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Lightning Embark on Golden Road

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
2010 Tampa Bay Lightning Olympians (from left to right): Ryan Malone, Mattias Ohlund, Andrej Meszaros, Antero Niittymaki

Mattias Ohlund will take part in his fourth Olympic Games, looking to add a second gold medal to his memories in a Sweden uniform.

Tuesday's Games

  • USA vs CHE (tv: USA Net)
  • CAN vs NOR (tv: CNBC)
  • RUS vs LVA (tv: CNBC)

Antero Niittymaki hopes to get a chance to duplicate his performance when he was MVP of the 2006 Olympics in Italy, leading Finland to the silver medal.

Andrej Meszaros is determined to help star-laden Slovakia finish what they started in 2006.

Ryan Malone will live a dream, pulling the USA jersey over his shoulders.

Four Lightning players will join the world of hockey the next few weeks in a two-week sprint to the gold medal at the 21st Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

The 12-team tournament begins Tuesday and culminates with the gold medal game February 28 at Canada Hockey Place, the home of the Vancouver Canucks.

“Regardless of the outcome, it has been a tremendous experience for me,” said Ohlund, who played for Sweden in 1998 at Nagano, Japan, in 2002 at Salt Lake City and won a gold in Turin, Italy in 2006. “It’s so different coming from pro sports and getting together with all the other athletes, whether they are from cross country skiing, curling or another. You’re part of a bigger group, so it’s a very special couple weeks.”

The home team will be tough, the Russians are absolutely loaded on offense, Sweden has the core of its team back, Finland is never easy to beat and the Americans are young, but very, very talented. Don’t forget the Slovakians were unbeaten in group play in 2006 before losing in the quarterfinals. Did you remember the Czechs won the gold in 1998? The Swiss also beat Canada and the Czechs in 2006.

Most of the NHL elite will be in Vancouver and former NHL stars like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Forsberg, Zigmund Palffy and Sergei Fedorov will make appearances.

“This should be an unbelievable Olympics,” Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. “The talent out there is incredible.”

Tocchet, who played for Canada in some of the most memorable international hockey games ever in the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups, like most, thinks it’s a wide-open tournament.

“It’s whoever gets hot for those two weeks,” Tocchet said. “I don’t think there’s a clear-cut favorite. If you played it out over a long season, you might get separation. But in two weeks, I don’t think you can separate these teams.”

Norway, Belarus, Germany, Latvia, with Lightning property Martins Karsums, and the Swiss, despite the goaltending tandem of Jonas Hiller and Martin Gerber, are definitely long shots for the gold or even a medal. But most give the other seven a realistic shot to win games in the pressure-cooker knockout rounds.

Sweden won gold in 1994 and suffered disappointing quarterfinal losses in 1998 (Finland) and 2002 (Belarus). The Swedes were ready in 2006, finishing third in their group, then beating Switzerland, the Czechs and Finland to the gold.

“We had a lot of the same guys who had played in the previous two tournaments,” Ohlund said. “I think we learned a lot from that. It’s a short tournament and you have to find a way to perform at your best when it counts. We were able to handle the big disappointment of what happened four years earlier and make something positive out of it.”

This year’s team has 13 players back from 2006, led by defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Ohlund, goalie Henrik Lundqvist and forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom and Daniel Alfredsson. Former Lightning forward Fredrik Modin is also on the roster.

“Mats Sundin was a big part of the dressing room and maybe our best player in those tournaments,” Ohlund said. “He’ll be missed. But having said that, some of our other guys like [the Sedins] and Zetterberg are a few years older and have taken their games to another level. I think we have what we need to be very successful.”

Forsberg, the only player from the 1994 team on the roster, is the wild card. He has not played much the past few years due to injury.

“He’s such a talented hockey player,” Ohlund said. “I’m sure he will make a big impact on our team.”

If you think Niittymaki has been outstanding for the Lightning of late, how about his performance in 2006? He had a .951 save percentage and 1.34 goals-against average with shutouts of Russia and Canada in Italy.

The Fins beat the United States in the quarters and Russia in the semis before losing to Sweden 3-2 in the Gold Medal Game.

Most of that team is back and it wouldn’t be a stretch to give them the nod for the best goaltending in the tournament with Niittymaki, Nicklas Backstrom (Minnesota) and Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary) between the pipes.

