Men's hockey scouting reports
Russia's roster may be the finest it has ever assembled
Canada will be dealing with huge pressure. What else is new?
Team USA's medal hopes rest squarely on goalie Ryan Miller
Here's a look at the 12 teams' strengths, weaknesses and bottom-line outlook in Vancouver.
STORYLINE: There were some lean years for Russian hockey after its 1993 World Championship win in Munich. The superlative skill was still there, but politics, infighting and personal motivation always seemed to pull the rug out from under the bear at the critical moment. Then came the dramatic 2008 win in Quebec City, and the 2009 championship in Bern -- each time at the heartbreaking expense of archrival Canada. Suddenly, Russia, under the guidance of Vladislav Tretiak, had found the focus to go along with its talent.
And what a bumper crop of talent. The names read like a Murderer's Row on blades: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin. Forget the talk about this being the best group in a generation. This might be the finest lineup the country has ever iced, topping even the fabled 1987 Canada Cup squad.
Granted, Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar lack the sturdy presence of Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, but with Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, the Russians may have their best goaltending since the days of Tretiak. The back end will find its balance.
Don't overlook the coaching presence of Slava Bykov. Previous Russian sides have rebelled against authoritarian bench bosses, but Bykov, a member of that '87 team, is one of them. After guiding the team to those world championships, he's earned their trust. That may end up being the X-Factor for this club.
MVP: Alexander Ovechkin. Just a guess, but I'd imagine that no loss eats at his hockey soul like that 6-1 beating administered by Team Canada in the gold medal match at the 2005 World Juniors. Though he's already extracted his revenge once at the 2008 Worlds, you can bet that Ovechkin wants to hit Canada where it lives. So he's not just the best player in the world. He's not just the hottest (40 points in his last 19 NHL games). He's also the most driven. If he's the MVP of the tournament (and who's gonna bet against him?), then Russia wins the gold.
KID TO WATCH: Alexander Radulov. The wayward Predator is having a massive season with Salavat Yulaev, where he's fifth in the KHL scoring race with 22 goals, 57 points and an eye-popping plus-38 through 51 games. He's likely to play on a line with Salavat teammates Sergei Zinoviev and Viktor Kozlov. Their familiarity should help them make an impact in the early going.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Andrei Markov. The Russian blueline tends to be written off as a weak link and it is...but only in comparison to one of the most dynamic forwards corps ever assembled. Markov leads a group that lacks the size and star power of the Canadians, but is more than capable of taking care of its own zone and making the transitional plays that will key the fast-paced Russian attack.
BOTTOM LINE: Talk to members of the two-time defending world champs and you come away with the sense that they want it more than anyone else. In the end, that might make the difference.
STORYLINE: Let's get this out of the way, all right? Canadian hockey teams always skate with the weight of an unforgiving nation on their shoulders. If you think this time around is any different than in Torino or Salt Lake City, at the World Cup, the World Championship, the World Juniors, well, you're wrong. This is what it's like every time a team puts on the maple leaf. The ability to face that pressure and, more often than not, overcome it is a good part of what makes Canadian hockey great.
So what's the real story? The turning of the page. That may seem obvious, but that's always been a weakness of Hockey Canada: loyalty to a fault. Sure, there'll be grey hairs in the shaving sink, but this is a team that will rely heavily on players who've never won at this level.
MVP: Sidney Crosby. It was widely regarded as a smart move by the Canadian staff to stitch the C on the sweater of veteran Scott Niedermayer rather than Crosby's, but it doesn't change anything. This is Sid's team and it will go as far as he and his redwood legs can carry them. Tall order for a 22-year-old, sure, but does anyone who watched him last spring as he willed the Penguins to the Stanley Cup have any reason to doubt? And as impressive as that performance was, this is the role that he was born to play. We've yet to see Crosby's best...but we might not have to wait long for the chance.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Drew Doughty. There's a sense in some corners that the 20-year-old was brought on board to be the seventh defenseman. Dismiss that notion immediately. Doughty is the picture of effortless poise in the NHL and was Canada's most effective blueliner at the 2009 World Championships. "He might not be [top six] when the tournament starts, but watch him at the end," one scout told SI.com. "He lives for the challenge of playing the Malkins and Ovechkins and Sedins. He has the mental toughness that you need for the big games."
QUESTION MARK: Roberto Luongo. Martin Brodeur's reputation, not to mention his gold medal from 2002, makes him the presumptive starter, but count on coach Mike Babcock to go with the hot hand in goal. If Brodeur falters -- and a recent stretch in which he allowed at least three goals in nine of his last 12 games raises concern -- then Luongo could assume a larger role. He's been the hotter goalie of late, winning eight of 10, including hard-earned victories over the Blackhawks, Penguins and Sabres.
BOTTOM LINE: On paper, the Canadians are everything you'd want in a national team: big, fast, talented, deep enough to handle any situation and guided by a truly exceptional coaching staff. But can they match the Russian hunger? That could be the difference between a gold medal and ignominious failure.
STORYLINE: While the Americans decided to cut ties with the heroes of their greatest victory, the Finns are giving their own legends one last hurrah in Vancouver. The old guard, led by Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen, carved their names into the record books with the 1995 World Championship, the first and only in the country's history. Along with vets like Teemu Selanne and Niklas Hagman, that aging group accentuates an obvious development gap in Finnish hockey. While the country has turned into the world's leading goaltending factory (promising stoppers Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask didn't even get a sniff of this roster and 2006 Olympic MVP Antero Niittymaki is slated as this team's third-stringer), Finland isn't turning out high-end forwards like it used to. With speed at a premium in this tournament, that may be their downfall.
