Canada the favorite for Olympic hockey gold

Sidney Crosby skates with the Canadian national flag after Canada's 3-2 overtime win over the United States in the gold-medal game in Vancouver in 2010.
Sidney Crosby skates with the Canadian national flag after Canada's 3-2 overtime win over the United States in the gold-medal game in Vancouver in 2010. (JAMIE SQUIRE / Getty Images)
Posted: February 10, 2014

PITTSBURGH - While the NHL has been criticized in some quarters for shutting down its season while the Olympic hockey tournament takes place in Sochi, Russia, the enthusiasm of the participants can't be emphasized enough.

Take Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, for example.

There is no bigger name in the sport. The NHL superstar certainly boosted his international profile by scoring the game-winning goal during Canada's 3-2 overtime win against the United States during the 2010 Olympic gold-medal game in Vancouver.

Crosby now owns a Stanley Cup championship, which he won in 2009 with the Penguins, and an Olympic gold medal. And he was torn about choosing between the two.

"I don't think you can put one ahead of the other, to be honest with you," Crosby said after a Penguins skate last month. "They are both kind of different."

Then he explained the main difference.

"One is short term but obviously a lot of pressure with representing Canada. But that being said, to spend a whole season with a group of guys and work toward a certain goal and to achieve that, I think that is pretty special too," Crosby said.

It's this kind of passion that the NHL players bring to the Olympics, which showcases the sport at its best.

Since 1998, when the NHL began sending players to the Olympics, Canada has won two of the four gold medals, and both instances came when the Games were played in North America - Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. No gold-medal winner since 1998 has won a medal of any kind at the next Games.

The Canadian team will be favored to win gold on Feb. 23, but Russia will be extremely dangerous. The hosts boast explosive NHL talents such as Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, not to mention Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored 417 goals in his 11-year NHL career and is now playing in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets is one of Russia's goalies.

Several other teams can't be discounted as major medal contenders, including the United States, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland, for whom Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen is competing in his fifth Olympics.

"Obviously, when you look at the Canadian roster and the Russian roster, there is superstar after superstar, but that isn't what will make the difference," said the Czech Republic's Jake Voracek, one of five Flyers competing in the Games. "What will make the difference is how well we play as a team and how confident we are going to be in ourselves."

Besides Voracek and Timonen, the other Flyers who at the Olympics are Michael Raffl (Austria), Mark Streit (Switzerland), and Andrej Meszaros (Slovakia).

While it may be in vogue to pick against Canada, it is still an extremely deep unit. The Canadians are rich in scoring talent with the likes of John Tavares (New York Islanders) and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim), and have outstanding two-way players such as center Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. Toews was named the Olympics' top forward in 2010 after leading Canada in scoring with one goal and seven assists.

The one area where Canada could be susceptible is in goal, despite having three NHL netminders. Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks, who appeared in five games during the last Olympics and had a 1.76 goals-against average, is back. He is joined by Carey Price (Montreal) and Mike Smith (Phoenix).

Goaltending, meanwhile, is the biggest strength of the United States. U.S. coach Dan Bylsma, who also is the head coach of the Penguins, is expected to decide between Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller.

The MVP of the 2010 Olympics, Miller said the experience his team gained will only benefit the U.S. squad.

"The younger players are coming up and playing at a high level, and the future looks bright for USA Hockey, and it was a good step forward for us to perform at a high level in that kind of tournament," Miller said.

Bylsma likes to describe the United States as a lunch-pail sort of team.

"We may not have the most skilled team, and we don't have leading goal scorers, but we have the toughest guys to play against," Bylsma said. "You see that throughout our lineup."

That's not to say there aren't difference makers, beginning with Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, one of 13 returning members from the 2010 team. The U.S. captain is Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, who had four goals and four assists in six games during the last Olympics.

Leading the Czech team is former Flyer and current New Jersey Devil forward Jaromir Jagr, who will be competing in his fifth Olympics and seems to have found the fountain of youth. He turns 42 on Feb. 15.

Sweden will be a serious contender, especially if Flyer-killer Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers can provide consistency in goal.

Yet the person who will dictate everything is Crosby. Now 26, he has been named the captain of Team Canada.

"It's a big honor," Crosby said. "I had a chance to play in Vancouver and be in the room with guys like [Jarome] Iginla, [Scott] Niedermayer, [Chris] Pronger, and see the way they led and to know we have a good chunk of guys back who have been there helps."

