Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Interesting Olympic Hockey Storylines

Besides some of the more obvious ones, like how will Sidney Crosby do at his first Olympics? will we see a Canada/Russia final? and can the Americans win a medal? I thought I'd mention a few of the things I'm most looking forward to finding out as the great tournament goes on.

5. Any Competition for the Women?

In the short history of Women's Olympic hockey, it's always been a two horse race between the Canadians and Americans. Both teams would always sail through the tournament, absolutely steamrolling the other teams until meeting in the final, where Canada would win a reasonably close game.

But last year saw a huge upset with the Swedes knocking off the Americans. While Canada still handled them fairly easily in the gold medal game, Sweden's win over the yanks got people talking. We're told that every year the lesser countries are catching up little by little although no one expects to see such huge strides that the Canadians and Americans will actually be challenged this time around. Many figure the Swedish win was basically a fluke.

As I'm writing this, the Canadians are a perfect 3 and 0 so far, mowing over all opposition outscoring them 42-3. Once again it seems that unless the Americans can play a great game against us, another gold is assured. But you never know. I look forward to the day when women's international hockey actually sees some parity where blow outs aren't common but I think that day is still far off. But as I said, you never know.

4. The Old Slovaks

It's strange but I haven't seen any mention of the fact that the team the Slovaks are sending to Vancouver is made up of some fairly aged forwards. Ten or twelve years ago, the book on the Slovaks was always that they were loaded up front with scorers but were thin on the blue line and had basically no one decent in goal. But these days it's almost the opposite. Now they're mostly known for having a very tough, very BIG squad of defenceman, led of course by 6'9 behemoth Zdeno Chara, who is regarded as one of the top defencemen in the world. Joining him are big bodies like Milan Jurcina (6'4, 236) and Martin Strbak (6'3, 215). Outside Chara, only undersized Lubomir Visnovsky (5'10, 185) can really be counted on for offence.

And now the Slovaks finally have an NHL calibre goaltender in Montreal Canadien Jaroslav Halak. Granted he's no star but he's a definite step up from the nobodies they used to have to count on and is used to facing tough competition.

Slovakia does boast two scoring stars in Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik - both are good for at least forty goals a year in the NHL if they can stay healthy which makes them great scorers even when measured against stars from other countries. I mean, if they were Canadian, I think both would make the Olympic team - they're that good.

But what's funny to me about this team is that if this was 1998, we'd be talking about how much firepower they have because a handful of these forwards were playing in those days and did a lot of scoring in the NHL. Just substitute Gaborik for Peter Bondra (who is the general manager of this team). The 2010 Slovakian Olympic team features Pavol Demitra (thirty-five years old), Miro Satan (thirty-five years old - played in the '94 games and led the tournament in goals with 9 and holds the record for most goals scored for the national team with 70), Ziggy Palffy (thirty-nine years old - better than a point a game in his NHL career, which ended some years ago), Richard Zednik (thirty-four years old) and Jozef Stumpel (thirty-nine years old).

In their day, all those players were snipers in the NHL, with the exception of Stumpel who was more of a playmaker. Only Demitra and Satan are still in the NHL with Satan just joining the Bruins last month after being unsigned in any league until then. Demitra's skills are hard to measure these days since he's almost always injured. But it's fair to say all these guys have lost a step. The wildcard is actually the oldest guy, Palffy, since I haven't seen him play in years and he was always a dominant offensive player. I'm curious to see if he still has it.

It's fair to say that for the Slovaks to have any realistic shot at a medal, a lot of these older forwards will have to show they've got something left in the tank.

3. Possible Cindarella Teams
Whenever there's an international tournament of some magnitude, be it the Olympics or something else, there's almost at least one of these. Some lesser team catches one of the big boys napping or simply has every member play the game of his life and the next thing you know, we've got an upset on our hands. The Swiss pulled it off against Canada in Torino, the Latvians had a few in recent World Championships and everyone remembers what Belarus did to the Swedes in Salt Lake city in '02,

These teams never go all the way and pretty much no one flukes their way to the gold medal game, but it's fair to expect to see at least one or two games where someone like a Germany or a Latvia surprise someone, maybe even knocking them out of contention.

