As you read this, Olympic hockey has begun for the 2010 games in Vancouver. So what does it have to do with DC?
For Caps fans, everything. Think of these next two weeks as less an NHL break and more of an intermission show that has the makings of an epic Game 7 Stanley Cup Final every night during the playoff round. The Capitals have five players in the tournament, scattered across three national teams. And depending on how they do and where they place, the Caps may have quite the motivator when these players return the first week in March.
Tomas Fleischmann: Czech Republic (CZE) In the middle of a breakthrough season with 17 goals and 41 points through 48 games, “Flash” will most likely end up on the second line working with the likes of Martin Havlat, Tomas Plekanec, or Jaromir Jagr. However, with several capable forwards on the Czech team this year, Fleischmann will have no problems slipping into a groove on any of the scoring lines. The Czech team is not expected to medal this Olympics, but if goalie Tomas Vokoun stands on his head and gets into a zone, they have a good shot at a medal upset.
Nicklas Backstrom: Sweden (SWE) Selected for the defending 2006 gold medal winners, Backstrom will probably wind up in the second scoring line, behind the powerhouse Sedin twins. Look for Backstrom to center a line with either Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, or Loui Eriksson; a pairing such as Backstrom and Zetterberg would be a very lethal combination, indeed. The Swedes have been quite content with most of the media focus on an expected Canada/Russia gold medal match; with some solid play from goalie Henrik Lundqvist and a disciplined approach, this team could sneak up and steal the gold like they did in 2006.
Semyon Varlamov, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin: Russia (RUS) This is the national team that’s causing many critics to say that Russian hockey is ready to regain its dominance. The team’s last gold was back in 1992 and its showings since that time have usually featured a Russian blowout – as in, all the wheels came off the Russian wagon.
The Russian team is highly talented and includes three stellar performers from the Capitals. While it’s pretty certain that Varly won’t be seeing much ice time between the pipes unless Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov suddenly go mental, it’s a given that much of Team Russia’s highlight reels on NBC Sports will feature one or both Alexes. The favored lineup for the first scoring line? Take your pick from Ovechkin, Semin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and Ilya Kovalchuk. This little group alone comprises of four of the top 16 players on the NHL’s current points list and three of the NHL’s top goal scorers. During practice yesterday, Ovie and Semin were flanking Datsyuk on the top line, but Russia can be cagey; watch for coach Viacheslav Bykov to switch things around if nothing seems to be clicking.
The pressure is enormous on Team Russia this year. Will they tank out yet again, or will they perform to their scary expectations and face down the Canadian team for the gold? There’s a lot of uncertainty, thanks to the decision to include six players from the less-skilled KHL – a decision, however, that brought in two former Caps players as well: Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov. Both additions have the benefit of playing with Ovie and Semin last year so they are used to each other’s playing style; this Russian decision may well be the secret to winning the gold this year, or the pothole that tanked them out of a medal.
So which team do you root for? Well, any of them, really. This year’s hockey tournament promises to be one of the best competitions in recent memory. If the “ultimate showdown” does indeed happen as many predict, it’ll only cap a tremendous display of worldwide talent and skill. Hopefully the NHL will get it in gear and let the NHL players play in the 2014 games, but even if they don’t, this will be one tournament to remember. And may well usher in a new “Russian Revolution.”
My personal pick? As long as I get to watch a Canada-Russia game that has as much passion and energy as a Capitals-Penguins game, I’ll be happy!