Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Los Olympicos Del Invierno

In case you haven't noticed the Winter Olympics are upon us which means hockey fans around the world are champing at the bit for what looks to be an exciting tournament.

As even the most casual hockey fan knows, hockey is as much or more of a team sport than any other sport. Forwards rely on their defensemen to stop the opposing rush and feed them the puck so that they may score. Defensemen rely on their forwards to not only put the puck in the net, but back check in their own end. And goalies rely on the five players in front of them to keep shots down and clear out opposing players.

In tournament play chemistry is an extremely important factor in the selection of any team, but since the Olympics began to allow NHL players into the mix teams have less time than ever to come together as a unit. Often times "Dream Teams" are just that, a dream, as they don't have nearly enough time before the Olympics to gain cohesiveness.

Sometimes the star studded units never come together due to arrogance and ego, and entire nations are left wondering what happened, much to the chagrin of people who know or knew better like Herb Brooks, who let's just say had a bit of an aversion to coaching professional hockey players. That said this is where goalies come in as the most important players on any hockey team during short tournaments. Often it is up to them to save games until the units in front of them have a chance to play long enough together to gain a rhythm.

There is glaring evidence of this in the past, with possibly the greatest individual Olympic hockey performance coming in the form of Dominik Hasek stealing the gold for the Czechs in Nagano in 1998. To a somewhat lesser extent there are also the performances of Martin Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist in the past two games.

Knowing this, I've decided to throw out my preliminary round hockey picks for these games in the form of simple goaltender match-ups, as the NHL-stocked teams have in the area of 48-96 hours to come together before they hit the ice.

Tuesday, February 16

USA vs. Switzerland

USA: Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas, and Jon Quick

If there has been a better keeper in the NHL this season then someone should tell Ryan Miller about him. Goaltending is America's hope in these Games considering the rest of the squad is young, and not very deep towards the end of the 4th line. If the US is truly the dark horse this year it will be because of Miller.

Thomas and Quick could step up in the event of a mishap or letdown by Miller. In that case I would go with Quick over Thomas, as last year's Vezina winner Thomas is having a substandard season for the Bruins. Quick has been white hot for the Kings.

Switzerland: Martin Gerber, Jonas Hiller, and Tobias Stephan

If the Swiss play Gerber over Hiller then the US wins handily. Gerber hasn't been relevant well, ever. Hiller showed in last season's Stanley Cup tourney that he is capable of rising to the occasion. If Hiller plays this could be a close one.

Winner: Miller- USA

Canada vs. Norway

Canada: Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury

Whom to play, whom to play...

Does Team Canada throw out Brodeur or Luongo, both of whom were distracted and pulled from their respective pre-Olympic NHL games? My money is on Luongo. He is the best Canadian goalie at the right time as Brodeur is in a nasty slump. The goalie who may be ignored in this tourney is Fleury, who did yeoman's work last season in backstopping the Penguins to a Cup. He isn't having the best season this year, so I'm thinking his Cup success with the Pens got him on the team. Still, he has shown that he may be a better tournament goalie than the two men ahead of him.

Norway: Pal Grotnes, Andre Lysenstoen, Reuben Smith

Okay, I admit it. I have no idea who any of these goalies are. That Norway has a keeper named Reuben Smith is somewhat mysterious, and his name makes me kind of hungry. Please note that I can't figure out how to make my computer type the circle-slash letters required when spelling Norwegian names…and yes, I know there is a name for those things. Let's move on.

Winner: Luongo- Canada

Russia vs. Latvia

Russia: Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Semyon Varlamov

Nabokov should get the start here, although something tells me that Bryzgalov has a 2x4 sized chip on his shoulder that has come from tugging along an upstart Phoenix club this season. Russia's offense is pow-er-FUL, but their weakness is on defense after Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov, both of whom are more offensive than defensive. The Russian goalies will see shots.

Latvia: Edgars Masalskis, Ervins Mustukovs, and Sergejs Naumovs

Frankly, I don't know or recognize any more players on this squad than I did on the Norwegian club, and lacking any grainy surveillance cam footage of the keepers, I'm flying blind here. Something tells me there may be an upset in the works in the prelims, yet I don't think it is coming from the Latvians. But hey, they have Karlis Skrastins, dude. SKRASTINS!

Winner: Nabokov-Russia

Wednesday, February 17

Finland vs. Belarus

Finland: Miikka Kiprusoff, Antero Niittymaki, and Niklas Backstrom

Something tells me to watch out for the Finns this year. They have a way of coming together in the name of nationalistic pride like no other country. Kiprusoff should have a strong tournament, as he has been a steadying force on an erratic Calgary club this season.

Belarus: Vitali Koval, Maxim Malyutin, and Andrei Mezin

Does Belarus pull the upset this year? If they do the trio named Vitali, Maxim, and Andrei should look into opening a salon and selling a line of hair care products.

Winner: Kipper-Finland

Sweden vs. Germany

Sweden: Henrik Lundqvist, Jonas Gustavsson, and Stefan Liv

This will be an interesting team this year with the addition of Peter Forsberg and the late, late addition of Johan Franzen. Still, this article is about the keepers, and Lundqvist clearly dominated in the last Olympics. This year should be no different although Lundy has played a bit timidly for the Rangers this season. If he falters I'm left wondering if Sweden will have the goaltending to stay in the tournament. Gustavsson is the heir apparent but is a bit young, and Stefan Liv won't be used to this level of talent.

