Super six pack
Final round wide open with six teams in the huntPosted: Thursday February 14, 2002 11:46 PM
Updated: Friday February 15, 2002 2:26 AM
After going on record with his medal picks last week, CNNSI.com's Darren Eliot gives a more in-depth breakdown of each of the Big Six teams which were automatically granted a berth in the Olympic final round.
Everyone knows that Canada is the center of the hockey universe. OK, so maybe I'm biased as a former Canadian Olympian in 1984, but I still think Canada has a good chance. But so do a lot of other teams. Do they have enough to bring home the gold in 2002?
It's a new hockey experience for Canadians everywhere, including longtime hockey man and Canada's head coach Pat Quinn.
"I think it probably started in the 1972 series, even though we'd had exhibitions before that," Quinn said. "I don't think they were taken seriously. The '72 series woke everybody up and as more and more Europeans come into our game our game has had a transformation."
The strength of Team Canada is goaltending depth, with Martin Brodeur, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour -- three of the game's elite. But is it truly an advantage? In a tournament format you only need one guy to get hot for a couple of weeks. In Canada's case, the nation's best goalie, Patrick Roy, opted out of this year's Olympics.
No matter who starts in goal, it's in capable hands for Canada. As is their blue line with Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Rob Blake and Scott Niedermayer. To me they have the best mix of size, skill, toughness and mobility in the entire tournament.
If there is a question mark for Canada, it has to be up front. Yes they have talent, with the likes of Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury, Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. But what about the captain? Mario Lemieux has missed most of the first half of the season and all eyes will be on him. It's his first time as an Olympian.
The streaky nature of some of these forwards is cause for concern in a short format. Pairs of players that are familiar with one another is going to be a strategy employed with Quinn.
So just like the NHL of today being down to 52 percent Canadian content, there is certainly plenty of talent to still win gold for the first time since 1952 in Oslo, Norway, but by no means is a certainty for the Canadians.
In Salt Lake, I think it's true that any one of the top six teams could win the men's ice hockey tournament, but I think the Czech Republic is the odds-on favorite to repeat as gold medalists.
The Czechs mined gold with Dominik Hasek taking center stage in 1998 and are strong in goal again with Hasek, Roman Cechmanek and Milan Hnilicka. But if a repeat is in the offing, the Dominator will again have to be the central figure.
Offensively, the Czechs are led by Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias, one enigmatic and the other consistent. Both will have to be prominent and productive. So must be supporting cast consiting of youngster Martin Havlat, Milan Hejduk, Robert Lang and Jan Hrdina. For the Czechs, the blue line is where they have the most uncertainty. The biggest question is can youngsters Tomas Kaberle, Martin Skoula and Pavel Kubina provide offensive punch while holding up defensively. In the past, the Czechs have benefitted from timely goals from their blue line, markers that were integral in their overall success.
But still, the Czech Republic has far more answers than questions when it comes to defending its gold medal status. And in their native country, these players are revered as heroes, with Olympic gold and national pride being synonomous.
When you take a look at Team Finland, it is pretty good at everything. The question is are the Finns good enough at one thing to be a factor in this year's Olympics.
Finland may be viewed as the sixth-best team among the top six, but it might be ranked No. 1 as the team to avoid as an opponent, especially early.
Up front, they have just enough scoring to be dangerous. Sami Kapanen is having a career season in the NHL and Jere Lehtinen may be the best two-way forward in the entire game. Then, of course, there is Teemu Selanne, whose production has been off over the past couple of seasons but is still a threat in the open ice.
The Finns have just enough scoring to be dangerous, but their strength lies in their collective defensive responsibility up front, but more predominantly on the blue line. Jyrki Lumme, Teppo Numminen and Janne Niinimaa are guys who anchor the solid blue line corps. They are players who get it done at the NHL level, but they seem to excel even more in international competition.
So while the Finns are viewed as a tough opponent because of their committment to team defense, many wonder if they have the goaltending to back it up.
The starter will be Jani Hurme, who isn't even the starter for the Ottawa Senators. He's unheralded, if not unknown. Maybe this will challenge and define Hurme. A sterling peformance in the Olympics could effect his status with Ottawa down the stretch and allow him to overtake Patrick Lalime for the No. 1.
So if Hurme does perform well in the Olympics, you'll have to take Finland seriously. Against the Finns, you better display patience. Team USA draws the Finns in game one and I'm not so sure that patience is always a strength of theirs.
