The consensus among Canadian hockey fans since the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey is that a simple dichotomy has arisen on the international hockey stage: those who can compete with Canada, and those who might as well just go home. The 2006 Torino Olympics is underway and although there are numerous teams who should be playing in the church division—teams without a prayer of medaling—the Swedes have caught my eye as a threat to Canada’s quest for a repeat gold.
Sweden boasts one of the most offensively talented teams in the tournament, with players such as Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg-—if healthy-looking to lead the offensive punch. All three players are offensive juggernauts with their respective NHL teams, combining for a total of 176 points this season. Critics of the Swedish team have been quick to point out that the recent injury to perennial all-star forward Markus Naslund hinders the team’s ability up front. But fans must remember that in their last Olympic meeting with Canada, Sweden out-duelled the red and white 5-2 without the assistance of Forsberg. It is thus naïve to count out the Swedes on the basis of one injury and to ignore their offensive depth. Even without Forsberg, they still possess one of the best combinations of speed and finesse in the tournament.
Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who have each posted over 50 points in the NHL this year, should be able to make up for Naslund in exploiting the larger international ice surface, creating headaches for less-mobile defences.
Sweden will also rely on significant offensive output from their blue-liners, a unit that is probably the most balanced in the tournament. The Swedish defensive core comprises a mix of positional and offensive-minded players, including the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Mattias Ohlund and newly added Daniel Tjarnqvist. Teams surrendering multiple power-play opportunities with this force on the blue-line, as Kazakhstan witnessed earlier, will simply pay the price with goal after goal.
Inexperienced goaltending is the only question mark hanging over this club’s shot at a medal. The Swedes will begin the tournament with Henrik Lundqvist as their starting goaltender, who is surprisingly coming off a hot rookie campaign with the New York Rangers. Lundqvist has posted a 25-7 record, with a 0.927% save percentage and a 2.09 goals against average. If he can continue this trend into the Olympics, he will place Sweden in an excellent position to rival Canada.
Despite the gambling controversy surrounding Wayne Gretzky and Team Canada, the Canucks are still favoured to bring home olympic gold for men’s hockey. However, if there is a team that may cause Pat Quinn and his troops to stumble, it is quite obviously the Czech Republic.
If you have checked the latest rankings of NHL point leaders, you will see Jaromir Jagr at the top, with a very impressive 40 goals and 88 points. This Czech superstar not only leads the league in these respective categories, but has been on a tear going into the Olympic break, scoring 11 goals and 17 points in his last nine games, helping to propel the New York Rangers into first place in the Atlantic Division.
Even though Jagr is the star of the Czech squad, the team has other offensive weapons that will cause trouble for Canada’s defence.
While he has not done the same damage in the league that he once did with Washington and Pittsburgh, Robert Lang still has an impressive 40 points in 46 games and boasts a +11. Don’t forget about Milan Hejduk either, even though he has not been at his 50-goal form, he is still considered a premium scorer in the NHL and it may only take a couple shifts with Lang for him to heat up.
Lang and Hejduk give the Czechs the needed veteran presence, but don’t overlook the Czech Republic’s young guns either—most notably Ales Hemsky. This 22-year-old is having a breakout year, and is second on the Edmonton Oilers in points. His young legs will help carry the Czechs deep into the tournament.
Last but not least, goaltending is obviously a huge factor at the Olympics. Having a hot goalie for nine days can be the difference between bronze and gold. Goaltending and the Czech Republic go hand in hand, thanks to the dominating play of Dominik Hasek over the past decade. Hasek has played dynamite for Ottawa this year, garnering a 2.09 GAA and .925 save percentage.
However, with Hasek’s leg injury on Wednesday, and the status of his injury uncertain, some people began to doubt the Czechs. Luckily, the team is blessed with all-star goaltending depth, in that their backup is all-star Tomas Vokoun, who is fourth in the NHL with 28 wins and is helping Nashville excel in the Central Division.
Yes, Canada is the favourite, but the Canadians must realize that if they are not at the top of their game, the Czechs could very easily replace them at the top of the podium.
Rohit and James acknowledge that the Czechs lost to the Swiss and the Swedes to the Russians, but they stand firm.
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