First games to watch in men’s hockey

The long awaited tournament of dreams gets underway in Vancouver

with six games over the next two days. Here’s a preview of

the matchups.

United States vs. Switzerland

Trying to build team chemistry and cohesiveness in a 48-hour

period is no easy task and nowhere was that more evident than when

the Swiss knocked off the mighty Canadians 2-0 in a preliminary

round tune up in Torino. The Americans also had their work cut out

for them in a 3-3 tie right off of the plane against Latvia, a sign

of the troubling times ahead for the North American superpowers in

the 2006 Olympics.

“The final scores of games you sometimes can’t

control, but you can control how you play,” U.S. captain Jamie

Langenbrunner said. “For us, especially in those first few

games, we’d like to start building that bond and chemistry so

we have confidence in each other.”

We do know the answer to one big question, Ryan Miller not

only will start for the Americans, but unless things drastically

change, Head Coach Ron Wilson will ride him throughout the

tournament.

“The way this tournament has worked in the past is that

teams who stick with one goaltender seem to have the most

success,” Wilson said. “We do have two backups that

know they have to be ready at any time.”

The Swiss return 10 players from the previous Olympics and 18

of the 23 players were a part of the 2009 World Championship squad.

The team is led by former NHL goaltender Martin Gerber and New York

Islanders defenseman Mark Streit, currently the backbone of the

blue line on Long Island with 8 goals and 23 assists.

The Pick: U.S.A. The Americans will struggle to

score at points in this tournament, which will make this one closer

than it will seem.

Canada vs. Norway

This should be business as usual for the Canadians who open

up under the expectation that gold and only gold is acceptable in

this tournament.

“Do you think the Russians are going to throw a parade

in Moscow if they win a silver medal?” Canadian General

Manager Steve Yzerman asked in a press conference on Saturday.

“We play to win. It’s nothing unusual. When you were a young

boy growing up, or a young girl growing up, you’re expectation was

to win. And this tournament is no different.”

Norway returns to the Olympic stage for the first time since

automatically qualifying as the host nation back in 1994. Stacked

primarily with players from the Swedish league, the Norwegians are

the lowest ranked club in the competition. Defenseman Ole Kristian

Tollefsen is the only NHL connection and was recently sent to

Detroit for Finnish player Ville Leino.

The Pick: Canada You can’t pick a more

perfect tune-up for Hockey Canada than the 12th ranked club (out of

12) in the tournament.

Russia vs. Latvia

The Russians haven’t won Olympic gold in 18 years,

under the Unified Team label in Albertville. With a group of

dynamic forwards and a veteran defensive core, they’re

expected to be heavy favorites to win Group B and capture one of

the four automatic byes to the quarterfinal round.

While European clubs are typically deemed as “soft”, Alex

Ovechkin isn’t afraid to throw the body around and Red Wings

forward Pavel Datsyuk is one of the sport’s best two-way

players. Karlis Skrastins is the big presence for a Latvian club

that consists largely of Russian league players.

The Pick: Russia Is it possible to set an

over/under on Ovechkin goals for the tournament? He lit the lamp

five times in Torino.

Finland vs. Belarus

Finnish Head Coach Jukka Jalonen will try to emphasize

defense first, building off of a 2006 Olympics that saw the Suomi

take home the silver medal with their superior play on the blue

line. The Finns lack the depth of the Swedes, Russians and the

Canadians but make up for it with a trio of superior goaltenders,

starting with Miikka Kipprusoff.

The defense consists of puck moving defensemen like Joni

Pitkanen, who is having a breakout season in Carolina with 33

points and by logging over 27 minutes a game. As far as putting the

puck in the net is concerned, watch out for Minnesota Wild forward

Mikko Koivu, who leads all Finnish players in NHL scoring with 16

goals and 38 assists over 54 games this season.

Ruslan Salei is the only Belarusian NHL player returning to

the Olympic stage. The Avalanche defenseman played in just his

second game this season on Saturday after undergoing back surgery

in December. Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn will both suit up for

Belarus after Andrei was given permission by the Canadiens medical

staff to continue his recovery in Vancouver after suffering a knee

injury on New Year’s Eve.

The Pick: Finland They’re better than anyone

in North America gives them credit for, even on a smaller ice

surface that could expose their lack of physical presence.

Sweden vs. Germany

The Swedes will try and defend their gold medal without the

services of crease-pest Tomas Holmstrom, who will miss the Olympics

due to recurring problems with his left knee. His Red Wing

teammate, Johan Franzen will replace him on a club that has as much

depth and skill as any in the tournament. The Swedes will find

their greatest strength in net with the services of Henrik

Lundqvist, who in addition to leading his country to glory in

Torino, has a Inline World Championship gold medal to boot.

The Germans are led by veteran forward Sven Felski, who has

played his entire career with the Berlin Polar Bears and has 140

games of national team experience, including nine appearances at

the World Championships. Among the NHL talent, seven players led by

Nashville Predator Marcel Goc and Boston Bruin Marco Sturm, who has

18 goals this season, including an overtime winner in the Winter

Classic last month. Uwe Krupp, the man who won the 1996 Stanley Cup

for the Avalanche in triple overtime is the German Head Coach.

The Pick: Sweden The Germans would like a strong

showing here to build excitement for the upcoming World

Championships, which they’ll host in the spring.

Czech Republic vs. Slovakia

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jaromir Jagr

on a stage this big and though he hasn’t played an NHL game

since 2008, he still hasn’t lost that scoring touch with 47

goals and 48 assists in two seasons with Omsk of the Russian

league. Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokun was as good as anyone in

January 8-4-2 with four shutouts and a 1.49 G.A.A.

The Slovaks have to be concerned about the health of Marian

Gaborik, who was scratched from Sunday’s game against Tampa

Bay after cutting his thigh this week after a collision with Henrik

Lundqvist. And Marian Hossa is currently ‘day to day’

after getting hit by Colby Armh3 in the third period of

Saturday’s game against Atlanta. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak

comes into Vancouver off a horrific outing against Philadelphia

that saw him get pulled after two periods in a 6-2 loss.

As far as positives are concerned, Zdeno Chara comes into the

Olympic tournament with points in four of his last five games.

The Pick: Slovakia If they can get healthy, the

Slovaks could be the tournament sleepers, but if Gaborik and Hossa

aren’t 100 percent, they won’t see the quarterfinal

round.