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KELLEY: Russians may lead Olympic pack

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
All the preliminary wailing, whining and posturing is over. Let the Games begin. OK, there might be a great deal more wailing and whining now that the Olympic hockey tournament gets under way in earnest, but at least most of the posturing is done and, unlike the folks who wallow in figure skating, we're going to take the high road here.
Olympic Hockey Primer
What follows is FOXSports.com's look at the various teams that are poised to take part in the "official" portion of the Olympic hockey tournament, the medal round. We make no pretense of having any inside information here, nor do we admit to any nods, winks or nudges under the table. We certainly haven't cut any deals. What we do offer is an Olympic rarity, an unbiased and straightforward assessment of what each team brings to this oft-smarmy gathering (lest we forget, before there was the traditional judging scandal, these Games were rocked by charges of illicit money exchanges at a level that would have one believe that Salt Lake City was home to Enron). We also promise not to take the fifth unless it is certified and approved by Jack Daniels, Jim Beam or John Jamison. That said, here we go:

Canada

A tremendously talented team, but one that is under tremendous (yet self-imposed) pressure. The Canadians have marquee players like Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh), Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury (New York Rangers), Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman (Detroit), Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis (St. Louis), Rob Blake (Colorado) and on and on an on. One would normally have to go to an All-Star game to see this great a collection of talent (OK, maybe not this year), but there are some question marks. First off, who's the goalie? Patrick Roy (Colorado) would have been the consensus No. 1, but he declined to join the team, leaving the chores to Ed Belfour (Dallas and already No. 3), Curtis Joseph (Toronto) and Martin Brodeur (New Jersey). There's the specter of politics involved here as coach Pat Quinn (Toronto) is also the coach of Joseph and these kinds of issues have raised problems for Canada in the past. Still, this is a solid, all-purpose team, fast, experienced and driven (though perhaps a tad old). The only other two questions are whether or not the goaltending is mentally tough enough and how well the team adapts to the bigger ice surface. They are an odds-on favorite for a medal, but could be in trouble if they put too much pressure on themselves to win gold.

Czech Republic

They are the defending gold-medal winners, and they are good. They have excellent goaltending in Dominik Hasek (Detroit), they have some respectable stars in Jaromir Jagr (Washington) — who just might be in the mood to play — and they have up-and-coming kids in Patrik Elias (New Jersey), Petr Sykora (New Jersey) and Tomas Kaberle (Toronto). They have the same coach, Ivan Hlinka, that they had at Nagano and they know how to win, at every level. The last-minute change of Milan Hnilicka (Atlanta) instead of Roman Turek (Calgary) in net is not expected to have an impact unless Hasek gets hurt. Yet, there are questions marks. Hasek does not appear to be the same unbeatable goalie he was in Nagano four years ago. He's still pretty good, but not as great as he once was. There does not appear to be enough depth on defense to play the checkmate game that they used in Nagano (get to the shootout and let Hasek win it there). They may not have enough speed on the backline to cover the larger ice surface. Still, they are talented, smart and know how to win in the tournament format. They are a medal threat, but not a lock for the gold.

Finland

The surprising bronze-medal winners in Nagano, the team appears to have faded somewhat. The defense is both solid and mobile and the power play, especially when Teppo Numminen, Sami Salo and Janne Niinimaa are on the ice, should be excellent. After that, however, there are problems. Goaltenders Jani Hurme and Jussi Markkanen are emerging as NHL caliber, but not yet accomplished at this level. Should they rise to the occasion, however, there are other problems. The forward contingent boasts Teemu Selanne (San Jose), Jere Lehtinen (Dallas) and Sami Kapanen (Carolina), but it is not overly large and will be without Saku Koivu (Montreal), who is recovering from cancer therapy and was Finland's best player in Nagano. To discount the Finns is dangerous, as they are proven international competitors. That said, however, this team does not appear deep enough to be in medal contention.

Russia

This might be the best, deepest and most overlooked team in the tournament. The Russians were a goal away from the gold four years ago, settling for silver despite having outplayed the Czechs in most every area except goaltending. That's been addressed with the addition of Nikolai Khabibulin (Tampa Bay) in goal. Khabibulin is the best goaltender in the NHL this season and appears at the very top of his formidable game as the Games begin. The lineup reads every bit as impressive as Team Canada or Team USA, with household names like Pavel Bure (Florida), Sergei Fedorov (Detroit), Alexei Zhamnov (Chicago) and a deep and experienced defense that includes Sergei Gonchar (Washington), Darius Kasparatis (Pittsburgh), Boris Mironov (Chicago), Danny Markov (Phoenix) and others. Former Soviet star defenseman Slava Fetisov (also a player in the NHL with New Jersey and Detroit and an assistant coach with New Jersey up until he was fired last month) guides the team as coach and general manager. He will get a great deal of loyalty from his players, most of whom recognize him as a hockey and political hero. Fetisov was on the losing end when the U.S. upset the Great Russian Bear at Lake Placid. He has never for a moment forgotten that. The Russians have speed, which is important on the big ice, but not a whole lot of size (which also matters a bit). They also, at times, lack focus and are prone to internal bickering. Fetisov should be able to ensure that doesn't happen, but it can be an issue. They also have a great deal of pride and are definitely a medal threat.

