Olympic fever begins with European flavor
Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
In a few days from now the only Olympic hockey teams you will hear about are the ones from North America, but that doesn't mean Team Canada and USA will be the only teams with a shot at Gold come February.
Sure, Canada will have a big advantage playing in front of passionate home crowds in the host city of Vancouver, but the recent announcement of the Russian and Swedish team rosters revealed loads of talent on the European side.
Of course, it would be foolish to count out the Swedes for Gold considering they took the top prize four years ago in Turin. As for the Russians, it's been quite some time since they last claimed Gold (while playing as the Unified Team in 1992), but the Russians are the top-ranked squad in the world after winning the last two IIHF World Championship tournaments. Canada is second in those rankings, while Sweden comes in third.
In the coming days, rosters from Canada and the U.S. will be revealed, as well as teams from Finland and the Czech Republic who won Silver and Bronze, respectively, at the 2006 Winter Games.
Naturally, the focus in North America will primarily be on the Canadians and Americans from now until the Olympic tournament gets underway in mid-February so there's no better time than now to take a closer look at Russia and Sweden.
The Russians are of course led by the world's best player, Alex Ovechkin, who will be making his second Olympic appearance after scoring five goals in eight games in 2006. The fiercely competitive Washington Capitals sniper would love to add an Olympic medal to his ever-growing trophy collection after Team Russia finished fourth in Turin.
But it's not Ovechkin alone that makes the Russians an intriguing pick to take the top prize in Vancouver. The team also boasts some of the world's best offensive talent in Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit and Ovechkin's NHL teammate Alexander Semin.
Alex Ovechkin will be making his second Olympic appearance.
The Russians have a pair of NHL studs at the top of their defensive corps in Sergei Gonchar (Pittsburgh) and Andrei Markov (Montreal), but there is a significant drop-off after that.
However, the team's perceived weakness on defense could be offset by a strong trio of goaltenders. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov will likely be the No. 1 netminder for Russia, but Ilya Bryzgalov (Phoenix) and Semyon Varlamov (Washington) give head coach Vyacheslav Bykov strong secondary options.
The most glaring omission for Russia was the absence of Ottawa winger Alex Kovalev, who may simply be considered past his prime at age 36. Then again, age wasn't a factor in the selection of former NHL star Sergei Fedorov, who at 40 years old still plays professionally in his home country.
Team Russia's finish in 2006 was considered to be a disappointment, but it would be borderline shocking if this year's edition doesn't get a spot on the medal stand.
Russia's main offensive weapons (Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin) were perhaps a bit too young to be considered a serious threat to win Gold four years ago, but should perform better in Vancouver with a few more NHL seasons under their belts.
The Russians could be the most exciting team to watch at the Olympics, but they'll have to overcome defensive liabilities in order to win it all.
It should never really be a surprise when national hero Peter Forsberg is given a spot on Team Sweden, after all he's been a top player on his country's only two Gold Medal-winning teams in 1994 and '06.
In fact, Forsberg basically became synonymous with Team Sweden after scoring the winning goal in the penalty shootout that decided the tournament in '94. The image of that winning goal became such a national symbol that it was eventually reproduced on a Swedish postage stamp.
Despite all of that, Forsberg's inclusion on the team this year is surprising because of the superstar's recent foot and ankle problems that have made him less effective on the ice. The chronic injury has kept the 36-year-old out of the NHL since his last stint with Colorado in 2007-08.
However, it appears as though Forsberg's decision to play in Sweden this year for the professional club MODO rather than taking another shot at the NHL was a wise one. He had 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists) in his first nine games for MODO and Team Sweden head coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was confident enough about Forsberg's health to include him on this year's squad.
If Forsberg plays well at the Olympics it won't be a surprise to see him back on NHL ice next season.
Team Sweden boasts 19 NHL players on its provisional Olympic roster, including Nicklas Lidstrom and Daniel Alfredsson, who are the captains of the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators, respectively. Alfredsson is another injury concern for the Swedes, as he is expected to be out until at least late-January with a separated left shoulder.
While the Swedes aren't expected to be as explosive on offense as the Russians they could make up for that fact with a more balanced roster. Team Sweden also boasts a much stronger defensive corps than the Russians, a group that is led by Lidstrom, a six-time Norris Trophy winner, and also includes Mattias Ohlund (Tampa Bay), Tobias Enstrom (Atlanta), Henrik Tallinder (Buffalo) and Lidstrom's teammate in Detroit, Niklas Kronwall.
The offense will be led by Alfredsson, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Washington's Nicklas Backstrom, who centers Ovechkin on the Capitals' top line. This will be the first Olympics for the 22-year-old Backstrom.
Twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin will also be high-profile members of the Swedish offense and the duo will get to skate on their home rink during the tournament as both play for the Vancouver Canucks. However, Mikael Samuelsson, a teammate of the Sedin's in Vancouver, was left off the national team and wasn't too pleased about, telling reporters after a recent Canucks game that the national team could "go (bleep) themselves".
That's not a smart response by Samuelsson, especially since the rosters announced are not yet final and he could conceivably have been asked to join the team before the start of the tournament. Not much of a chance that'll happen now. In fact, a response like that could ensure that Samuelsson never gets to wear the "Tre Kronor" sweater ever again.
Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers is the obvious starter in net for the Swedes. Lundqvist is one of the top netminders in the NHL and backstopped Team Sweden to its Gold Medal in Turin. Another strong tournament from Hank could lead the Swedes to their third ice hockey Gold,
Team Canada, which won the Gold in 2002, will rightfully be the favorite to take the top prize again this year, as long as GM Steve Yzerman doesn't get too creative when he announces the host nation's roster on Wednesday.
However, a repeat is a strong possibility for the Swedes as is a return to Gold Medal glory for the Russians. Too bad we have to wait another month-and-a- half to find out which nation will be the cream that rises to the top.