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Hoping for a Sochi streak

Teams look to get on a roll in Olys showdown for hockey gold

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SOCHI, Russia — Teemu Selanne smiled at the thought of being an underdog and then distilled the secret to this Olympic men’s hockey tournament in one winking sentence.

"It’s a two-week tournament. It’s all about who gets hot at the right time," said Finland’s Selanne, not for a moment giving an inch to the favoured Swedes, Russians and Canadians.

A scoring streak, a hot goalie or an unknown finding his confidence and taking his game to the next level is all it takes to tip the balance among this 12-team field.

Sure, there are teams with no chance. Slovakia, Latvia, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia can’t win gold. But Finland, the already mentioned favourites as well as the U.S. and Czech Republic are all in the hunt.

"You look at these tournaments, it’s really one of these top-six teams. If you have a hot goalie, good special teams, that’s going to be the difference. We’re solid defensively and everything is going to come from there," said Sweden’s Niklas Kronwall. "We’re ready to start playing and hopefully we can get playing well right away."

For many of the European nations, chemistry won’t be an issue since they’ve played lots of international hockey together. But for the Canadians, it’s a challenge they must overcome.

"You’ve got to kind of stop your thinking that, ‘Hey, there’s Sidney Crosby from the Penguins,’ " said Canadian forward Patrick Sharp. "We’re all together. I think we feel that way now, already in Day 2. I think the orientation camp helps with that. I didn’t know a lot of these guys that well prior to Calgary in August, and I feel like we’re good teammates already."

While chemistry may appear to be an early issue for Canada, they also have the advantage of being a team full of winners.

"The reality for me is we have 11 guys who played at the Olympics last time and had success. This is a new opportunity and we’ve got to come up with a new identity and a new way to play for a new group. Does experience and experience in winning help? Absolutely," said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. "Do the Olympics weigh in more than the guy who played and won the Stanley Cup? I don’t know that. I like guys who have won because you’ve been through it, you’ve done it right. You don’t win unless you do it right."

It all kicks off today and the gold medal will be won on Feb. 23. It may very well be the last time NHLers play in the Olympics for some time and that’s also added a little intensity to the mix.

For host Russia, they face the pressure of trying to live up to the hopes of an entire country.

"Well I hope we will play in the finals, that’s our main task — to fight for the gold. And then we’ll see what happens," said Alex Ovechkin. "Whoever host the Olympic Games probably have most pressure. And I’m pretty sure we’re in the same position Canada was four years ago. But I’m pretty sure we have experience and we’re old enough guys to handle that pressure. I’m pretty sure everything’s going to be fine. As soon as we step on the ice we’re going to think about the game and how to win the game, not the pressure and that kind of stuff."

Here’s a quick look at the team’s in this year’s tourney:

 

CANADA

Players to watch: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty and on and on and on. Roster is stacked.

Key to victory: Can they come together quick enough? Can they adjust to the big ice?

The experts say: Goaltending is a huge question mark. They’re the defending champs and the favourite to win but there are many areas that could grow from question marks to weaknesses.

 

SWEDEN

Players to watch: Alex Steen, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Sedin.

Key to victory: Injuries have hurt the Swedes and they’ll go without Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen. They have depth and many believe they’re still the team to beat because of their comfort on the big ice.

The experts say: Goalie Henrik Lundqvist could steal the tournament if he gets hot. He struggled early in the NHL season before finding his game recently. If he gets hot, look out.

 

AUSTRIA

Players to watch: Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek.

Key to victory: They’ll need to play the ultimate team game and be perfect defensively.

The experts say: Maybe they can surprise a team early on but they won’t be in the medals.

 

SWITZERLAND

Players to watch: Jonas Hiller, Nino Niederreiter, Mark Streit.

Key to victory: Hiller can be lights out and he’ll need to be if the Swiss are going to surprise anyone.

The experts say: The Swiss shocked the Canadians in 2006 and pushed them to a shootout in 2010. But they don’t appear to have any of that magic this time around.

 

UNITED STATES

Players to watch: Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Ryan Suter.

Key to victory: They need to find some scoring. If Kane and Kessel get hot, look out.

The experts say: Goaltending could be an edge for the U.S. as both Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick give them strong options. They grew better and better in 2010 and put a major scare into Canada in the gold-medal game. Team game will be key.

 

FINLAND

Players to watch: No one. The Finns don’t have anyone who jumps off the table. They never do, it seems, but they’re almost always in the medals with two bronze and a silver since NHLers began to compete in 1998.

Key to victory: Goaltending is the Finns’ strength with Tuuka Rask, Kari Lehtonen and Antii Niemi in the crease.

The experts say: The dark horse. They’re going to be difficult to score against but whether they can muster enough offence to contend is a big question mark.

 

RUSSIA

Players to watch: Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk.

Key to victory: The will score in bunches but how many will they let in?

The experts say: Huge pressure on the Russians to win. Goaltending is a perceived weakness. They have the top offensive talent in the tournament but they’ll have to defend as well. Could be a bust or could be a monster.

 

LATVIA

Players to watch: Sandis Ozolins, Herb Vasiljevs, Zemgus Girgensons.

Key to victory: They’ll sit back and wait and hope for mistakes. Nine of their players skate together with Dinamo Riga in the KHL so they’ll have chemistry

The experts say: Will be a long tournament for Latvia and coach Ted Nolan.

 

CZECH REPUBLIC

Players to watch: Jaromir Jagr, Jakub Voracek, David Krejci.

Key to victory: Patient game and rely on their skill. Veteran team with an average age of 30, they’ll either prove to be too slow or elbow their way into the medals.

The experts say: Goalie Ondrej Pavelec had the rug pulled out from under him and won’t start in the opener, with Jakub Kovar getting the nod. Petr Nedved and Jagr were once among the most dangerous players on the planet but can they still get it done?

 

SLOVENIA

Player to watch: Anze Kopitar.

Key to victory: They’ll need to play with heart and hope their goaltending can steal a game.

The experts say: Kopitar is the only NHL player on the roster. Should be a tough tournament.

 

NORWAY

Players to watch: Mats Zuccarello, Patrick Thoreson, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.

Key to victory: They have great chemistry with a number of their players having seen action together in over 60 international games.

The experts say: Will be a tough out but in the end will surrender due to lack of firepower.

 

SLOVAKIA

Players to watch: Andrej Meszaros, Zdeno Chara, Jaro Halak.

Key to victory: Defence and goaltending. The Slovaks will be tough to score against but they are thin on offence. Some of their lesser known players will have to step into the limelight.

The experts say: On the outside looking in but don’t be surprised if they upset a giant in the prelim round.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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