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Germany looks to continue improvement at Olympics

Sunday, 02.22.2009 / 1:10 PM / All-Access Vancouver

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

On several occasions over the last two decades, the German national team has appeared to be gaining on the elite hockey countries. But for every step forward Team Germany has taken (such as an upset win over the Czech Republic at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey), it has fallen back. In 2005, Team Germany was relegated from the top level of adult hockey to the Division I level.

The good news is Germany has shown steady progress in the years since the relegation. The country earned a spot in the 2006 Torino Olympics and since then has re-entered the top 10 in the IIHF world rankings. Team Germany narrowly missed the medal round at the last two World Championships.  More recently, Germans earned a spot in the 2010 Games in Vancouver after sweeping a qualification tournament held in Hanover.

In the tourney, the Germans pasted Japan, 7-1, and became the first team outside the automatic qualifiers to secure a spot in Vancouver after earning a hard-fought 2-1 victory against archrival Austria. Team Germany then capped off the competition with a 2-1 win over Slovenia.

The German hockey program has improved significantly at the junior hockey levels over the past dozen years, which has resulted in more German players earning spots in the NHL. As old-guard players, like long time national team member Dieter Hegen, aged and retired, the national team has gradually gotten younger. After some growing pains, the Germans seem to be on the right track. The squad that won the qualification tournament featured eight players who are age 25 or younger.

Make no mistake about it, however. For Germany to have any shot at pulling off an upset or two in Vancouver, coach Uwe Krupp’s team will need for its NHL players and veteran leadership core to lead the way. Team Germany drew a preliminary round pool at Olympics that will pit the team against defending gold-medalist Sweden, defending silver medalist Finland and Belarus.

When the puck drops on the Vancouver Games, Germany will dress a half-dozen players who are familiar to NHL fans. The forward corps will be anchored by Jochen Hecht, Marco Sturm and Marcel Goc, while defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Christoph Schubert and Christian Erhoff will all log heavy ice time.

The Germans are also likely to call upon some of their other longtime team leaders for one final Olympic go-round. Former NHLer Stefan Ustorf remains an important performer for the Germans. Now with the Mannheim Eagles, the 34-year-old forward plays a diminished role for the national team, but is relied upon as a player who has been through the trenches over the years. In Vancouver, Ustorf is likely to be used similarly to how he was used at the 2008 Worlds, logging about 12:30 of ice time per game. Likewise, longtime national team member Sven Felski, 34, will help provide some stability and leadership but play a secondary on-ice role.

With half of the starting defense to come from the NHL ranks, Krupp will mix and match the remainder of his defense among players from the DEL. Now with the Iserlohn Roosters, Canadian-born former NHLer Chris Schmidt is likely to gain one of the spots. Schmidt is versatile enough to play both forward and defense. A plus-20 last season for Iserlohn, Schmidt also produced two goals and six points in six games at the 2008 Worlds. Candidates for the remaining spots include Jason Holland, Michael Bakos and Sebastian Osterloh.

It is characteristic of Team Germany to play a physical brand of hockey that is more “North American” in nature than the stereotypical European style. That’s because the DEL is a very physical league that is dominated by North American imports. The German team never backs down or gets intimidated. The bigger problem has been goal scoring depth – and it’s been a chronic thorn in Germany’s side when it plays the top hockey countries.

Unless the Germans keep the score low and the aforementioned NHL players shoulder the load offensively, the team doesn’t stand much of a chance. There aren’t many German players who can match up with their Olympic opponents when it comes to offensive production. Buffalo Sabres draftee Philip Gogulla, Mannheim forward Michael Hackert, Berlin Polar Bears forward Florian Busch and Cologne Sharks forward Christoph Ullmann are all capable of chipping in here and there. But none is likely to take over a game at the international level.

Team Germany is going through a transitional phase in the goaltending department. For years, the club looked to NHLer Olaf Kolzig to lead the way in major international tournaments. But the 38-year-old has been slowing down in recent years and his status for next year is unknown after a ruptured biceps tendon ended his 2008-09 season. In lieu of Ollie the goalie, Krupp may tap former San Jose Sharks goaltender Dimitri Patzold to backstop the German side.