Olympic X-Factors

VANCOUVER – The beauty of the Olympic hockey tournament is that we, the fans, won’t have to wait until April to see the sport at its finest. And as the icing on the cake, the two best players on the planet are on a potential collision course for what would be an epic gold medal final on Feb. 28.

That is if Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, the Canadians and the Russians do what they’re supposed to do here in Vancouver.

There are two changes hockey buffs should know about before this dance gets underway. First the format, which is three groups of four teams and the top four clubs in round-robin play receiving automatic byes into the quarterfinals. It’s no fluke that the U.S.-Canada, Sweden-Finland and the Russia-Czech Republic games all take place back-to-back-to-back on Feb. 21, as all three could determine those all important top-four seeds.

The other change really isn’t a change for the hundreds of NHL players already in the tournament, that being the use of the smaller North American 200-by-85-foot ice surface. This move was made four years ago by the Vancouver Organizing Committee to open up some 35,000 more tickets for the general public and to save approximately $10 million by not having to retrofit GM Place for a two-week competition.

In addition to having the NHL’s best player, the Russians are the two-time defending World champions, both times at the expense of the Canadians, including a 5-4 overtime victory two years ago in Quebec City. And if that weren’t enough, Team Maple Leaf has never beaten the Russians on the Olympic stage, including losses in the 1992 gold medal game (as the Unified Team) and four years ago in Torino.

The Russians will play an up-tempo style with dynamic forwards Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Maxim Afinogenov and the experience of 40 year-old Sergei Fedorov, which in turn will take pressure off of a defensive core that includes Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov.

Those guys will help, but ultimately goaltending will have the final say of what the Russians accomplish in Vancouver. Evgeni Nabokov, despite being on pace for a third straight 40-win season, is plagued by a troubled big-game past that includes a 32-31 playoff record and a dismal showing last April, stopping just 89 percent of the shots he saw in a six-game loss to the eighth-seeded Ducks.

His backup, Ilya Bryzgalov has been instrumental in the Coyotes recent desert resurgence, boasting a 32-17-4 record with a 2.30 G.A.A. His playoff history, though limited, is far more impressive with a 9-5 record, a 1.68 G.A.A. and a .937 save percentage.

Nabokov and Bryzgalov are just two of several X factors that could turn Olympic sleepers into medalists and Olympic medalists into duds. Already, in the brief history of the NHL-Olympic marriage we’ve seen Dominik Hasek steal the show, Tommy Salo go from golden to goat and Henrik Lundqvist carry the Swedes on his back in Torino.

So what will we see in Vancouver? The answer might be found in one the following.

Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia) – The Slovaks have three men who could singlehandedly push them from a sleeper to a medal contender, none bigger than the Canadiens goaltender who carries a 17-10-2 record with a trio of shutouts. Halak is 7-0 in games which he’s seen 40 shots or more, meaning he’s more than accustomed to stealing a game here and there. Should he play well, teamed with Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara’s lengthy 6-10′ reach, the Slovaks should be able to shut down teams to the point where all forwards Marian Gaborik (35 goals) and Marian Hossa have to do is put the puck in the net.

Sidney Crosby (Canada) – We’ve seen a mixed bag from ‘Sid the Kid’ on the biggest stage in sports. The stats may show 63 points in 49 career playoff games, including eight goals and five assists in a thrilling seven-game victory over Ovie back in May. Yet, he’s struggled at times in his two Stanley Cup Final appearances, partially due to matching up against some of the best two-way players the league has to offer.

“He’s a complete player, much like Michael Jordan in basketball,” Canadian General Manager Steve Yzerman said. “Every year, they tried to fine something wrong with his game, and he just kept getting better and better.”

“You could say he’s our top player, and that’s no overstating it.”

A 2006 Canadian snub, Crosby has more talent around him in this tournament than at any other point in his young career. And while the Swedes might possess Henrik Zetterberg and Nick Lidstrom, both of whom have given him fits in the past, there are no assurances the Swedes and Canadians will even match up in this tournament.

Phil Kessel (United States) – USA Hockey General Manager Brian Burke loves Kessel in the same way Mike Ditka loved Ricky Williams, or Theo Epstein loved Julio Lugo. The 22 year-old is his baby, the golden child of his Maple Leaf organization and he’ll do just about anything to protect his most valuable asset.

“I think that when you ask people what you think of Phil Kessel, what he has demonstrated for us is his playmaking is every bit as good as people think it is,” Burke said upon naming his club in January. “He is using his speed to drive the D up the blue line and make intelligent plays. I think he’s been terrific.”

Burke has rightfully taken a pounding from the media and his own fans for giving up a pair of first-round picks for the former Bruin, who drew a mixed bag of reviews in Boston for his work ethic, or lack thereof. There’s certainly no question that the tools are there (21 goals, 20 assists) to become the dynamic third scorer the Americans need alongside Patrick Kane and Zach Parise, but if defensive-minded teams take away his curl and drag, the U.S. hopes for a medal could drag down with it.

Peter Forsberg (Sweden) – He has the most famous goal in the history of his country, a shootout winner that gave Sweden the 1994 Olympic gold medal and has since been immortalized on a postage stamp. Now ‘Peter the Great’ returns to North America, trying to dust the cobwebs off of those aching feet for one final run at glory.

Forsberg carried the Swedish flag in the Opening Ceremony on Friday night, fitting for a man who has never forgotten where he came from. He hasn’t played against National Hockey League talent since the end of 2008, but he continues to remain a strong presence with the Modo program that gave him and fellow teammates Daniel and Henrik Sedin, their start. And unlike in previous tournaments, he won’t be depended on to carry the load, with the responsibility falling upon the Sedin twins, Henrik Zetterberg and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

David Krejci - (Czech Republic) There are times where you are convinced that Krejci could be the next Patrik Elias, and others where he simply disappears into a shell, seemingly lacking the confidence needed to take the big shot. At his best, he makes everyone around him better and at his worst; he’ll make the extra pass as opposed to taking the shot he should have taken.

Krejci had 73 points in 2008-09, including 51 assists, impressive enough for the Bruins to give him a contract extension over the aforementioned Kessel. This season, coming off of hip surgery, he has struggled to put up those same numbers (31 points in 57 games) and comes into these Olympics with only four goals in his last 26 games.

Miikka Kiprusoff (Finland) – With all the talk surrounding Ryan Miller’s ability to potentially steal a medal for the Americans, let’s not forget about the trio of goaltenders Finland has here in Vancouver. While Kiprusoff hasn’t worn the Suomi since the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the former Vezina Trophy winner is on pace to post his best G.A.A. (2.18) and save percentage (.925) since 2005-06. Should he falter, Antero Niittymaki made a name for himself in Torino with a silver medal and a 1.34 G.A.A while Niklas Backstrom was a Vezina finalist last season.

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