With the opening ceremonies set to commence on Friday, February 7th 2014, NHL players have just over a week before friends become foes and close rivals put on the same jersey to battle for National glory.
A strong case can be made that Olympic Gold is an even more prestigious accolade than (“the most beautiful piece of silver in the world”) The Stanley Cup. And while I maintain that the NHL’s “holy grail” is the most difficult trophy in all sports to win (four grueling rounds of best-of-seven series), it’s nearly impossible to articulate the honor and value of representing an entire country against the best players from all around the globe.
Defending home ice, Team Russia will enter competition with the most pressure of any nation to win Gold. All the while, les habitants of Canada expect nothing less from their national team. The Americans boast a very similar roster to the deep and balanced squad that settled for Silver at the hands of Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal in the Gold Medal game after Zach Parise valiantly sent the game into the extra session in the final minute. At the same time, Team Sweden may be looking at the most talented roster they’ve seen in a long time with 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and budding star Gabriel Landeskog joining an already deep, star-laden roster. And with Tuukka Rask in net and Teemu Selanne on his farewell tour, don’t count out the Bronze Medal winners from 2010’s Olympic Games in Vancouver, Team Finland.
The Russians likely boast the most pure offensive talent of any team, including Team Canada. Don’t be surprised to see them scoring upwards of 6 goals, especially in the preliminary rounds. The key for this team will depend on the quality of goaltending they receive. Self-proclaimed astrophysicist Ilya Bryzgalov appears to be the likely starter, and whether Russia gets the 2010 Vezina candidate (for the league’s best goaltender) or the goalie that couldn’t stop a beachball for the Philadelphia Flyers before being bought out this past offseason will be the biggest factor in determining just how far this team can go.
Players To Watch:
Alex Ovechkin (who will be the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch toward Sochi) currently leads the NHL with 38 goals in just 49 games.
Just over a year ago, Ovechkin declared that he would play for Team Russia in Sochi even if the NHL didn’t decide to send their players to the games. This tournament means everything to the natural goal-scorer and we should expect to see his play illustrate that from the first drop of the puck. Carrying the torch? “The Great Eight” has already caught fire this season.
Pavel Datsyuk is widely considered the best two-way player in the game. His stickhandling prowess is second-to-none, and his playmaking and overall offensive ability are both dynamic and elite. He thinks and sees the game on a higher wavelength than 99% of his fellow players, but teammates say that his best quality is how he makes the players around him better, drawing defenders to him and finding the open man for a prime scoring opportunity. Look for his talents to shine even brighter on the larger rink.
The defending Olympic Gold Medal winners look to repeat their 2010 performance with an even stronger and healthier lineup. They are without compare, the deepest and most balanced team in the tournament. They can play any type of game. Want to grind it out? They have the size and strength. Want to play a skill game? They certainly have the talent. Up-tempo? You don’t want to get into a run-and-gun game and trade chances with the Canadians. There is no stopping this team. The only hope is to contain them. They will get their chances. The task for opposing teams will be to attempt to weather the storm and convert the few chances that Canada concedes. Any team that beats Canada will need the right combination of stellar goaltending and timely scoring.
Players To Watch:
John Tavares is at it again, making his case for The Hart Trophy (league MVP) with 23 goals and 41 assists (64 points) in 54 games as the key cog and cornerstone of the New York Islanders offense. Tavares can beat you in so many ways: speed, physicality, playmaking, shooting. One of his most impressive traits is his ability to subtly change speeds and throw defenders off. He’ll enter the zone with a full head of steam, then stutter-step and force the defender to react before pushing hard off his back skate and blowing past the defender towards the net. This dynamic ability makes him one of the most dangerous offensive players in the game and he will likely be among the leading scorers in the tournament.
Rick Nash has scored 11 goals in his last 10 games, making him one of the hottest players in the league entering the Olympic break. Heading into the second Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium in New York, Nash has found his stride after a slow start to the season. Because of Canada’s scoring depth and his size and two-way ability, Nash will actually be used in a “checking” role, but don’t be shocked to see Nash light the lamp with regularity on the larger ice surface.
To Be Continued…
Rejoin us tomorrow for previews on Team USA, Team Sweden, and Team Finland! And find out which nation’s team is this year’s DARKHORSE pick!
by Brett ‘Bretzky’ Rosenfeld