Most of the stories surrounding this year's edition of the Russian national team took place off the ice. In particular, the focus was on the transition from Victor Tikhanov to Slava Fetisov as the main man behind the bench. On the ice, however, they have plenty of weapons to capture gold.
Fetisov is the symbol and face of Russian hockey excellence. He'll be counting heavily upon netminder Nikolai Khabibulin to deliver the timely save and backstop the team's effort.
On the blue line, Russia will rely on premier point producer Sergei Gonchar to support the attack from the back side. But to me, Darius Kasparaitis defines the Russian defense. His abrasive, confrontational style is compelling to watch and harder still to play against.
Up front, Russia has an intriguing mix in the middle with Alexei Yashin's size and understated skill, Alexei Zhamnov's career year, Sergei Fedorov's complete game and the wisdom of Igor Larionov.
Still, Russia's X-factor is speed on the outside with Pavel Bure, Sergei Samsonov and Alexei Kovalev. Add to that group electrifying 18-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk and it's easy to see why many are expecting a Russia celebration.
In Sarajevo as a member of Team Canada in 1984, we battled Sweden for the bronze medal. The Swedes were victorious 2-0. This year, Sweden and Canada hook in thier first games in the tournament. Will the Swedes have enough to win that game and maybe a little more?
Any success experienced by the Swedes will revolve around the play of netminder Tommy Salo. He is athletic, agile and more than capable. Salo has established himself as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, is a two-time All-Star and is competing in his third Olympiad. He won gold vs. Canada in 1994 in a shootout, stopping Paul Kariya among others.
If Salo should falter, he has an able understudy in Johan Hedberg. Hedberg burst onto the NHL scene last spring in the playoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unfortunately the story for the Swedes may be who they don't have, namely Peter Forsberg, who is arguably the best all-around player in the game. His loss may be too much for the team to overcome.
But they still have some capable front liners, like Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who will be counted on to pick the slack offensively, as will his Senators teammate Magnus Arvedson.
Ulf Dahlen of the Washington Capitals falls into the category of being a dependable two-way veteran forward. Throw super-pest Tomas Holmstrom into the mix and the Swedes certainly have some punch up front and more grit than one might expect.
If Sweden is to medal, it will need production from the blue line, which is led by the best all-around defenseman in the game, Nicklas Lidstrom. He can't be expected to do it alone, though, and will need the likes of Mattias Norstrom and Kim Johnsson to help him out defensively and especially to key the attack.
In the end, the Swedes will have to battle hard for anything they get. Yes, they have talent at every position, but they lack depth. It may come down to captain Mats Sundin, who will have to be a force every time he is on the ice.
What a great opportunity for Team USA. Not only are the Americans playing on home soil as they seek gold, but they have a chance to redeem themselves and earn back some resepct and take some of the tarnish off their reputation.
Team USA has the best collection of forwards in the tournament. They are led by Mike Modano, arguably the most complete play in the NHL. Then there is JR Hockey, Jeremy Roenick, a skilled soloist having a tremendous season playing a team game for the Philadelphia Flyers. He is joined by teammate John LeClair, a power forward extraordinaire, who thrives in the paint with soft hands and the gift of girth.
Another pair of teammates up front are Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues. Tkachuk is a bull down low in the offensive zone, a twin threat in front of the net to go along with LeClair. Weight is a deft passer, particularly on the power play, so watch for him to key the attack when the USA is up a man.
The Boston Bruins send their own pair of wingers, Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston. Both are pure goal-scorers with outside speed. They should post a formidable threat on the wider rink.
On the blue line, Team USA certainly has experience. That group is led by 40-year-old captain Chris Chelios. He is a warrior -- nobody competes harder. Offensively, Team USA's blue line is led by Brian Leetch. He is still one of the best at joining the rush from the back line and he will have to be in top form.
In goal is Leetch's New York Rangers teammate Mike Richter. He certainly has experience at the international level. Richter is a story in and of himself with his reconstructed knees. Team USA's fortunes may ride on Richter's rickety knees.
So the United States has all kind of talent up front and all kinds of experience in its own zone. Still the biggest asset may be the intangible of playing on home soil, which is something that Team USA historically has thrived on.
Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for CNN/Sports Illustrated and will provide Olympic hockey commentary throughout the Games for CNNSI.com.