with any type of board. White is truly the face of extreme sports.

White took it to a whole new level tonight. After posting a score of 46.4 during his first run of two(out of a possible 50); no competitor came within a 1 point of White’s score. White’s 2nd run was a victory lap. He had already clinched Gold. However, he wanted a historic run. White unveiled a trick that he has been secretly crafting for months now, a 1260 Double McTwist. The trick includes three revolutions with two mid-air flips. Watch this link: It’s truly worth the 2:24.

While I’ve been skeptical of the Olympics, White and the US Hockey team are the true bright spots of the games for me. Hopefully we’ll see another ‘Miracle’ on ice this year. We already saw Animal win Gold. If only Kermit won silver.

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.

Predictions
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.
Medals
Gold: Canada

Silver: USA

Bronze: Sweden

4th Place: Russia
NYR
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.