February 12, 2010
Alex Ovechkin's first Olympic adventure saw him score five goals in eight games, as Russia lost the bronze medal game in 2006.
Neither that goal total nor that team result is anywhere near acceptable to Ovechkin in 2010. Not when arguably the best hockey player on the planet has his eyes on the gold, and not when the team around him could be the best Russian squad since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Last Seen in 2006: Winning bronze in Torino with a 3-0 victory over Russia. Thomas Vokoun made 28 saves. Remember that name for later.
NHL Players: 16, and many of the non-NHL players formerly played in the League.
Most Fascinating Players: Jaromir Jagr is 38 years old. He's off the North American fan radar in the Russian KHL, where he's 18th in the scoring race. But he has 17 points in 18 Olympic games; more importantly, he has an opportunity to star in this tournament, grow his hockey legend and remind NHL fans (and potential suitors) why he's a future Hall of Famer. ... Center Tomas Plekanec is in the midst of his best offensive season in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens. ... Patrik Elias and Martin Havlat are both previous Olympians who bring dynamic scoring to the team — when healthy.
Goalies: There's a reason the Czechs have become a dark-horse darling in Vancouver, and it's Vokoun. He won the bronze four years ago. He's the type of goaltender who can turn aside a large number of shots and carry his team to victory. If he falters, it'll be up to either Ondrej Pavelec of the Atlanta Thrashers or Euro goalie Jakub Stepanek. So, in other words, it's Vokoun or bust.
Make or Break Factor: Although Vokoun could do it alone, the play of the Czech defensemen will be key on both sides of the rink. They'll need the steady veteran presence of Tomas Kaberle in key situations. NHL players like Filip Kuba (Ottawa Senators), Pavel Kubina (Atlanta Thrashers, and a key big body), Zbynek Michalek (Phoenix Coyotes) and Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota Wild) will have to play well in their own zone to give the Czechs a chance against the big offensive guns in the tournament.
Fashion Grade: B-plus. Fairly plain look, but there's no denying the awesomeness of that crest, which probably has some deep-seated meaning but looks like the greatest Dungeons and Dragons fight between mythical beasts ever.
Medal Chances: The Czechs don't have the buzz that the Russians, Canadians or Swedes have ... but along with Slovakia they're the most-mentioned underdogs in the tournament. Vokoun, like Dominik Hasek before him, provides a sturdy backbone. There's significant scoring up front. They're dangerous and a team to watch.
Last Seen in 2006: Last place in Torino with a 0-4-1 record ... although that tie came at the expense of the Americans.
Most Fascinating Players: Winger Herbert Vasiljevs was a journeyman for the Thrashers, Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks at the turn of the century; since leaving the NHL, he's become one of the top scorers in the German league. ... Forward Janis Sprukts was also briefly in the NHL for 14 games with the Florida Panthers. ... Skrastins will be counted on for quality minutes. It's his third Olympics. ... Defenseman Arvids Rekis plays for Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg. We really don't know much about him, but seriously: He plays for Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg. Isn't that enough?
Goalies: Edgars Masalskis and Ervins Mustukovs of the KHL are expected to carry the load, with Masalskis sporting a 2.83 GAA this season. The real story here is goalie Sergejs Naumovs, 40, who was cut from the team and then added back when fans and media protested. It's like when fans of that post-apocalyptic TV show sent CBS 20 tons of nuts to save their series ... only without the nuts. And the apocalypse.
Make or Break Factor: The most fascinating thing about this Latvian team? That 16 players come from the same KHL club, Dinamo Riga. While the team's overall talent level is nowhere near that of other tournament rivals, this level of familiarity is a rare commodity in the Games.
Fashion Grade: B. Could have been a real winner, but we're not big fans of the writing across the waist. Still, nice to see a base color other than red for a change.
Medal Chances: Excellent ... provided they're moved out of this group and into one with teams from small African nations. Otherwise, they're toast.
Last Seen in 2006: Losing in the bronze medal game to the Czechs, having lost only to Slovakia before that.