Sweden

Good goaltending in Tommy Salo (Edmonton). Some size and elite talent in players like Mats Sundin (Toronto), Markus Naslund (Vancouver) and Daniel Alfredsson (Ottawa). On defense, there's reigning Norris Trophy winner (best defenseman) Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit), and a cast of lesser known (Kim Johnsson, Philadelphia and Kenny Jonsson, New York Islanders come immediately to mind) but very talented players. The Swedes know how to trap, torpedo and use every other system to obstruct skating teams, but they have problems, not the least of which is no Peter Forsberg (Colorado, ankle injury). That leaves a huge hole at center behind Sundin. Overall, the Swedes have talent, but not enough depth to compete with the really deep clubs like Canada, Russia, the U.S. and even the Czechs. It will show in this tournament. If this team goes anywhere, it will be because of systems and tactics, not necessarily an overwhelming display of talent.

United States

Every American's emotional favorite, but it goes beyond that. Team USA might be a tad old, but it is deep up front with big and skilled players like Mike Modano (Dallas), Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight (St. Louis), Tony Amonte (Chicago), Brett Hull (Detroit), Bill Guerin (Boston), Jeremy Roenick and John LeClair (Philadelphia). There's also some young legs including Adam Deadmarsh (Los Angeles), Chris Drury (Colorado) and Mike York (New York Rangers). Age is an issue on defense with veterans Chris Chelios (Detroit) and Phil Housley (Chicago) close to 40. Brian Leetch (New York Rangers) and Gary Suter (San Jose) aren't kids either, but then there are fresh legs with Aaron Miller (Los Angeles), Brian Rafalski (New Jersey) and Tom Poti (Edmonton), so the balance is every bit as good as the depth. If there's a question about Team USA it is in goal. Tom Barrasso (Carolina) has big-game experience and two Stanley Cups, but he hasn't looked sharp of late. Mike Richter (New York Rangers) is a fan and, in some quarters at least, a media favorite. But he's not the player he was four years ago and he, too, hasn't looked like a world-beater in recent weeks. Mike Dunham (Nashville) might be the surprise choice here. He's been brilliant in the second half of the NHL season. He also knows how to keep it together in a close game (the Predators hardly ever score three in a game), has some international experience including Olympic competition before he turned pro, and a burning desire to succeed. Do not be shocked if he's coach Herb Brooks' choice come nitty-gritty time. Like Canada, the Russians and the Czechs, there is no exploitable weakness in the USA lineup. There should be precious little politics, as well, as Brooks is not coaching in the NHL at the moment. Therefore he will not be beholden to anyone or anything other than the opportunity to win a second gold (he won at Lake Placid in 1980) and further enhance his reputation as an Olympic coach extraordinaire. Barring a supreme upset, these guys will be standing somewhere on the podium come medal time.

Germany

A surprise survivor from the preliminary round, this unit showed toughness, swiftness and good goaltending that should be enhanced once Olaf Kolzig (Washington) gets into games. He needs to recover fully from a knee sprain and that could cause him to miss the first game, but look for him to play against Canada on Sunday. After that, however, the team lacks talent and depth and does not figure to be a factor at the end.

Belarus

There aren't a great many players from Belarus playing in the NHL. That could be a good thing. This is a former Soviet state, and the team plays under that kind of regimented system. They use a strong system, both physical and mental, and play as a team in all three zones on the ice. Unfortunately, for them, they don't have a game-saver in goal and they lack depth largely because they lack money to continue a program that once produced many members of the great Soviet Red Army teams. They will surprise a few teams with their physical presence, especially on defense, but simply aren't deep enough to cause a medal upset.

Conclusion

Hey, we're human, too, and our hearts are with Team USA and with the emotional lift they are bound to get playing on home ice. In the wake of the September tragedies, they are absolute medal favorites. We think they're good enough for gold, but it we had to rank the finish 1-2-3 based on talent and ability it would be Russia, Canada, USA with the Czechs capable of disrupting everything. In the Olympics, it's often all about goaltending and that's what makes the Russians such a formidable threat. They are talented and deep at every position and they may well have the best goaltender in the Games right now. Barring a need to self-destruct, Fetisov will get his Olympic revenge. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Canadiens, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Flyers, Penguins, Avalanche, Blues, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Panthers, Predators, Jets, Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Saku Koivu, Martin Brodeur, Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, Brian Rafalski, Mike York, Daniel Alfredsson, Sami Salo, John LeClair, Jeremy Roenick, Rob Blake, Chris Drury, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger, Doug Weight, Nikolai Khabibulin, Tomas Kaberle, Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Olaf Kolzig, Mike Dunham

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