Germany: Thomas Greiss, Dennis Endras, and Dimitri Patzold

The umlauts sport a decent backup quality keeper in Greiss and not much else. They are the 10th seed for a reason, people.

Winner: Lundqvist-Sweden

Czech Republic vs. Slovakia

Czech Republic: Tomas Vokoun, Ondrej Pavelec, Jakub Stepanek

This team has the ability to pull an upset. The reason? Vokoun. Vokoun has come alive in the last month of the NHL season for a bad Florida club. If the people running this team have their heads on straight and aren’t busy staring at Jaromir Jagr’s new mullet they’ll ride Vokoun like Secretariat.

Slovakia: Jaroslav Halak, Peter Budaj, and Rastislav Stana

This is the other team that has the ability to pull an upset. The reason is that they have someone between the pipes who has had something to prove in Jaroslav Halak. While everyone is going to be busy staring at Slovakia’s terrifying top line of Gaborik, Demitra and Hossa, I’ll be busy staring at Halak, reveling in the fact that I haven’t seen a goalie this pissed off and focused since Marty Brodeur got divorced and decided to win the Stanley Cup out of spite in 2003. If the Slovakian coaches feel the need to motivate Halak even more than he already is, all they have to do is tape a photo of Carey Price up in his locker.

Winner: Halak- Slovakia

Thursday, February 18

USA vs. Norway

Can Ryan Miller bring down the circle-slashes? It says here that this one will be a close game, but not really.

Winner: Miller-USA

Switzerland vs. Canada
Let’s see…Jonas Hiller getting scored on by Sidney Crosby. Jonas Hiller getting scored on by Patrick Marleau. Jonas Hiller getting scored on by Eric Staal. Martin Gerber getting scored on by Dan Boyle. Martin Gerber getting scored on by Dany Heatley. I could go on.

This one has “bloodbath” written all over it.

Winner: Brodeur- Canada

Slovakia vs. Russia

Nabokov vs. Halak. If they get a chance to fight I’ll take Halak. If not, I’ll take Ovechkin pumping in four goals and demoralizing the upstart Slovaks.

Winner: Nabokov- Russia

Friday, February 19

Belarus vs. Sweden

Vitali, Maxim, and Andrei meet Henrik, Daniel, Peter, Henrik, Daniel, Nicklas and Johan.

Just…try to relax.

Winner: Lundqvist- Sweden

Czech Republic vs. Latvia

Has anybody else noticed that 80% of the Latvian team plays for Dinamo Riga of the KHL? Remember that note about cohesiveness and chemistry that I wrote about 17 paragraphs ago? Well, at least the Latvians will have that going for them. This could be a close one!

Winner: Vokoun-Czech Republic

Finland vs. Germany

Hmmm…Kipper versus Greiss. Is it me or does “Greiss” sound like the name of a strange boss character from Double Dragon on the ol Nintendo?

Winner: Teemu Selanne’s magic team from the frozen lunar hellscape.

Saturday, February 20

Norway vs. Switzerland

What’s this? We have the Outback Bowl of hockey! This might be a close game between two marginally talented, under-populated countries! I can only hope the circle-slashes play Reuben Smith, if only because I’d like to spend the two hours making jokes about how Reuben once worked at a restaurant where he toiled for weeks unsuccessfully trying to come up with name for a sandwich featuring corned beef, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing on toasted marble rye before flying off the handle and killing the sous chef.

Winner: Hmmm…give me The Reubens by a goal with a side of curly fries.

Latvia vs. Slovakia

Dinamo Riga vs. The Marians.

Methinks Halak bounces back nicely in this one.

Winner: Halak-Slovakia

Side note: Could anyone have predicted that the goalie the Avalanche would be trucking to the Olympics would be Peter Budaj? Anyone?

Germany vs. Belarus

I’m going to have to go with Belarus on this one. If only because it wouldn’t be the Winter Olympics if some guy named Vitali wasn’t able to hold his head up high before he is shipped back to run a forklift at the mink factory.

Winner: One of the Belarusian goalies.

Sunday, February 21

Russia vs. Czech Republic

Vokoun shall enjoy making many stoppings but in end Ovechkin and Semin will dance upon his bloated carcass like drunken postmen. High five!

Winner: Nabokov-Russia

Canada vs. USA

I want an upset. Oh god I want an upset! This game has to be close going into the third for the Americans to have any chance. Miller has to be poppin’ and lockin’ like it’s 1985. Please God. Please!

Winner if life were fair: Miller-USA

Sweden vs. Finland

I’ve been to Finland. I’ve been to Sweden. They get along only because they kind of, sort of have to. Kind of like how Minnesotans and Wisconsinites tolerate each other at family reunions because it’s for the greater good and nobody wants to make a scene. They’re strange folks, them. Having a rivalry game of this magnitude in the preliminary round is a bit of a travesty doncha think?

Winner: Give me Sweden and a shot of Finlandia measured out by a sexy bartender in an extremely tight sweater.

Okay, that’s all for now. I’ll be back after the prelims to drop more knowledge and gloss over any substandard predictions in the most arrogant fashion possible.

Let’s get it on!

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