Scouting reports (cont.)
STORYLINE: The Swiss slipped into the role of giant killer at the 2006 Games, shutting out Canada 2-0 and edging the Czechs 3-2. A bold statement from a developing hockey power? Not so much. The Swiss followed those stunners with ties against lightweights France and Italy. This club has neither the talent nor the emotional capacity to compete on a consistent basis, but there's that "any given Sunday" quality that demands they not be overlooked. They'll win a game in Vancouver, maybe two. The key for the contenders will be to avoid being lulled into their trap.
MVP: Jonas Hiller. It's really all on his shoulders, isn't it? For the tight-checking, light-scoring Swiss to have a hope of competing, the Anaheim star has to play virtually mistake-free hockey. He's coming into the Games on a roll, having given up two goals or fewer in six of his last seven NHL starts.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Hnat Dominichelli. A star for Team Canada at the 1996 World Juniors, the Edmonton-born Dominichelli hung around the fringes of the NHL for seven seasons before finding his niche in the Swiss league. He took a Swiss passport last summer, allowing the 33-year-old to earn a spot on the squad. He'll be counted on to replace the offense provided in the past by Canadian-born vets Paul DiPietro and Ryan Gardner.
QUESTION MARKS: Luca Sbisa and Roman Josi. The two young defenders are the pride of the Swiss developmental program and both are considered fine NHL prospects. But therein lies the problem: Sbisa (Anaheim) and Josi (Nashville) are young enough to have played in the recent World Junior tournament. Veterans Mark Streit and Yannick Weber will do most of the heavy lifting on the blueline, but coach Ralph Krueger didn't bring these diaper dandies to hide them on the bench. They'll be thrown in the deep end and told to swim.
BOTTOM LINE: The win over the stone-handed Canadians was a generational fluke. A top-eight finish in Vancouver would be considered a success.
STORYLINE: Belarus authored what may have been the second greatest upset in Olympic hockey history with their 4-3 ouster of the previously unbeaten Swedes in the 2002 quarterfinals, so this team can't be written off like some of the weak sisters. That said, three of their four NHL representatives -- Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn, Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski and Colorado's Ruslan Salei -- are sidelined by injury, leaving a talent pool that's painfully shallow. With seven of their players coming from Dynamo Minsk, they'll benefit from some instant chemistry, but even that won't help them do more than tread water. One of the team's assistant coaches will be Dave Lewis, last seen manning the bench in Boston back in 2006-07.
MVP: Andrei Mezin. Lost in the "can you believe it?" moment created when Vladimir Kopat's long-range slapper bounced off the head of Tommy Salo and into the net to seal the 2002 upset of the Swedes was the amazing performance of Mezin. The veteran netminder kept his team in the game, stopping 44 shots and wave after wave of Swedish aggression. While that game was the highlight of his career, it wasn't lightning in a bottle. Mezin was voted the top goaltender at the 2009 World Championships after he posted a 1.72 GAA and .948 save percentage. He has that game-stealing ability that opponents have to respect.
KID TO WATCH: Sergei Kolosov. He was left off the early provisional roster, but the 2004 Red Wings draft pick was added to the squad last week as an injury replacement. He plays a fairly conservative game, so don't expect Kolosov to jump out at you. "He's a stay-at-home guy, keeps the crease clear, blocks shots, bangs the puck off the boards," a scout told SI.com. "There's a chance he could be a depth guy [in the NHL]."
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sergei Kostitsyn. Andrei's little bro has some growing up to do, as evidenced by his inability to hold a steady job in Montreal and his reaction to a demotion earlier this season. This tournament may be the kick in the pants he needs. Kostitsyn could be front and center with the Belorusian squad, but he'll have to earn the trust of new coach Mikhail Zakharov.
BOTTOM LINE: They lucked out with a spot in the C Pool, generally regarded as the least intimidating of the three, but they're missing too many of their big guns to be taken seriously.
STORYLINE: The Norwegians punched their ticket to Vancouver with a surprising showing at the 2008 World Championships, where they knocked off the Germans, dragged the Finns into overtime and battled Canada down to the wire in a thrilling 2-1 loss. Things didn't go quite as well last year in Bern, where Norway won just one contest (beating lightweight Denmark 5-4) and was outscored 25-12 as limitations were exposed by superior opponents. Honestly, those results are more indicative of their potential in this tournament. The Norwegians will dress just one NHLer, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen of the Red Wings.
