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Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
This could be the last time the NHL stops its season for the Olympics. So, it would be wise to watch the action in Vancouver closely, because it could be your final shot to see hockey's best at the Winter Games.
However, the fact that the NHL's future participation in the Olympics is up in the air has succeeded in adding a bit of drama to this year's tournament in Vancouver. Not that the issue concerning the next tourney is even needed to make things interesting. The fact that the Winter Games are being staged in hockey-crazy Canada would have already been enough to create substantial hype for the 2010 Olympics.
Other than this possibly being the last time NHLers will skate in the Olympics, the Vancouver Games will be also unique in that this will be the first time since the format change in '98 that players will be skating on an NHL-sized ice rink. This is a result of the Olympics being staged in a city with an NHL franchise, the Vancouver Canucks.
Both ice hockey venues, General Motors Place and UBC Thunderbird Arena, will feature rinks that are 200 X 85 feet instead of the larger international-sized surfaces (200 X 98.5 ft.). Also GM Place, where the Canucks play, will be known as Canada Hockey Place during the Games due to an Olympic rule that forbids venues from bearing corporate names.
The smaller rinks should benefit the Canadians and Team USA in theory. Still, European powerhouses like Russia and Sweden are loaded with NHL players who will be very familiar with the narrower surfaces.
Here is a look at my predictions for how the tournament will play out in Vancouver.
Being the host country gives Team Canada an edge in this year's tournament, but with the deepest roster at the Winter Games it's not like they needed much of a boost. The Canadians will be aiming for the second gold medal in the last three Winter Games, and they'll also try to wipe away the lingering stench from a dreadful seventh-place finish at the 2006 Torino Games.
It was somewhat of a surprise when then-19-year-old Sidney Crosby was left off the '06 edition of Team Canada, but Pittsburgh's captain was a no-brainer this time around. He leads a star-studded offensive unit that also includes forwards Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Eric Staal. Canada is also stacked talent-wise at the blue line, with Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger providing a veteran presence to a defensive corps that has four first- time Olympians.
Canada's biggest asset come Olympic time has always been its domination in the goaltending department. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, a future Hall-of-Famer, is back for a fourth Winter Games, and he should battle for playing time with Roberto Luongo, netminder for the hometown Canucks. Marc-Andre Fleury is likely just along for the ride this time around, but as the No. 1 goaltender for the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, he's better than most nations' top choice.
Team Canada has everything going in its favor heading into Vancouver. They have the most talent on paper, home-ice advantage and the Canadians are looking to make up for the disappointing finish at the '06 Winter Games. The Canadians will face a serious challenge from the Russians, but it's difficult to not think of head coach Mike Babcock's team as the prohibitive favorites.
While Crosby is making his Olympic debut, Ovechkin is back for his second run at gold. The Washington Capitals superstar scored five goals at the Torino Games, but Team Russia finished a disappointing fourth. A team of Russians hasn't claimed gold since they played as the Unified Team in 1992, but the 2010 squad has the best chance to do so since that year in Albertville.
Ovechkin heads what could be the most-talented group of forwards in the tourney, joining forces with Crosby's Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, who was recently traded from Atlanta to New Jersey. Evgeni Nabokov is also a stellar first option in net, but the Russians weak spot comes with a lack of depth on defense. Will the offense be able to carry Ovechkin and Co. to the top prize? They may not have enough depth overall to outlast the Canadians, but it would be a surprise if the Russians aren't a part of the medal ceremony.
Despite winning gold four years ago in Italy, the Swedes come into the Vancouver Games as somewhat of an afterthought. However, it would be a mistake to count Team Sweden out of the gold-medal hunt just because they don't have a superstar of Crosby or Ovechkin's caliber. Peter Forsberg is the biggest name for the Swedes, but the former Hart Trophy winner hasn't played in the NHL since 2007-08 and has been slowed in recent years by chronic foot problems.
Team Sweden's two biggest assets will have a home-ice advantage of sorts, as twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin, star forwards for the Vancouver Canucks will get to play in their adopted home during the Games. The Sedins have been steadily improving since coming into the NHL in 2000-01 and are playing the best hockey of their careers for the Canucks this season. A stellar goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist - who backstopped the Swedes to gold four years ago - and the deepest blueline this side of Team Canada gives captain Nicklas Lidstrom and his countrymen a strong chance at repeating the magic of '06.
It's been 28 years since a group of college hockey players claimed gold for the U.S. at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, and the wait for another title will likely go on past Vancouver.
The Americans enter the 2010 Olympics with a very young team, but one that has serious talent on offense with a group of forwards that includes Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and Bobby Ryan.
Only three Americans have competed previously at the Winter Games, including winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who will serve as this year's captain. Top defenseman Brian Rafalski and forward Chris Drury have also participated previously in the Olympics. Notably absent from the U.S. squad is 39-year-old center Mike Modano, who is widely considered to be the best American hockey player of all-time.
Still, the U.S. goaltending situation looks stronger than it has in the past. Buffalo Sabres backstop Ryan Miller and Boston's Tim Thomas, who won the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL last year, are a solid 1-2 punch in the crease.
Head coach Ron Wilson may be able to get this team to the medal round, but it would be unwise to expect the Americans to make a run like they did when they won silver in Salt Lake City eight years ago.
The Czechs are hardly the same caliber team that won the gold when NHLers were first allowed to skate in the Olympics 12 years ago in Japan, but at least they still have Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr's NHL career ended following his 2007-08 season with the New York Rangers, but he has played the last two seasons in Russia's KHL. Outside of Jagr and forwards Patrik Elias and Martin Havlat, this current group of Czechs lacks the name recognition of the 1998 gold medal-winning team.
Tomas Vokoun is a solid No. 1 option in net for the Czech Republic, although he isn't likely to will his country to gold the way Dominik Hasek did in Nagano.
In short, the Czechs are still a player in international hockey, just not one that is expected to claim a medal of any kind.
The Finns won silver four years ago in Torino, thanks mostly to outstanding play in net by Antero Niittymaki. Barring a repeat performance from this year's projected top goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, Team Finland is likely not headed back to the medal podium.
At 39 years of age, Teemu Selanne is Finland's top offensive weapon and the defensive corps is spotty at best.
This talented team boasts big-time offensive weapons in Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik, but there is little else on this roster that makes one think Team Slovakia can win a medal. Also, they are playing in Group B with Russia and Czech Republic, a fact that will not help the Slovaks' chances of advancing far.
BEST OF THE REST
Of the remaining nations participating in the men's tourney this year, Germany is the most talented. Still, it would be somewhat of a shock to see the Germans make it out of their group, let alone claim a medal of any kind.