Sunday, March 7, 2010

Olympics Wrap Up: Surprise Performers

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games are over now and they couldn't have been a much bigger success for Canada. We did more than just not embarrass ourselves, we led the way finishing third overall in the medal standings and first in Golds. Oh, we also set the record for most by Golds by the host country as well as most Golds at the Winter Games PERIOD.

But that last Gold we won to set the record was the big one: men's ice hockey (it always feels so stupid saying ice hockey but I have to stick to Olympic Speak here). Nova Scotia phenom Sidney Crosby scored at 7:40 of overtime to send the nation into celebration and I guess it's only fitting that he was the guy to do it (I called it by the way - picking him for Canada and Patrick Kane for the yanks).

Here I'll just point out five players (plus one extra) who really surprised me with how they performed at the Olympics, whether by really stepping up or completely disappearing. Apparently there were also some other events going on at these games but I didn't really notice.

5. Alex Ovechkin - Russia
Aside from a huge hit on Jaromir Jagr that led directly to a goal by Malkin, The Great Eight was essentially invisible in this tournament, particularly in the game against Canada. Really, the top two lines for the Russians, consisting of notable NHLers Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk (more invisible than Ovie but less surprising), Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin, Maxim Afinogenov and Alex Semin were consistently outperformed by the bottom two made up of KHLers.

The knock on Russian teams of the past fifteen years is that for all their explosive talent, they never come together as a team and this leads to poor finishes in international tournaments. I personally believed that Ovechkin, with his wild passion and enthusiasm, would galvanize the Russians and they'd finally gel as they needed to. But nope.

4. Sergei Kostitsyn - Belarus

Just because a player doesn't play for a country in the Big Six doesn't mean he can't surprise you. Coming into these Olympics, no one expected much of the Belarussians and really, why would you? And because of injuries to two of their three top offensive players and two of the four NHLers on their roster, expectations were lowered even more. Not only were they without Mikhail Grabovski and short one Kostitsyn brother, it was the lesser Kostitsyn - Sergei - that they were left with.

Older brother Andrei is coming off a 23 goal season for the Montreal Canadiens and actually had 26 the year before so he was the one proven scorer Belarus had. Sergei is younger, smaller and less of a goal scorer. He has great stickhandling and playmaking skills but he's often overmatched by strong, physical players who take away his time and space. So once he became the undisputed number one offensive threat for Belarus, I figured he'd crumble under the pressure. But I was wrong. He led the team in scoring with 2 goals, 3 assists for 5 points in four games. Not overwhelming but still damned impressive when you factor in that he always saw the opposition's best players matching up against him in a tournament that featured the best players in the world. Bravo, Sergei. Grabovski still hates your guts though.

3. Brian Rafalski - USA
Obviously the entire US team's performance at these Olympics was a surprise. Many, including myself, picked them to not even earn a medal. And while the Silver they took home is more due to Ryan Miller's completely unsurprising dominant play than anything else, the fact is that lots of players upped their game. Rafalski is one of those players.

Unlike most of the roster, Rafalski is not young and unproven. In fact he was the oldest player on the team and oldest defenceman by a mile. He's had a great career as a mostly offensive defenceman, averaging close to 50 points a season and winning three Stanley Cups - two with New Jersey and one with Detroit. He played for the US at the last Olympics. And the Olympics before that. But in Torino, he didn't even score a goal. In Vancouver he got 4, 2 in the first game against Canada.

The diminutive, smooth skating native of Dearborn, Michigan, who was never drafted by an NHL team, finished the Olympics with 4 goals and 4 assists for 8 points in six games, along with a plus seven. He was selected as one of the defenceman for the tournament all star team (along with Canada's Shea Weber) and named top defenceman overall. He'll be forty by the time the next Olympics roll around and I highly doubt we'll see him there but that's ok given his amazing farewell performance on the international stage.

2. Pavol Demitra - Slovakia
Another tournament all star I don't think anyone saw coming. As I stated in my earlier Olympic list, the story on the Slovakians going into Vancouver is that they're friggin' old. Demitra is one of those players. Even more troubling is his injury history which has severely limited his effectiveness in the NHL for the past few seasons. He'd only played a handful of games for the Canucks this year so predicting how he'd play at the Olympics was tough.

