Well, all the NHL games are wrapped up, the roster freeze is in place and there will be a severe shortage of NHL news to report over the next two weeks. In its place, there will be two weeks of some of the most exciting hockey that ever gets played, as players from around the world have come to Vancouver to play for Olympic gold. Starting tomorrow, the preliminary round has some great matchups for hockey fans, including a Canada-USA showdown on Sunday afternoon. Here’s a quick list of all the preliminary round matchups – the time is in EST, before you wonder how the Russians ended up drawing a midnight game for their tourney opener.
USA vs. Switzerland (Group A) – 3 pm
Canada vs. Norway (Group A) – 7:30 pm
Russia vs. Latvia (Group B) – 12 am
Finland vs. Belarus (Group C) – 3 pm
Sweden vs. Germany (Group C) – 7:30 pm
Czech Republic vs. Slovakia (Group B) – 12 am
USA vs. Norway (Group A) – 3 pm
Switzerland vs. Canada (Group A) – 7:30 pm
Slovakia vs. Russia (Group B) – 12 am
Belarus vs. Sweden (Group C) – 3 pm
Czech Republic vs. Latvia (Group B) – 7:30 pm
Finland vs. Germany (Group C) – 12 am
Norway vs. Switzerland (Group A) – 3 pm
Latvia vs. Slovakia (Group B) – 7:30 pm
Germany vs. Belarus (Group C) – 12 am
Russia vs. Czech Republic (Group B) – 3 pm
Canada vs. USA (Group A) – 7:40 pm
Sweden vs. Finland (Group C) – 12 am
Sunday will clearly be the highlight of the week, with the top two teams in each group all playing against each other, but here’s my take on the initial matchups:
On paper, it looks like Canada should have no problems breezing through the preliminary rounds, but I doubt they’ll be taking any of these first three games lightly after a dismal showing in Torino at the last Games. Thursday’s game with the Swiss should be interesting, considering they upset the Canadians, 2-0, in 2006. They’ll have young Jonas Hiller between the pipes, and he’ll have to be at the top of his game for them to have success this time around. The Canadians will also have to deal with Ryan Miller in net when they meet Team USA, so while they clearly have the edge when it comes to talent in their group, the games will probably still be pretty close. Good news for the Canadian team last night, as Ryan Getzlaf appears to be A-ok, despite suffering an ankle injury last week. The big center put up 4 points in the Ducks’ win over Edmonton last night. Kudos to Brian Burke, who continues to demonstrate incredible strength and resolve in dealing with the tragic loss of his son, Brendan. After passing on the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, Burke arrived in Vancouver on Sunday, and answered questions from the press. Check out Howard Berger’s report on Burke’s arrival. [Hockey Buzz]
Group B might have the most evenly matched teams, with the Russians, Czechs and Slovaks all considering themselves medal contenders. Gotta feel for the Latvians, who will be clearly overmatched in just about every game they play this tournament. The Russians will be the favorite to earn a first round bye out of this group, but with Tomas Vokoun in net and plenty of veteran scoring up front, the Czechs will certainly give them a run for their money. Slovakia’s biggest concern right now has to be the health of Marian Gaborik, who suffered a laceration on his thigh during a collision with Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist in practice last week. If he’s not good to go, they will be in trouble.
The Swedes will be the odds-on favorites in each of their preliminary games. Although they lost to Belarus at the 2002 Games, they are the defending gold medal champs this time around. They have a very complete team, from top to bottom, headlined by the Sedin twins, Nicklas Lidstrom and King Henrik in goal. Tough break for Tomas Holmstrom, whose knee injury will keep him out of what would have been his 3rd Olympic Games, but the Swedes won’t be losing much with his replacement, Johan Franzen. The Finns will be looking to build on their success in Torino, where they took home the silver medal, their highest finish in nearly 20 years. Germany and Belarus are clear underdogs, but both have the capability to pull off a first round upset, and this group should be fun to watch.
The Leafs had six players named to Olympic rosters, but with injuries to Mikhail Grabovski and Mike Komisarek, and Niklas Hagman’s departure to Calgary, only 3 members of the team will be competing in Vancouver. Tomas Kaberle will be one of the top defensemen for the Czechs, Jonas Gustavsson will be one of the Swedish backup goalies, and Phil Kessel will be sniping away for Ron Wilson and Team USA. I’ll be providing pretty steady updates on the tournament in general, with my main focus being the Canadians, and I’ll try to keep you posted on how Kabby and Kessel perform, as Gustavsson probably won’t see much action, if any at all.
A big congrats to Alex Bilodeau, who became the first Canadian to win Olympic gold on home soil with a great showing in the freestyle moguls competition last night. Best of luck to the rest of the Canadian athletes, including the women’s hockey team, who set an Olympic record with their 18-0 win over the Slovaks on Saturday night. Don’t feel too bad for the Slovakian women, though. During their qualification games for the Olympics, they dished out an 82-0 (yes, that’s eighty-two) waxing to the Bulgarian women’s team, who had apparently only received their uniforms and skates 2 weeks before the game. Let’s go Canada!