MVP: Mats Zuccarello Aasen. Four members of the Swedish club team MoDo will suit up for the Polar Bears, including the flashy Zuccarello Aasen. His diminutive frame (5-7, 160) was deemed too small even for the new NHL, but the 22-year-old is putting up big numbers in the Elitserien. With 18 goals and 51 points in 48 games, he ranks third in the circuit. His ability to create similar magic against bigger, stronger opponents will be key to the success of Norway's offense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jonas Holos. The Colorado Avalanche draft pick (170th overall, 2008) has established himself as one of the top blueliners in the Swedish league. He'll likely play alongside Tollefsen on the top pairing. A good showing could give the 5-11, 210-pound 22-year-old a leg up going into the Avs' camp next fall.
QUESTION MARK: Ruben Smith. The Norwegians have yet to name a starting goalie, and while there's some sentiment to hand the gig to veteran Pal Grotnes, the 22-year--old Smith is expected to see his share of action. The MVP of the 2008 Norwegian playoffs, it's just a matter of time before the Pang-sized stopper takes over the duties on a permanent basis
BOTTOM LINE: Their gold medal match comes in the opener against Canada. If they can keep it close, they'll be thrilled. If they pull off the upset (like they did at the 2000 World Championships), the streets of Oslo will make the post-Super Bowl French Quarter look a ghost town. Don't count on that happening, though. This group should be happy with their invite to the party.
STORYLINE: Now that the Arturs Irbe/Sandis Ozolinsh era has passed, the Latvians have become just another club clinging to the fringes of respectability. With just two non-descript NHLers -- Karlis Skrastins of the Stars and Oskars Bartulis of the Flyers -- this year's squad is pretty much Dynamo Riga in different sweaters. Sixteen players from that mid-level KHL side will make up the bulk of the team. Even with that level of familiarity, they'll be mowed down by the Russians, Czechs and Slovaks.
MVP: Alexanders Nisivijs. At just 5-9, 169 pounds, Dynamo's leading Latvian-born scorer is the country's answer to Martin St. Louis. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with creativity, speed and flair. The 33-year-old will be the key to his country's offense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Martins Karsums. Not that he'll be hard to spot. Karsums, a second-round selection of the Bruins in 2004 whose rights are currently owned by the Lightning, plays a Steve Ott/Steve Downie style game. He's small but relentless and his aggressive pursuit of the puck makes him one of the most obnoxious guys on the ice...and one of the most entertaining to watch.
QUESTION MARK: Edgars Masalskis. The veteran netminder will have to be a standout if the Latvians hope to avoid humiliation.
BOTTOM LINE: They may not make much noise on the ice, but they sure will in the stands. If you'll be in Vancouver, find your way to the Latvian cheering section. Outside of Brazil's fanatical soccer supporters, these may be the best fans in all of sports.
STORYLINE: Observers of the German hockey scene have been saying for years that the DEL's overreliance on foreign-born players was stunting the development of homegrown talent. As their 15th-place finish at the 2009 Worlds proved, those chickens have come home to roost. The roster boasts a few serviceable NHL vets -- Christian Ehrhoff, Marco Sturm and Marcel Goc the most prominent -- but the presence of a quartet of creaky Canadian ex-pats (Jason Holland, John Tripp, Travis Mulock and Chris Schmidt) clearly demonstrates the failings of their system.
MVP: Christian Ehrhoff. The veteran defender is enjoying a breakthrough season with the Canucks and stands out as the country's most talented player. Couple that with the fact that he wouldn't be a top-10 defender with any of the medal contenders and you realize just how deep a hole the Germans are in.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Marco Sturm. The knock on the Bruins winger is that his offense tends to run hot and cold. Unfortunately, Sturm's hands have been ice kalt in his two previous Olympic appearances, with just one assist in seven games.
QUESTION MARK: Thomas Greiss. The Sharks benchwarmer has just one major international game on his resume, and it didn't go particularly well as he gave up five goals to the snake-bitten Canadians in Turin.
BOTTOM LINE: The Germans are capable of executing a smothering defensive system that can cause the occasional opponent fits, but a severe talent shortage suggests this team will be lucky to tie a game.