Vancouver 2010 Olympic Hockey Preview

It's been four days since the opening ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 games, and we're finally ready to drop the puck on one of the most anticipated hockey tournaments of our generation. Even with Olympic hockey tournaments in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, in 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2006 in Torino, Italy, this tournament has to be exciting for hockey fans everywhere. Never has there been such a star-studded tournament of hockey that actually meant something on Canadian soil. Seldom do so many good players and stars get together to represent their country and decide who has the best ability to put a championship team together.

And despite the hype surrounding team Canada and the necessity for Steve Yzerman's troups to bring the Olympic gold home, at home, never has a tournament been so hard to predict. You could argue that at least three of the teams participating are favorites to win medals (in whatever order), with three more standing a good chance to surprise a few people and break their way onto the podium.

Without further adieu, here's a preview of how these six teams match-up before the tournament begins:

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THE FAVORITES: TEAM CANADA

As mentioned above, Canada has to be considered a favorite to win the tournament. With strengths at every position, Team Canada's 2010 team might be one of the best collection of Canadian players ever assembles. A combination of youth and veteran leadership, not to mention talent and grit, Canada is a fair complete team.

In goal, Martin Brodeur will provide veteran experience, while Roberto Luongo provides talent that we may not have seen in a long time between the pipes. Both are proven leaders. Marc-Andre Fleury isn't too shabby himself. In fact, it was reported that Martin Brodeur took Fleury under his wing at the Olympic orientation camp, and that experience might be priceless if something happens to either Brodeur or Luongo and Fleury has to suddenly take over the goaltending duties.

On defense, the experience and leadership of Scott Neidermayer will prove to be just as priceless. He will be expected to do exactly what Steve Yzerman did for the team as a player in 2002. He's in his last Olympics, on home soil, and he wants to win. He can still be a factor and a force on defense. Having his former defense partner, Chris Pronger, standing by him will help, as he also provides experience and leadership (with an A on his jersey), but Pronger will need to keep his emotions in check and lay off the stupid penalties. Dan Boyle is the underrated veteran amongst the ones who have seen more action in the league, while Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, and Chicago defense tandem Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook represent Canada's top 4 of the future. Doughty is the likely player to sit most of the games out.

Up front might be Canada's strongest point. While teams like Sweden and Russia will certainly be able to match Canada's firepower, something they might not be able to match is their size. Canada has but one forward under 200lbs, Patrice Bergeron, and not a single player is under 5'11''. All four centers on Team Canada (not to mention the two spares who are likely to play wing, Toews and Staal) will be tough to deal with. Crosby, Thornton, Richards and Getzlaf are frustrating to play against because you can't knock them off the puck, and they do so much, all over the ice. Add some rugged wingers with varying scoring touch like Iginla, Morrow, Nash, Heatley, Marleau, just to name a few, and Canada is a very intimidating team.

Not a single team in this tournament matches their combination of talent and ruggedness. But will they be able to translate that into a gold medal victory?

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THE FAVORITES: TEAM RUSSIA

Russia is the other team that everyone's picking to win the tournament. Just as strong as Canada in goal, carrying a few studs on defense and insanely talent up front, Russia has to be another favorite. Some say their demise might be in the fact that nearly half their players aren't NHLers, but that doesn't mean they aren't as good as most of the players on any other team.

In goal, Russia went with three NHLers. Leading the fray is San Jose netminder Evgeni Nabokov, who has won gold in the 2008 world championships and played for russian in Torino. Ilya Bryzgalov is #2, having won a bronze in Salt Late, a gold in the 2009 world championship and a silver in the 2002 world juniors. Young Semyon Varlamov is Russia's goalie of the future, and while he's won two silvers at the world juniors, he will most likely be watching these games from the press box. This group of three certainly mirrors Canada's trio, and may even surpass them, when push comes to shove.

On defense, Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov are the clear cut first tandem. Markov had an injury scare this past weekend with the Canadiens, but will good to go for his team. Volchenkov and Tuytin will most likely be the second pairing, and Grebeshkov and three players from the KHL (Korneyev, Nikulin and former NHLers Dmitri Kalinin) will have to battle it out for the final two spots. It's hard to judge the talent level of this group compared to other teams, since some of these players are non-NHLers, but you can't deny that the top three of Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov is as good as any other top three in the tournament.

As mentioned before, Russia's top-end offensive talent might be unmatched. Everyone knows how good Alexander Ovechkin is, not to mention Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Semin, and Maxim Afinogenov, filling out one of the most stacked top six in the tournament. Russia also has some very good experienced players, including Sergei Federov, Aleksey Morozov, and Viktor Kozlov. All three play in Russia now, but know how to play on small ice and will definitely be assets, not liabilities.

Russia's demise might come in one of either two ways. Team Russia's ambitious move to stack their team with KHLers instead of NHLers with small ice experience, and the ''have fun first'' attitude of guys like Ovechkin and Malkin. These guys are out to prove that hockey is Russia's game, not Canada's, but they might also might want to wait and prove that when the games are in their home country in four years.

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THE FAVORITES: TEAM SWEDEN

Sweden is the forgotten favorite in this year's tournament. Almost everyone seems to have forgotten that this team won gold in Torino, and that a lot of the same players are back to try and repeat their title.

In goal, Henrik Lunqvist returns to defend his title as starting goalie, and despite struggling somewhat with the Rangers, he will get that chance. His back-up, Stefan Liv, has a lot of international experience and will provide a suitable back-up. He and Jonas Gustavsson will battle for a spot on the bench, versus a spot in the press box. Sweden's goaltending is not as deep as other teams, but they, just like Russia and Canada, have their stud between the pipes.

