Several Olympic Gold hopefuls still have goaltending questions

OTTAWA, ON - NOVEMBER 28: Roberto Luongo #1 of the Vancouver Canucks guards his net against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on November 28, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Referees are finally dropping the pucks today, signaling the start of the men’s hockey games at the Winter Olympics. And for all the predictions about which teams have the best chance to win gold, as usual it’s likely going to come down to goaltending.

Of the teams with legitimate aspirations for gold in Sochi, there are four whose goaltending is deep but not necessarily settled. Let’s start with Finland, which may have the deepest goaltending of all. Antti Niemi could get the starting nod, especially with a Stanley Cup championship on his resume, not to mention the 29 wins and solid overall numbers so far this season.

But there is also Tuuka Rask, who played so well during last season’s Stanley Cup near miss for the Boston Bruins. Rask then started this season as if he were still steamed about those two late goals in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final last June. He cooled off just a bit from that torrid start, but he’s still among the league’s statistical leaders among goalies.

Then there is Kari Lehtonen, maybe the most talented of them all. It took the tall Finn a few years to get his NHL act together, but it was never because of any lack of skills. He is truly capable of stealing games at any level, and it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that he ends up getting playing time in Sochi. And it could be meaningful playing time.

As for the host Russian team, we may not have a completely unbiased perspective. The way Sergei Bobrovsky has played for the Blue Jackets since his return from a groin injury, it’s completely justifiable to think he should be the starter for the Russian team when the games matter most. The problem is that Semyon Varlamov has been pretty consistent from day one for Colorado and has slightly better overall numbers than Bob.

I’m going to go "all homer" here and say Bob will still get most of the games. But no matter who carries the bulk of the load for Russia, there will be as much pressure on that goalie as any in the tournament, considering the expectations for the home team. I would say that goalie would be facing the most pressure, but does any goalie ever face more pressure on an international stage than whoever is minding the net for Canada?

In TV, they call that a segue. Now, I ask you, who’s going to start for the tournament favorites? All indications are it should be Roberto Luongo. He hasn’t had a bad season for the slumping Canucks, and he certainly has that 2010 Canadian gold to his credit, but would he be your starter? If not, would you go with Carey Price, who stumbled badly for the most part over the past several weeks, or Mike Smith, who also hit a deep goaltending hole before recovering recently?

The safest bet is the Canadians start Luongo, but all bets are off after that. To me, it wouldn’t be a major surprise if Mike Smith ends up in the biggest games, especially the way he can handle the puck. That could be especially useful on the bigger ice surface in Sochi.

As for Team USA, I say it’s going to be Miller time most of the time. Ryan Miller has played spectacular goal for a team that has struggled. That’s the only reason he isn’t among the NHL’s goaltending leaders. And, remember, he was the MVP of the 2010 Olympics and was one OT save away from possibly winning gold. Yes, Jonathan Quick has the Stanley Cup ring, but I don’t think he’s been better than Miller since he returned to the Kings from injury. And speaking of injury, Jimmy Howard’s season has been too filled with several of those to think he may be a major factor in Sochi.