Olympic Hockey Preview, Schedule, and Free Picks

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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic

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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 competition.

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 young American squad will have a much different look than those of the past. Gone are stalwarts Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk, and Bill Guerin. Only three players with any Olympic experience – Brian Rafalski, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Chris Drury – are on the 23-man roster. Meanwhile Canada is loaded with talent from top to bottom, and while their best player, Sidney Crosby, was left off of the 2006 team that finished without a medal, his lack of experience shouldn’t be nearly the factor with the veterans around him that it might be for Team USA. Ryan Miller will be in net for the Americans, and he’ll have to be every bit as good – if not better – than he has been this year for Buffalo if the U.S. wants to medal. Canada will likely go with Martin Brodeur. You may have heard of him – three Stanley Cup championships, the NHL’s all-time shut out record, and a list of trophies longer than downhill skiing course. This likely will be his last Olympics, so expect him to put on a show in his home country.

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)
In 2006, Latvia tied the United States team in the preliminary round and wound up losing to the U.S. on a tiebreaker for the final quarterfinal spot. A repeat of that performance would be stunning for this group, who faces off against three bona fide hockey powers this time around. Many (including myself) think the Russians pose the biggest threat to a Canadian gold, while the two countries that formerly played as Czechoslovakia prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain each are capable of making deep runs in this tournament. Russia has the combination of Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin up front, though the absence of Alexi Kovalev, who was surprisingly left off the Russian team, could hurt the club, and while neither are as good as Brodeur, Evgeni Nabakov and Ilya Brzygalov could be the best goaltending 1-2 combo in this tournament.

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)
This is the deepest group of the three, as there won’t be any pushovers for any of these teams. The Swedes are the defending champs, ripping through the medal round in Turin after a lackluster preliminary round. Because the top four teams will play one less game (and because the quarterfinals are the day after the qualifiers) it might be tough for them – or anyone else – to make a similar run without winning their pool or being the top-ranked second place team. Sweden will not have captain Mats Sundin back this year, but with Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom filling the leadership role, the NHL’s leading scorer Henrik Sedin powering the offense, Henrik Lundqvist patrolling the crease, and the return of Peter Forsberg to the big stage, this team is plenty capable of staging a repeat.

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.

Medal Round
As I stated above, barring a major upset in the qualifying round, the final eight teams should be Canada, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Switzerland, and the United States. The biggest aspect of the medal round will then be the matchups, and in a weird twist of this tournament, that could come down to how well the big boys dominate the little guys in prelim competition. Per the tiebreaker rules, placement within the pool is the first tiebreaker, meaning regardless of total points in the round, no second-place team can finish ahead of a first-place team, no third-place team can finish ahead of a second-place team, etc. Total points is the second factor, followed by goal differential. Thus teams that post big blowouts will finish higher in the rankings than those that win 1-goal games. Not knowing the matchups, I’ll take Canada, Sweden, Russia, and the United States to reach the final four. Sweden will then take the Bronze Medal over the United States, while Russia will upset Canada on home-ice to win the Gold Medal and play a dual role as host AND defending champion when the tournament resumes in Moscow – with or without NHL players – in 2014.

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     
Sat       2/13     3:00pm         Women            Sweden vs Switzerland      UBC        CNBC
Sat       2/13     8:00pm         Women            Canada vs Slovakia             GM          CNBC
Sun      2/14     3:00pm         Women            United States vs China      UBC          USA
Sun      2/14     7:30pm         Women            Finland vs Russia               UBC         CNBC
Mon     2/15     5:30pm         Women            Switzerland vs Canada       UBC        MSNBC
Mon     2/15     10:00pm       Women            Sweden vs Slovakia            UBC               
Tue      2/16     3:00pm         Men                 United States vs Switz           GM          USA
Tue      2/16     5:30pm         Women            Russia vs United States    UBC        MSNBC
Tue      2/16     7:30pm         Men                 Canada vs Norway                GM          CNBC
Tue      2/16     10:00pm       Women            Finland vs China                 UBC        CNBC
Tue      2/16     12:00am       Men                 Russian vs Latvia                  GM          CNBC
Wed    2/17     3:00pm         Men                 Finland vs Belarus                 GM          MSNBC
Wed    2/17     5:30pm         Women            Canada vs Sweden             UBC        MSNBC
Wed    2/17     7:30pm         Men                 Sweden vs Germany              GM         CNBC
Wed    2/17     10:00pm       Women            Slovakia vs Sweden             UBC       CNBC
Wed    2/17     12:00am       Men                 Czech Republic vs Slovakia GM          CNBC
Thu      2/18     3:00pm         Men                 United States vs Norway      GM           USA
Thu      2/18     5:30pm         Women            United States vs Finland    UBC       MSNBC
Thu      2/18     7:30pm         Men                 Switzerland vs Canada         GM          CNBC
Thu      2/18     10:00pm       Women            China vs Russia                 UBC        CNBC
Thu      2/18     12:00am       Men                 Slovakia vs Russia                GM         CNBC
Fri        2/19     3:00pm         Men                 Belarus vs Sweden                GM         MSNBC
Fri        2/19     7:30pm          Men                 Czech Republic vs Latvia     GM         CNBC
Fri        2/19     12:00am       Men                 Finland vs Germany               GM        MSNBC
Sat       2/20     3:00pm         Men                 Norway vs Switzerland          GM         MSNBC
Sat       2/20     5:30pm         Women            Consolation Game 1          UBC               
Sat       2/20     7:30pm         Men                 Latvia vs Slovakia                   GM         MSNBC
Sat       2/20     10:00pm       Women            Consolation Game 2          UBC              
Sat       2/20     12:00am       Men                 Germany vs Belarus              GM        MSNBC
Sun      2/21     3:00pm         Men                 Russia vs Czech Republic   GM           NBC
Sun      2/21     7:30pm         Men                 Canada  vs United States    GM         MSNBC
Sun      2/21     12:00am       Men                 Sweden vs Finland               GM         MSNBC
Mon     2/22     3:00pm          Women            Semifinal Game 1               GM           USA
Mon     2/22     5:00pm          Women            7th Place Game                  UBC            
Mon     2/22     8:00pm          Women            Semifinal Game 2               GM         CNBC
Mon     2/22     10:00pm        Women            5th Place Game                 UBC               
Tue      2/23     3:00pm          Men                 Qualifier Game 1                  GM          USA
Tue      2/23     7:30pm          Men                 Qualifier Game 2                  GM         CNBC
Tue      2/23     10:00pm        Men                 Qualifier Game 3                 UBC       CNBC
Tue      2/23     12:00am        Men                 Qualifier Game 4                  GM         CNBC
Wed    2/24     3:00pm           Men                 Quarterfinal Game 1            GM          NBC
Wed    2/24     7:30pm           Men                 Quarterfinal Game 2            GM        CNBC
Wed    2/24     10:00pm         Men                 Quarterfinal Game 3           UBC      CNBC
Wed    2/24     12:00am         Men                 Quarterfinal Game 4            GM        CNBC
Thu      2/25     2:00pm           Women            Bronze Medal Game          GM       MSNBC
Thu      2/25     6:30pm           Women            Gold Medal Game              GM       MSNBC
Fri        2/26     3:00pm           Men                 Semifinal Game 1                GM         NBC
Fri        2/26     9:30pm           Men                 Semifinal Game 2                GM        CNBC
Sat       2/27     10:00pm         Men                 Bronze Medal Game           GM       MSNBC
Sun      2/28     3:15pm           Men                 Gold Medal Game               GM         NBC


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