On defense, Detroit's Lidstrom and Kronwall will be the #1 and #2 d-men, and will provide a tough test for any other team trying to get past them. Lidstrom has struggled mightily in the NHL this year, but is still one of the best defenders in the history of the game and will up the ante for Olympic Gold. Kronwall has battled a knee injury in recent times, but he has been back in the Wings line-up for nearly a month and will also be up to form for the games. The Experienced duo of Henrik Tallinder and Mattias Ohlund round out Sweden's impressive top 4, while Johnny Oduya, Doug Murray, Tobias Enstrom and Magnus Johansson will battle it out for the final two spot and coveted Olympic experience.

Just like Canada and Russia, Sweden's forwards are the scariest part of their line-up. Their centers, Henrik Sedin, Petr Forsberg, Nicklas Backstrom, and Henrik Zetterberg, might actually surpass Canada in impressiveness. Two stanley cup winners, two of the current scoring leaders in the NHL. Backing them up on the wings will be Henrik's twin Daniel, who has also been lighting up the league, Ottawa Captain Daniel Alfredsson and late addition Johan Franzen.

Sweden's most undervalued and underrated part of their roster may be their checking line. Columbus teammates Fred Modin and Sammi Pahlsson will likely line up with either Loui Eriksson or Patrik Hornqvist to form Sweden's shutdown line, and they will be a force to be reckoned with. Lets not forget Pahlsson was key in the 2006 victory, not to mention the Anaheim Ducks 2007 Stanley Cup victory.

Sweden might quietly get themselves into the gold medal game. They're nearly certain to win their group, and will definitely contend in the elimination round.

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THE BEST OF THE REST: FINLAND

People have seemingly forgotten Finland at these games. The silver medalists at Torino have always been a force to be reckoned with in international play, and while their line-up might not be what it once was, they still have some studs in every position. They're a lock to get out of the group stage with Sweden, and could surprise a few teams in the elimination round.

Their goaltending is solid with three NHLers, including Calgary's Miika Kiprusoff, a man who has led Finland to victory in the past. Backing him up will be Minnesota's Nick Backstrom and the Bots Niitymaki. Kimmo Timonen is their number one defenseman, and while their blueline is somewhat thin compared to other teams, they still have the names such as Pitkanen, Ludman and Salo. Their forwards are certainly impressive, with the ''glory line'' of Saku Koivu, Jiri Lehtonen and Teemu Selanne leading the way in what will likely be their last Olympics. Saku's brother Mikko will be Finland's top forward and will give his country their best chance of winning.

Finland has some amazing players, but they don't seem like the contender they once were. Still, their experience might lead them to a solid performance.

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THE BEST OF THE REST: TEAM USA

Brian Burke has taken criticism for some of his selections for Vancouver's tournament, and they bump his team out of the favorites. While Ryan Miller is good enough on his own to lead a mediocre team to victory, he has yet to proven that he can actually win it all. Same with Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick. Brian Rafalski leads their defense, but beyond him there isn't a real star among USA's defensemen. Brooks Orpik is a winner, the Johnsons and Ryan Suter are studs, and Ryan Whitney is a capable top-4 defenseman, but there's nothing that really screams ''Wow'' from USA's blueline. Up front isn't any better for the country. Beyond Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, team USA has a great, but not amazing group of forwards. Dustin Brown, captan Jamie Langenbrunner, Bobby Ryan, Paul Stastny, Ryan Kesler, all great players, but is this young core able to kill Canada's, Sweden's and Russia's experience and skill?

Then, of course, there's Chris Drury, who somehow makes up for everyone else's inexperience and lack of penalty-killing skills.

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THE BEST OF THE REST: TEAM SLOVAKIA & TEAM CZECH REPUBLIC

Slovakia is unique in that it has incredible top-level talent, and then not much else. Jaroslav Halak gives Slovakia their best shot at winning. Zdeno Chara is a true #1 d-man on even most olympic teams. Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra are as good as they come in terms of forwards.But beyond that, and some former NHLers such as Ziggy Palffy, Richard Zednik and Josef Stumpel, there isn't much that's really attractive to the eye on their roster. But they could definitely surprise.

The Czech Republic has been grouped here not because they used to be the same country, or they have a rivalry, but the fact that they find themselves int he same division as Russia means that only one of them will make the cut from the group stage. Tomas Vokoun means they will have a shot, as do Tomas Kaberle, Filip Kuba and Pavel Kubina on defense. Tomas Plekanec is by far their best center, and alines with some good wingers such as captain Patrick Elias, Martin Erat, Tomas Fleishmann, Martin Havlat, Milan Michalek, and, who could forget, Jaromir Jagr, the Czech republic definitely stands at least an equal chance with Slovakia at getting out of their group.

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WHAT IT ALL MEANS

What can you really say about the favorites (and the near favorites)? It's going to be an exciting tournament, and I don't think anyone can legitimately predict a winner at this point. Way too many strong teams, way too many potential surprises. All we can do is sit back and watch some of the best hockey we might ever see in our lifetimes.

USA vs. Switzerland is on in 3 hours. Russia vs. Latvia starts 12AM eastern, and Canada goes on against Norway at 7:30 eastern. Enjoy all the hockey today, and all the coverage at The Checking Line throughout the tournament!

Prax
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