MVP: Mikko Koivu. One of just five skaters on the team under the age of 30, Koivu is also the most complete package. The burly center, who leads all Finnish NHLers with 52 points, has the physical game and defensive acumen to match up against the opposition's top centers.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Teemu Selanne. He's been thei offensive sparkplug at the last four Olympiads, netting 20 goals and 35 points in just 25 games. Still, at age 39, there seems to be plenty of magic left in Selanne's stick. With 18 goals in 35 NHL games, he's scoring at a 40-goal pace.
QUESTION MARK: Olli Jokinen. When press box talk swings to players who get the least out of their talent, Jokinen's name always pops up. He's big, he's strong, he has a nasty shot and yet, as Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter will attest, he has all the personal drive of David Wooderson. He won't be asked to shoulder the offensive load here -- with the Koivu brothers likely to center the first two lines, Jokinen should be relegated to third line duty -- and that diminished responsibility may suit him well.
BOTTOM LINE: The Finns have won more medals than any other country since 1988, so they'll stick to the formula that's served them so well over the years: goaltending, quality coaching and a tireless effort. They won't beat themselves and they won't be intimidated. Just in terms of talent, it's hard to place them above the big three, but this team always seems to punch above its weight.
STORYLINE: No roster is more unsettled with just days to go before the start of the tournament than the defending champs'. Fredrik Modin is dealing with a bruised foot and hasn't played since Feb. 4. Tomas Holmstrom played Thursday night, but is battling a bruised knee. Niklas Kronwall, sidelined 30 games already, is hoping a new brace will allow him to skate on Saturday. Brittle Peter Forsberg has proclaimed his availability, but could blow an ankle while crossing into the Pacific time zone. And now Johan Franzen, out most of the season with a torn ACL, has returned to action two months early and could be available for action. Interesting times, eh?
Fortunately, the Swedes are stable where the big minutes are distributed. The top six boasts plenty of grit and panache with the Sedin twins Henrik and Daniel, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Backstrom. The blueline will be anchored by Nicklas Lidstom, Mattias Ohlund and the wildly underappreciated Douglas Murray. Henrik Lundqvist provides a steadying presence in goal and big-game track record that gives them a chance to win every night.
MVPs: Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Alright, they've been disquietingly off their games during the past couple weeks, but can even their most vociferous detractors still harbor doubts about this duo? At 29, the Sedins have revealed themselves to be fully capable of strapping a team on their shoulders, with each taking on elements of the other's style to round out their offensive repertoires. With Mats Sundin retired and Forsberg limited to spot duty, this is their turn in the spotlight.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Nicklas Backstrom. Relegated to the shadows in Washington, this could be his chance to prove that he's more than just Chin Ho Fat to Ovechkin's Steve McGarrett. Backstrom could line up alongside Alfredsson and Franzen to form a devastating troika.
QUESTION MARK: Peter Forsberg. It was announced Thursday that Foppa would travel with the team to Vancouver, but there's no word yet on when, or even if, he'll suit up. Forsberg has been limited to just 17 games with MoDo by a nagging foot injury, but if he's ready to go, his presence gives the Swedes the most dangerous group of centers after the Canadians.
BOTTOM LINE: There aren't many voices piping up to support a Swedish repeat, but this team is not the afterthought it was in 2006. A first-to-fourth finish is possible, but with those health issues limiting their potential, bet on the latter.
STORYLINE: If you spent any time listening to general manager Brian Burke, you might think the members of Team USA would be happy to sell 50/50 tickets during intermission if it meant the chance to watch the elite squads battle it out live and in person. He's not fooling anyone. Despite his best efforts to sandbag his squad in the media, these new-look Yanks are a dangerous bunch. Sure, they're more green than red, white and blue, but they've got quick-strike capability up front with Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise, who should get his much-deserved national close-up after an injury scare earlier this week. Team USA also boasts what might be the strongest trio in net with red-hot Ryan Miller, 2009 Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas, and young Jonathan Quick, who currently leads the NHL with 34 wins.
The problem is the thin blueline. Injuries to a pair of defenders already have necessitated a pair of roster changes -- Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason are in for Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek -- and diminutive Brian Rafalski will be asked to assume the No. 1 role. That's a lot to ask of the consummate No. 2, especially when his support staff lacks depth and experience.
MVP: Ryan Miller. You wanna talk pressure? The ability of the Americans to contend rests solely on his narrow shoulders. Short of a complete meltdown, the table is his to run. If Miller can't cover the growing pains of this young squad, the Americans will be heading home early.
KID TO WATCH: Patrick Kane. Deep into his third season with the Blackhawks, he still looks more like some player's lucky tagalong kid brother than a bonafide NHL superstar...at least until he straps on the blades and starts dancing around defenders and picking off unprotected corners. With the Americans lacking the offensive heft of the top contenders, he has to be a factor in every game.
QUESTION MARKS: Erik and Jack Johnson. The consensus holds that the unrelated Johnsons -- big, smooth, puck-distributing Erik and big, smooth, demolition ace Jack -- are the future of the American blueline. Unfortunately, this tournament takes place in the present and they're likely too raw to handle the heavy lifting against the deep Canadian, Russian and Swedish squads.
BOTTOM LINE: On paper, the Americans rank as the fourth-, maybe fifth-most talented squad in Vancouver. Still, they have to be considered legitimate contenders for the podium simply because of the game-changing presence of Miller.