Crosby is constantly asked about his game-winning overtime goal in 2010, but he's only looking forward and believes his Canadian teammates are ready to do so as well.

"It is a great memory," he said of the golden goal. "Obviously to be in Canada and to be able to do that [was great], but I have got a new challenge coming up and have to turn the page on that and make sure I am ready for that pressure."

It's pressure that few other teams face: gold medal or bust.


Olympic Men's Hockey Favorites

CANADA

Odds to win gold (courtesy of Bovada in Las Vegas): 2-1.

Coach: Mike Babcock.

Key players: F Sidney Crosby, F John Tavares, D Shea Weber, D Duncan Keith,

G Roberto Luongo, G Carey Price, F Ryan Getzlaf.

2010 result: Won gold.

Outlook: Canada is favored to repeat, but there are questions about its goaltending - the most important part of the game.

RUSSIA

Odds: 12-5.

Coach: Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.

Key players: F Alex Ovechkin, F Evgeni Malkin, G Sergei Bobrovsky, G Semyon Varlamov, F Pavel Datsyuk, F Ilya Kovalchuck.

2010 result: Finished sixth.

Outlook: Russia has solid goaltending and one of the best offenses in the Games, and it wouldn't be surprising if it won it all in its homeland.

SWEDEN

Odds: 9-2.

Coach: Pär Mårts.

Top players: G Henrik Lundqvist, D Erik Karlsson, F Henrik Zetterberg, D Oliver Ekman-Larsson, F Daniel Sedin.

2010 result: Finished fifth.

Outlook: Sweden has the look of a medalist. Its roster has six players who played on the team that won gold in Turin in 2006 - the last time the Olympics were played on a wider surface before this year.

UNITED STATES

Odds: 6-1.

Coach: Dan Bylsma.

Key players: G Ryan Miller, G Jonathan Quick, F Zach Parise, F Patrick Kane,

D Ryan Suter, F Joe Pavelski, F Phil Kessel.

2010 result: Won silver.

Outlook: The Americans, who somehow bypassed explosive scoring forward Bobby Ryan (Cherry Hill), have enough talent to make a run for the gold, but the wider surface could be a hindrance.

FINLAND

Odds: 11-1.

Coach: Erkka Westerlund.

Key players: G Tuukka Rask, G Antti Niemi, D Kimmo Timonen, Teemu Selanne, F Aleksander Barkov , D Olli Maatta.

2010 result: Won bronze.

Outlook: Finland will rely on its excellent goaltending, but doesn't appear to have enough scoring to take home the gold.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Odds: 12-1.

Coach: Alois Hadamczik.

Key players: F Jaromir Jagr, F Patrik Elias, F Jake Voracek, F David Krejci, F Tomas Plekanec, G Ondrej Pavelec.

2010 result: Finished seventh.

Outlook: Voracek and former Flyer Jagr will be reunited and help a solid group of forwards, but the Czechs are weak in goal and on defense, and it would be surprising if they won a medal.

- Sam Carchidi


Schedule

The Olympic men's

ice hockey schedule.

WEDNESDAY

Group C

Czech Republic vs. Sweden, Noon

Latvia vs. Switzerland, Noon

THURSDAY

Group B

Finland vs. Austria, 3 a.m.

Canada vs. Norway, Noon

Group A

Russia vs. Slovenia, 7:30 a.m.

Slovakia vs. United States, 7:30 a.m.

FRIDAY

Group C

Czech Republic vs. Latvia, 3 a.m.

Sweden vs. Switzerland, 7:30 a.m.

Group B

Canada vs. Austria, Noon

Norway vs. Finland, Noon

SATURDAY

Group A

Slovakia vs. Sweden, 3 a.m.

United States vs. Russia, 7:30 a.m.

Group C

Switzerland vs. Czech Republic, Noon

Sweden vs. Latvia, Noon

FEB. 16

Group B

Austria vs. Norway, 3 a.m.

Finland vs. Canada, Noon

Group A

Russia vs. Slovakia, 7:30 a.m.

Slovenia vs. United States, 7:30 a.m.

FEB. 18

Qualification Playoff Round: 3 a.m., 7:30 a.m., noon, noon

FEB. 19

Quarterfinals: 3 a.m., 7:30 a.m., noon, noon

FEB. 21

Semifinals: 7 a.m., noon

FEB. 22

Bronze medal: 10 a.m.

FEB. 23

Gold medal: 7 a.m.


mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard       

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