NHL Players: 14.
Most Fascinating Players: "We want to win. That's why we go there." That's Alex Ovechkin on his team's mission, and a motivated Ovie is a frightening sight for the rest of the tournament. The two-time NHL MVP and goal-scoring machine is joined by his human highlight reel teammate on the Washington Capitals, Alex Semin. They could be reunited with former teammate Sergei Fedorov, which means great things for the Vancouver party scene. ... Last year's Stanley Cup playoff MVP, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, brings an imposing physical presence and dominating offensive game to the center position, where the smooth hands and all-around game of the Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk give the Russians an incredible one-two punch. ... Ilya Kovalchuk, now of the New Jersey Devils, has eight points in 14 Olympic games, but exploded for 14 points in nine games during last year's world championships, which Russia won. ... Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov has been outstanding this season after returning from injury.
Goalies: While many of his Olympic peers have struggled en route to the Games (Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur, for example), Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks has been flat-out dominant in the last several weeks. Ilya Bryzgalov is the reason the Phoenix Coyotes are in a playoff position in the NHL, but expect Nabokov to shoulder most of the work for Russia. Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov looked as though he might miss the Games with an injury, but remains on the roster.
Make or Break Factor: While he believes this is the best Russian Olympic team assembled since the fall of the Soviet Union, legendary goalie Vladislav Tretyak believes defense is the team's biggest concern. Indeed, the Russians are carrying eight defensemen on their roster before they must be finalized Monday. Markov and Sergei Gonchar are savvy veterans, and Anton Volchenkov of the Ottawa Senators provides an essential physical presence. But the Russian defense is nowhere near as deep as the Canadians', for example, and it's something to watch as the tournament develops.
Fashion Grade: A. An iconic jersey, and the "tattoo" down the sleeves of the white sweater adds an interesting touch.
Medal Chances: Very, very good. The dream matchup is for the Russians and the Canadians to play for gold in front of a partisan crowd, but an upset here or there could have them facing off before then. Russia is an elite team in this tournament, and both Ovechkin and Malkin could simply dominate if they're on. It would be an enormous stunner if the Russians weren't at least playing for a medal, if not winning one, by the end of the tournament.
Last Seen in 2006: After going undefeated in pool play, lost in the quarterfinals to the Czechs, 3-1.
NHL Players: 13.
Most Fascinating Players: When Marian Gaborik (pictured) is healthy, he's one of the best offensive players in the world — and he's been healthy most of the year for the New York Rangers, to the tune of 35 goals. (A leg laceration this week caused concern for the Olympics, but he's expected to play.) Gaborik had seven points in six games last Olympics. ... Marian Hossa may be a Stanley Cup jinx, but he's outstanding in the Olympics, with 16 points in nine games over two tournaments. ... Zdeno Chara hasn't lived up to his 2009 best defenseman honors this season for the Boston Bruins, but he's an elite player in this tournament. ... Branko Radivojevic and 37-year-old Zigmund Palffy are among the former NHLers trying to make an impression in their return to North American ice.
Goalies: Jaroslav Halak has been a revelation this year for the Montreal Canadiens, and gives the Slovaks one of their best goaltending options in recent memory. Like Vokoun with the Czechs, he's a primary reason why some consider Slovakia to be a tournament dark horse. Peter Budaj of the Colorado Avalanche and Russian league goalie Rastislav Stana offer support.
Make or Break Factor: This could be a two-line team offensively, as a slew of former and current NHL veterans make up the rest of the lineup. That's enough to beat some foes but not enough to challenge the Russians in this group.
Fashion Grade: C-plus. The logo is great, but the patchwork of colors on the sleeves makes it look like the seamstress ran out of material at some point.
Medal Chances: Better than you probably thought. It'll take a win over the Czechs or Russians to improve those chances, but Halak and a big, physical defense on NHL-sized ice could make life miserable for opponents. It's on Gaborik and Hossa to provide the offense. If it all comes together, Slovakia's one to watch.
Jersey images via Ice Jerseys.