2. Peter Forsberg
Foppa hasn't played in the NHL since a nine game stint for the Avs in 07/08, hasn't played at least sixty games since 05/06 with the (ugh) Flyers and the last full NHL season he had was way back 02/03 when he led the league in scoring with 106 points and also won the Hart Trophy. Ever since the lockout he's battled injuries that have severely limited his icetime. And now thirty-six, he can no longer dominate over long stretches.

But Sweden's flag bearer (fitting since they put him on a STAMP for god's sake - for his Olympic Gold medal winning shootout goal back in '94) is still worth watching this time around because one of the remarkable things about him is that, even when he misses huge stretches because of injuries, when he actually plays he's still dynamite. It's a rare player indeed who can step right into high level games and perform without the benefit of practice. Since this is a short tournament and the Swedes have plenty of talent to surround him with, the potential for Forsberg to dominate and dazzle once more is definitely there and if it happens it might take him all the way to a third Olympic gold.

1. Jaromir Jagr

First of all, you can take pretty much everything I said about Forsberg and apply it here. While Jags is even older at thirty-eight (granted his birthday was just a couple days ago) he's never had the injury problems Forsberg had and was actually one of the durable players of his generation. And he's unquestionably the best player of his generation too unless you maybe want to include a guy like Dominik Hasek in that generation.

Simply put, Jagr was THE dominant offensive player of the latter nineties and well into last decade. Hell, after putting in two rather uninspired seasons with Washington where he only scored slightly above a point a game, he exploded for 54 goals and 123 points for the Rangers in 05/06. Not bad for a thirty-three year old. He finished two points away from landing a sixth scoring title. He took home the Art Ross Trophy in 94/95, 97/97, 98/99, 99/00 and 00/01.

He departed the NHL after scoring 71 points in 82 games in the 07/08 season and has been playing in the KHL where his numbers are no longer eye popping but still very good. Honestly, if he'd stayed in the NHL for a few more seasons he would have had a very good chance of retiring third or fourth on the all time points list. He currently sits at ninth with 1599 points in 1273 games.

Just a few hours ago I watched the Czechs play their first game of the Olympics against their rivals the Slovaks. After the first period I thought Jagr looked like he'd definitely slowed down. Then he scored the winning goal and set up another using his phenomenal skills on both plays. Just like Forsberg, Jagr has a great supporting cast and only has to perform for six or seven games - that could be the recipe for another gold medal (Jagr won one in 1998). Just like Forsberg, this is probably our very last chance to see a truly great player play on North American soil and maybe the last time we'll see him period.


Cole D'Arc said...

Well. Any competition for the women? Nope. Canada/US final again with each team smoking all other opposition.

Jagr basically had two pretty good games then got hurt. He kept playing but couldn't do much and now the Czechs are out at the hands of the Finns.

Forsberg did less than Jagr and the Swedes were just upset by...the Old Slovaks. Which is pretty awesome.

So numbers three and four go together. I'm really happy for the Slovaks but obviously hope Canada beats them tomorrow like they should. They can win bronze - it would be their best Olympic finish by far.

Shane Patenaude said...

Neato list. I don't have enough sports knowledge to write an Olympics list unless it's some broad observation after the fact like "Five Tragic Things that Happened at Vancouver"

Actually watching the women's hockey final, and so far we are kicking American ass. Woot! The Canadian team truly smoked all opposition as you said. I think I saw a game last week against Slovakia that ended 18-0. Do Slovakian even know what hockey and/or ice is? Will they be executed upon returning home?

Really excited about the men's final as well. I was worried that Russia would take us out before we got there, but the Olympics continue to surprise.

Cole D'Arc said...

oh, the Slovaks know hockey alright. just their women suck. Expect swift executions.

The Old Slovaks beat Russia and knocked off the Swedes - they are not to be underestimated. and Chara, Gaborik and (Marian, not Marcel) Hossa are absolute superstars.

i watched the Gold Medal game (lame Yanks couldn't even score!) and the ceremonies afterward and here's my observation: wow, the Finnish team is cute.