Well, how he played was fantastic, finishing with 3 goals and 7 assists for a tournament leading ten points in seven games. He's easily the most surprising member of the all star team (Canada's Jonathan Toews and USA's Zach Parise were the other forwards with Toews named top forward) and helped Slovakia to a surprise appearance in the Bronze medal game. They were leading that game 3-1 (against the Finns) going into the third period but just couldn't hold it. I know the Slovaks are disappointed that they lost out on a medal but after beating the Russians and Swedes and almost coming back against the Canadians, they should hold their heads up high. Demitra highest of all.

1. Tore Vikingstad - Norway

It's only fitting that the Norwegians' most dynamic player at the Olympics is named Vikingstad. Perhaps his 4 goals in four games don't seem so impressive at first but let's put them into perspective. Firstly, in case you didn't know, Norway is pretty damn far from a power in the world of hockey (something that always surprised me a bit by virtue of geography, really) and they were definitely whipping boys in this tournament. Their number two goalie wasn't even a professional - he was a freaking carpenter. Canada smoked them 8-0 and the Americans easily handled them 6-1. How many goals did Norway even score at the Olympics? I'll tell you - 8. That's right, EIGHT. So Vikingstad accounted for half of his team's entire goal output. Even over a short stretch like four games, that's still pretty amazing. He was also the only Norwegian player to score more than one goal. Patrick Thoresen, their only player with any NHL experience, actually led the team with 5 points but they were all assists.

Vikingstad's offensive outburst came mostly in the form of a hat trick in a game against Latvia. You can say it's only Latvia but you should keep two things in mind: Latvia are technically stronger than Norway (ok, who isn't?) and a hat trick at the Olympics is still a freaking hat trick at the Olympics.

The thirty-three year old was actually a late pick of the St. Louis Blues back in 1999 (180th overall) after showing some promise playing in the Swedish Elite League. His 6'4, 204 pound frame probably was a pretty big factor too. But he never played a game in a North American league let alone the NHL. It's a safe bet this is the last we'll ever hear of him. But then again, he'll only be thirty-seven in four years and Norway isn't exactly stacked with talent...

Honourable Mention: Mats Zuccarello-Aasen - Norway
Norway's other best player doesn't have as kickass a name as Tore Vikingstad but that's ok considering his nickname which I am not making up: The Hobbit Wizard! That's right! In fact, how COULD I make that up?

While the tiny (seriously - 5'7, 154) Norwegian dynamo only managed one goal, he also had two assists for 3 points in the four games played. He also was somehow a plus one which, on that team, is outstanding, trust me. But even though he didn't pile up the points, The Hobbit Wizard made things happen almost every time he was on the ice, using his speed and creativity. He pinballed around the rink fearlessly and showed off some spectacular moves at times. He had 11 shots in the tournament, second only to Vikingstad (who had 12).

He's only twenty-two and currently leading Modo of the Swedish Elite League in scoring with 60 points in fifty-one games. That's a league full of skilled players but it is less physical than say, the AHL. Still, during these Olympics I think it's fair to say he caught the attention of some NHL scouts and gm's. Maybe the NHL is just too physically demanding for such a small player to succeed in but I'd love to see him give it a shot.


Cole D'Arc said...

don't worry cole. i still enjoy your hockey lists.

Shane said...

Wait a minute, I thought you were Cole? Then who the hell are you talking to? Who's talking, and better yet, who am I?

Anyway the Olympics were awesome. The biggest surprise performer was Canada. About halfway through the Olympics the media started acting like we were too ambitious in our "own the podium" slogan. Turns out...we owned it. Pwnd it even.

It took me so long to comment on your list because I've spent the last month researching everything you've said. I'm not just about to say "great list" just because I know nothing about hockey. I want to make sure you haven't bamboozled us with all of these "facts". But after a thorough investigation, these are actually the five players that were most surprising.

What is even more surprising still is that I've never heard about the hobbit wizard until now. He's my new favorite player, and not just because his agility is +7.

Cole D'Arc said...

i have multiple personalities as well as clones.

and thankyou very much. i love the tiny speedy dynamos - check out linus omark on youtube.

new list coming soon! (and it's not hockey)