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It will be only another three days before the Olympic torch enters BC Place and it will be exactly a week today when Canada will step onto the ice to show the world what they can really do after a devastating seventh place finish at Turin. The Games coincide with what has been traditionally the toughest stretch in a grueling 82-game NHL season, in which the travel and general wear and tear catch up to players, resulting in injuries to key players. For the 12 teams that will take part, some of them have already named roster replacements, while others are awaiting word on their original selections' health before making any changes. Szymon Szemberg of the IIHF has notified teams that they have until February 15, the day before the first games, to make changes.
<img src="http://cdn.bleacherreport.com/images_root/image_pictures/0002/4984/random_key_38803_file_st.louis.martin.1_feature.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">The return of Dan Boyle is a big sigh of relief for Canada because he's a truly underrated defenseman with amazing skating and puck-moving ability. A lot of people credit Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards for Tampa's 2004 win, but Dan Boyle and Martin St. Louis were equally vital. The big news today, however, is Ryan Getzlaf's sprained left ankle. He is listed as day-to-day and may very well heal in time for the Games but with these type of injuries it is impossible to tell how long he will be out for. Getzlaf was in crutches after the game but X-rays were negative and he will undergo further testing today. Should Getzlaf not be able to make the trip, who takes his spot with Corey Perry? Well, I think it's quite obvious that will be Eric Staal, who has 34 points in 29 games since December and plays a fairly similar game. For those concerned with handedness, Staal is a lefty while Getzlaf a righty, but the new replacement could fill that void. For me, there are two players that Canada can take and they're both from right shots: Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis. Jeff Carter (also a righty) may creep into the conversation here and may get the nod because of his size, but Stamkos is having a far superior season. My personal choice would be St. Louis because I think his strong play this season has been overlooked and he is an Olympian vet, so throwing him into this situation won't be anything he can't handle. On a roster that is full of centreman, having St. Louis, a natural winger, could help.
Scott Niedermayer isn't having a good season either and all eyes will be on him to right his game and lead the team. As a winner at every single level, Niedermayer isn't a stranger to pressure. With a strong supporting cast that is by far, I think, the best in the tournament, Canada's defense should be one of few worries of the coaching staff. Canada's defense has a little bit of everything - speed, size, skill, strength, and even youth in the highly regarded Drew Doughty. The big head scratcher for Mike Babcock and company is to figure out which players get the big minutes and which ones sit.
A lot has been made about goaltending as well, with Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, and Marc-Andre Fleury struggling. Brodeur, Canada's undisputed #1, has allowed more than 3 goals in his last 5 games with a 2-3 record during that stretch. The Devils blew a 2-0 lead last night against Philadelphia. Luongo had a fantastic game in Boston but lost his previous game and was pulled in Toronto. Fleury has allowed 13 goals in his last 3 games and had a save percentage far below his usual .906 mark in that stretch. Is it fatigue? It could very well be with all three goalies heavily relied upon by their respective teams. Some argue that coaches, especially ones with Olympic commitments like Jacques Lemaire, should rest his starters in preparation for the Olympics but that won't happen - the NHL is their day job and they're paid to win, so naturally it's their only focus until the opening game against Norway. Either way, Canada is walking into the tournament with their three best goalies, even if they are currently being outplayed by Steve Mason and Marty Turco. Exactly who the hero will be remains to be seen.
<img src="http://www.cbc.ca/gfx/images/sports/photos/2008/10/30/bogosian-zach-081010.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">USA has already lost two of their original selections. Paul Martin is out with a broken arm and won't be 100% by the start of the Games and Mike Komisarek is going to have season-ending shoulder surgery. Brian Burke swiftly announced Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason as his replacements. While Whitney hasn't exactly had a stellar season, he is logging almost 25 minutes a night for the struggling Ducks while Gleason will replace Komisarek's defensive zone presence. While I like the majority of USA's roster, I would've picked Matt Greene (Grand Ledge, MI) and Zach Bogosian (Massena, NY) instead, to continue Burke's trend of a youth movement, even though it's not like Whitney (26) or Gleason (27) are that old. Greene has been vital to the Kings' success and is their best defensive player. While Bogosian has really cooled off and has just 20 points with -13, he is the future of USA's defensive corps along with Erik and Jack Johnson. If anything, Bogosian will be USA's seventh man and it would perhaps do him some good to just soak up the atmosphere. The USA are underdogs, but it's the way they like it. Just ask Mike Eruzione and the 1980 squad.
<img src="http://www.cbc.ca/sports/columns/newsmakers/gfx/evgeni-malkin-250.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Russia will perhaps be Canada's biggest challenge because their offense is, by far, the best in the tournament. When Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin play on your second line, you have an embarrassment of riches in the goal-scoring category. However, there are two things to note. First, I think Russia shot itself in the foot when they announced that half of their roster will be made up of players from the KHL. I think hockey politics took the front seat here because Russian officials were much too eager to show the world that the KHL is on par with the NHL, but let's face it, the world's best players are in the NHL. If the Russians win gold, then they have a point, but if they lose, it shows that the NHL is still the superior league. Second, defense remains the big issues because their top two defenseman, Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov, are both known more for their offensive talents than defense. The Russians can outscore anybody, but the question is whether or not they are good enough in the defensive zone. Talented forwards Alexei Kovalev and Alexander Frolov were the notable absentees, and even if their consistency at the NHL level is suspect, they are top performers for Russia - Kovalev has 10 points in 14 games for Russia in two Olympics and Frolov has 15 points in 16 games in two World Championships. Sergei Mozyakin, one of the top performers in the KHL year-in and year-out, was also another omission. Semyon Varlamov has been out since December with a groin injury and his replacement will be Alexander Eremenko, the fourth goalie at camp, but the issue is largely irrelevant because Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov are the clear 1-2.