“I think [the 2006] team had been together for many years,” Niittymaki said. “We were able to come together as a team quicker than anybody else and that’s why I think we did so well.”

Mikko and Saku Koivu, along with Teemu Selanne and Olli Jokinen lead the offense and Joni Pitkanen, Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen anchor the defense. Former Lightning defenseman Janne Niskala is also on the roster.

“Hopefully, we can be better this year,” Niittymaki said. “I think if we come together like we did in ‘06, we have a chance to beat anybody.”

Malone was born a few months before the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, when the United States shocked the world and won the gold in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Things have changed so much since that day, when the U.S. used amateurs against many of the European teams’ professionals. There are no miracles any more for the Americans, who lost in the Olympic final to Canada in 2002 and won the 1996 World Cup.

Malone will be joined by emerging stars such as Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Suter and Ryan Miller on a talented roster.

“I think we’re all looking forward to the opportunity to see what we can do as a team,” Malone said. “Hopefully, we can bring back something around our necks.”

Malone, who knew Herb Brooks and Craig Patrick growing up, has watched the 1980 game against Russia many times and the thing that sticks out is how hard they worked.

“It’ll be different for us,” Malone said. “We have one quick practice and we have a game the next day. It’ll be important for us to get on the same page right away.”

Chris Drury, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rafalski are the only three players with Olympic experience. It’s a new, younger group.

“Hopefully, we’ll be faster than everybody else,” Malone said, with a smile. ”It’s my first Olympics, so I’m not sure how much experience plays a part. It’s one game. Anything can happen. We just have to keep stressing the team concept. That’s the way we’re going to beat the teams we have to beat.”

Lightning center Jeff Halpern, a veteran of five World Championships and the 2004 World Cup for the U.S. team, thinks this American team can make a major impact.

“That was a special group for USA Hockey in 1996,” Halpern said of the team that included Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Brian Leetch, Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk, John LeClair and Doug Weight. “I think this next group coming in is going to be similar. I don’t know if it’s a fresh start for USA Hockey as much as these young players have become superstars in this league.”

The U.S. team takes on Switzerland first, then Norway before a showdown with Canada Feb. 21 to close out group play.

The Canadians have to be one of the favorites, with a roster that includes forwards Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla, as well as defensemen Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and former Lightning star Dan Boyle. Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo backstop the Canadians in goal.

The home ice will help, but the pressure is squarely on the Canadians.

“If they don’t win, there will be a lot of questions,” Tocchet said. “That’s the way Canada is. The only way you can win, is if you win.”

How about this for a power play? Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk up front and Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov at the points. Perhaps Federov, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Semin will get out there as well.

The Russians have the tools to be the best offensive team in the tournament, but the way they play on the other side of the ice will determine their fate. They have two hot goalies to chose from in Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov.

The Czechs won’t be easy to play either, with offensive stars such as Patrik Elias, Martin Havlat, Milan Michalek, Tomas Plekanec as well as defenseman Tomas Kaberle, along with Jagr. Tomas Vokoun will give them a chance to win in goal as well, playing behind two former Bolts Pavel Kubina and Filip Kuba.

Slovakia shocked many in the 2006 Olympics by winning all five of its games in group play, but lost to the Czechs in the quarterfinals.

“It’s all about the one game,” Meszaros said, shaking his head. “It’s nice that we won every game in our group, but we didn’t win the one we wanted.”

The Slovakians have star power, led by Zdeno Chara on defense as well as Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa up front. Former NHLers Palffy, Richard Zednik and Jozef Stumpel, along with former Lightning center Martin Cibak, are also on the roster. Jaroslav Halak should give the Slovakians good play in goal as well.

“It’s good to have those top guys, but we can’t count on just a few players,” Meszaros said. “We have to play like a team.”

What team will play as a team the quickest? The answer may give you who wins the gold.

It will be competitive. There will be pressure. It will be emotional.

But the players, especially those there for the first time like Malone, can’t help but think of how they got there.

“You look back on all the people that helped you become the player you are today,” Malone said. “If my mom wasn’t driving me to those early practices, it was other families in Pittsburgh driving me around. I’m just thankful to everyone who helped me out.

“You watch [former USA international players], then you play with and against them in the NHL. Now I have a chance to go over there and represent my country and make everybody proud.”

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