Blue Line Bill’s Olympic Hockey Report

"Blue Line" Bill Stoklosa

Curling and hockey are the only two team sports in the Winter Olympics, and only hockey includes players you have heard of before this February. Aside from the name recognition, both the men’s and the women’s tournament will feature some of the best competition in Vancouver.

Women’s hockey has been going on in Vancouver since this past Saturday, and the Canadians have been dominant early. The Olympic champions from Salt Lake and Torino set an Olympic record for a winning margin in their first game, with an 18-0 shellacking of Slovakia. The Slovakian team, you may remember, was the team that beat the Bulgarians 82-0 during Olympic qualification. Part of me really would like to see a Canada versus Bulgaria matchup. Canada followed up their game against Slovakia with a 10-1 victory over Switzerland. The Canadians are led by Meghan Agosta, who already has five goals and two assists, and Jayna Hefford, who has a team high eight points with four goals and four assists.

Canada seems destined for a confrontation in the gold medal match with the U.S.A. The Americans were almost as impressive as the Canadians in their debut, destroying the Chinese by a 12-1 score. They followed that up with 13-0 shutout of the Russians. The U.S. is led by the wizardly play of Jenny Potter, who has had a hat trick in both of the American victories.

The U.S, Canada, Finland and Sweden have all already clinched spots in the semifinals for women’s hockey. Most likely the semifinals will both be rematches of the semis in Torino, with Canada playing Finland and the U.S. playing Sweden. The latter country shocked the U.S. in the semifinals four years ago, but with the U.S. on their guard now that’s unlikely to happen again. Canada easily handled Finland in Torino and should do so again this time out.

That would set up a matchup between the U.S and Canada for the gold, which should be an exciting match between the two most talented teams in the tournament. The two nations have a heated rivalry; the Americans and Canadians have met in the final of every world championship in the history of women’s hockey and two of the three Olympic finals. Canada though is a bit more talented and should earn the gold. Also look for Sweden to edge Finland in the bronze medal game, as Sweden played better than Finland in Torino and so far in Vancouver as well.

Unlike the women’s side, in the men’s tournament there are seven teams with a legitimate shot at a medal. Sorry fans of Switzerland, Norway, Latvia, Belarus and Germany, but your teams have no shot. The defending gold medal champions, the Swedes, certainly do. Sweden’s top forwards are exceptional. They have Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedin twins and Peter Forsberg. Their top three defensemen are also solid, as the Swedes boast Henrik Tallinder, Mattias Ohlund and Nicklas Lidstrom. They have a pretty solid goalie too, in Henrik Lundqvist, but he is having somewhat of a down year in the NHL, which might translate into some struggles in Vancouver as well. They also don’t have great depth, but their top players are as good as any team out there.

The Fins lost to the Swedes in the finals four years ago. They boast a solid defense led by Toni Lydman and Sami Salo. However, their forwards, like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu are getting old and they have big questions in goal. Their top two goalies, Niklas Backstrom and Miikka Kiprusoff have been good in the past, but have struggled this year in the NHL. Finland looks primed for a drop off in this year’s Olympics.

The bronze medalists from Torino, the Czech Republic, also look ready for a decline this year. They have a solid goalie in Tomas Vokun, but in front of him there seem to be fewer elite players on this Czech squad than we’ve seen in the past. Jaromir Jagr is once again on the Czech roster but he is nowhere near as talented as he was when the Czechs played in past Winter Games.

The Czech’s former countrymen, the Slovakians, seem to be a team on the rise however. They boast a solid defense led by Zdeno Chara and Andrej Sekera. They also have a great top line of forwards with Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra, and Marian Gaborik. However, a lack of any goalie that starts in the NHL will keep them from the medal podium.

The most potent offense is found on the Russian team. They have some of the best goal scorers in the NHL, including Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Ovechkin. They also have two solid goalies in Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov. However their defensemen are a little shaky and their forwards aren’t exactly known for their defensive prowess either.

The Canadians also feature an impressive offense, featuring such stalwarts as Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. Their defense is also superb, with stars like Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle. Add to that a pair of elite goalies in Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, and this looks like a team poised to win gold. They certainly looked impressive in their opener, blowing out Norway by a score of 8-0 behind an Iginla hat trick.

The Americans will also challenge for a medal, in large part thanks to goaltender Ryan Miller. He is second in the NHL in save percentage this season and there is no reason to think he won’t be a star in the Olympics. Miller is a vast improvement over Rick DiPietro and Robert Esche, who played between the pipes for the U.S. in Torino, where the Americans won just a single game. The U.S. should also be better on offense with young stars like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, David Backes and Dustin Brown playing in their first Olympics. Their defense is also solid with the likes of Brian Rafalski and Erik Johnson. They aren’t as talented as Russia or Canada, but they will be tough to score on and a difficult opponent for anyone in the tournament. The U.S. looked good in their opener, beating Switzerland, a team that upset Canada and the Czech Republic in Torino. The game was, as expected, a low scoring one, since the Swiss boast a stud goalie in Jonas Hiller and are a defense-oriented team, while the U.S. is not exactly an offensive juggernaut. However, the U.S. played great defense, made the most of their chances, and beat the Swiss 3-1.

I think the Americans have the defense and the goaltending to win the bronze. I predict that they will be able the stymie the formidable Swedish attack in the third place game. As for the first place match, Russia and Canada will meet there, and Canada’s superior defense and goaltending will be the difference. Sorry team USA fans, but this round of Olympic Hockey will be a sweep for our neighbors to the north, unless another miracle comes along.