The Swedes may be hit by injuries the hardest, with both veterans Tomas Holmtrom and Niklas Kronwall questionable for the tournament. Let's not forget that despite his selection to the roster, it is still not 100% sure whether or not Peter Forsberg will play. Assuming that all three will be unavailable, Johan Franzen, who recently returned from injury, will get the first looks. Forget about Mikael Samuelsson - even if he's asked he's already said he'd say no. If Franzen isn't ready, than the Swedes could go with more checking ability in Fredrik Sjostrom, or scoring ability by reaching into their own backyard and pick Johan Davidsson from HV71 Jonkoping of the SEL. The captain and team's leading scorer for the past two years, Davidsson is having another strong season and gives the Swedes another representative from the SEL despite not having played at the international level since the 2007 World Championships. Since former Washington Capital and coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson (son Anton is in the Caps' system) has been adverse to selecting younger players, Victor Hedman, who wasn't even on the original shortlist, probably won't be picked. Instead it may very well be Alex Edler, who I felt should've belonged in the first place, or another Red Wing in Jonathan Ericsson, or Chicago's underrated Niklas Hjalmarsson. Whatever the case, Sweden will almost undoubtedly be in play during the medal rounds due to their incredible chemistry. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are expected to anchor the top line in front of their home crowd while Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson will form the second.
Finland will make some noise because like Canada and USA, they will benefit from a smaller ice surface with their North American style of play. Tuomo Ruutu and Niklas Backstrom are both on the injured reserve and it seems unlikely either will make the trip. While they are very good NHLers, especially Backstrom, it won't hurt them significantly. Miikka Kiprusoff will man the pipes while Antero "Sushi Roll" Niittymaki will back him up and is more than capable of handling the load, having won MVP honours at Turin. Nashville's Pekka Rinne will most likely be the third string. Jussi Jokinen and Lauri Korpikoski would be my first choices as Ruutu's replacement, both versatile players but lack Ruutu's physical play. There will be a good chance that the games will be decided by shootouts and Jussi Jokinen may be the best in the league, along with Jonathan Toews. The scrappy Finns are considered underdogs in this tournament but do have the ability to make some noise. Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, the leading scorers at Turin with 11 points each, are both returning.
Neither the Czechs nor Slovaks have any injuries, the only medal round threats to not have any. It works in their favour, but they face a very steep uphill climb in the tough Group B (Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia). The Slovaks, who finished fifth in Turin, are headlined by a healthy duo of Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, while Zdeno Chara continues to patrol the blueline. There is no obvious strength on the Slovak squad, but there's no obvious weakness either. If the goaltending holds up with Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj, the Slovaks have a good chance of finishing in the bronze medal game. The team is headlined by a big batch of veterans, including Jozef Stumpel, Pavol Demitra, and Miroslav Satan. Gaborik is the Slovaks' youngest forward and he is 28. Like Sweden, the Slovaks will lean on veteran leadership, good goaltending, and timely scoring to get them through the tournament. For 37-year old Ziggy Palffy, who came out of retirement in 2007, this will most likely be his last opportunity to win a medal. A veteran-heavy team may not necessarily be a bad thing - for one, the team could fall flat on its face like Canada in 2006 or be a surprising contender like USA in 2002.
Given the talent pool it seems unlikely the Czechs will finish third again, although it's not out of the realm of possibility. Like the Slovaks, the Czechs don't have any weaknesses, but rather just a solid, well-rounded team. What gives the Czechs an edge over rest of their competition, however, is their ability to score. The undersized Tomas Plekanec will be the team's top centreman, but what the team lacks in depth down the middle is more than made up for on the wings with Martin Havlat, Patrik Elias, Milan Michalek, Martin Erat, Tomas Fleischmann, and, of course, Jaromir Jagr. To be honest I though the Czechs would stock up on some more firepower because that's their obvious strength, but instead chose to exclude Jiri Hudler, Vaclav Prospal, and even Milan Hejduk, a curious decision to say the least. Tomas Kaberle, Marek Zidlicky, Filip Kuba, and Pavel Kubina makes up a nice defensive corps, while shot-blocking machine Zbynek Michalek (271 in 2008-09 was 33 more than second place Brett Clark, another underrated defenseman) will be the shut-down man. There will be no Dominik Hasek to confound shooters, although Tomas Vokoun is certainly no slouch.
Odds to win Gold: Canada (1:2), Russia (2:1), Sweden and USA (6:1), Czech Republic (12:1), Finland (18:1), Slovakia (40:1)
Go Canada Go!