Olympic Hockey Preview, Schedule, and Free Picks ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic
Another Olympic season is upon us, this time of the winter variety, and with that comes my absolute favorite event in either of the Olympics – hockey. The game itself is already one of the most exciting, skilled, fast-paced games in the world, but the addition of national pride and honor just ups the drama and intensity all that much more. Plus, when you live in the country that orchestrated possibly the single biggest upset in the history of all sports in this very event, how can it not be must-see television for the next two weeks?
That said, there is one caveat to this year’s competition that has me a little less excited than I normally am for Olympic hockey. Because all but two of the men’s games will be played at Canada Hockey Place (normally known as General Motors Place when the Vancouver Canucks are playing but renamed because of the International Olympic Committee’s ban on corporate sponsorship of venues), the ice rink will remain at the NHL standard dimensions of 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. Traditionally, international hockey is played on a rink with dimensions of 200 x 100, but that would have forced millions of dollars in renovations to the arena, resulting in over a month away from home for the Canucks during this year’s NHL schedule (about two weeks on each side of the Games for expanding and retracting the ice surface) and the biggest hit – the loss of nearly 800 seats in the arena itself. Since the Olympics, like all sports in the modern era, are now more concerned with making money than anything else, the venue will remain at the standard NHL size for this event.
Those unfamiliar with hockey might be wondering that difference the extra 15 feet would make, and why this probably the most un-talked about storyline in the entire Olympics as of now. Allow me to explain. As with most sports, hockey players thrive on offense when they are given two things – time and space. Believe it or not, the additional 15 feet gives offensive players more time and more space, providing the necessary advantage they need to be able to skate around a defenseman or make a cross-ice pass and create a scoring opportunity. The extra ice that team need to cover in the defensive zone generally lead to players being selected for team more on their skating ability than their size or strength, and thus the games themselves tend to be more free-flowing with slightly less hitting and slightly more scoring chances than a typical NHL game. It would be as if the NHL went to 4-on-4 full-time – less players on the ice means more room to skate. A bigger ice surface accomplishes the same thing, but that won’t be in play until 2014 in Moscow.
The format is also slightly different than in the past. Teams were placed into three groups of four on a standard S-curve, based upon their World Rankings. The teams will play three preliminary round games within their group, and the three pool winners will advance to the quarterfinals along with the highest-ranked second place team. The remaining eight teams will then meet in the qualifier round to determine the other four quarterfinalists, who will then play down from there to determine the Gold Medalist. Thus, no team is eliminated after the preliminary round games, a change to the past Olympic competitions. This year’s tournament will also feature a 3-point system for each game rather than the standard 2-point system the NHL uses. Similar to soccer, a win in regulation is 3 points, and win in overtime is 2 points, a loss in overtime is 1 point, and a loss in regulation is 0 points. Overtime will be 5 minutes in prelim games, 10 minutes in playoff games, and 20 minutes in the Gold Medal game, followed by a shootout, thus avoiding any ties at any stage of the competiton.
So who, then, has the advantage? Who has the best team? What players will rise above the rest in the next two weeks and propel their country into Olympic immortality?
That’s why you’re reading, and that’s why I’m writing.
(World Ranking in parenthesis)
Group A – Canada (1), United States (6), Switzerland (7), Norway (12)
The other two teams are somewhat interesting in this group. Norway returns to Olympic competition for the first time since 1994, when they hosted the event. The team features only one NHL player – defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen of the Red Wings – so the coaches of Canada and USA (Mike Babcock and Ron Wilson, respectively) won’t know much about this team. Meanwhile Switzerland upset Canada in Turin in 2006, so there will likely be a revenge factor in play when those two teams face off on February 18.
Prediction – Canada will likely win the group, though if the U.S. can put up strong performances against the Swiss and Norwegians, they could likely steal that fourth bye into the quarterfinals. Switzerland will likely finish top 8 because of Jonas Hiller in net, while Norway will be lucky to win a game in their first time to the Olympics in 16 years.
Group B – Russia (2), Czech Republic (5), Slovakia (8), Latvia (11)
The Slovaks can score in bunches, with NHL stars Pavol Demitra (playing in his home rink as a member of the Canucks), Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, and Miroslav Satan combining with past goal scorers like Ziggy Palffy and Richard Zednik. Meanwhile Czech games will mark the return to the North American hockey scene of one Jaromir Jagr. If Thomas Vokun can play as well in international competition as his mentor Dominik Hasek used to, then this team could repeat the 1998 Olympics and come away with another Gold.
Prediction – As a fan of this Russian group, I’ll take them to win the pool, and because the Slovaks and Czechs is such a big rivalry game, it could be tough to get the second bye out of this group. Both countries should reach the quarterfinals, while simply making it that far would be a huge accomplishment for Latvia.
Group C – Sweden (3), Finland (4), Belarus (9), Germany (10)
The other three teams are simultaneously talented and flawed. Findland’s Miikka Kiprusoff is capable of outplaying any other goaltender in this competition, but Teemu Selanne is questionable and the Fins really lack the size necessary to compete on an NHL rink – they’ll likely be the most adversely affected by the smaller dimensions. For Germany, the face of their international competition was not included on this year’s roster, meaning Olaf Kolzig, likely the greatest German goaltender ever, will be watching these games on TV. Marco Sturm and Jochen Hecht lead a very young team that will give the other teams fits, even if the talent level is a notch or two below the others. Belarus is back for the first time since their stunning fourth place finish in Salt Lake City in 2002, having not qualified in 2006. Two of their NHL players are out with injuries, however, so the odds of a repeat of their performance eight years ago are highly likely.
Prediction – Sweden should win this group, and Finland will likely compete with the U.S. for that fourth and final berth in the quarterfinals. Germany and Belarus will likely join Latvia and Norway as the first four out of the 2010 Olympics.
Look for a full Medal Round preview once the bracket is finalized after the completion of the preliminary round games right here at the Ultimate Capper.
Day Date Time Event Teams Venue TV
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