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Starting goalies dominate pre-tournament questions

by Dan Rosen

The NHL is officially on break, but more than 100 of its players and several coaches will board flights Sunday bound for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where a medal stand awaits.

The men's hockey tournament begins Wednesday. All the questions people across the hockey world have been asking since, oh, about four years ago, will be answered within the next two weeks.

Here are the 12 of the biggest questions that need to be answered as NHL players begin their journey to Sochi:

1. Who will emerge as Canada's No. 1 goalie?

With a back-to-back set of games to open the tournament, Canada coach Mike Babcock has already said he will split the goaltending duties in the first two contests, likely between Carey Price and Roberto Luongo. Canada plays Norway on Thursday and Austria on Friday.

If Babcock can determine the goalie who plays better in those games, then he'll likely go with that guy for Canada's final preliminary-round game against Finland on Sunday. Canada should win its first two games relatively easily, so the decision might not be so easy.

Price would appear to have the upper hand based on his recent play, but that was the feeling for Martin Brodeur in 2010. Luongo eventually replaced him and helped Canada win gold.

Mike Smith is the third goalie, but it's possible he won't play in the Olympics. Marc-Andre Fleury was Canada's third goalie in 2010 and he didn't dress for a game.

The good news here is Babcock already knows he can bring Luongo in off the bench and be fine, so he may go with Price first.

2. Who will emerge as the United States' No. 1 goalie?

Ryan Miller was the tournament MVP in Vancouver four years ago and has been having a solid season despite having little to no support around him with the Buffalo Sabres.

Jonathan Quick was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2012, when he led the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup. He was hurt earlier this season, but was the favorite to play in Sochi coming into the year and has been solid in spite of a lack of goal support in L.A.

Miller has the Olympic experience; Quick has basically zero international experience. He was the third guy in Vancouver four years ago but has never played in an international game at any level for the United States. Quick is the more aggressive of the two goalies, but Miller played aggressively in 2010 and it served him well.

Jimmy Howard is the third option, and he has the most recent international experiencing having played in the IIHF 2012 World Championship, but it appears that Bylsma's choice will come down to Miller or Quick.

The Americans open the tournament Thursday against Slovakia and then play Saturday against Russia and Sunday against Slovenia. Ideally, they have their No. 1 goalie coming out of the game against Russia.

3. Can the Russians handle the pressure?

Alex Ovechkin and Co. will have to withstand the tense atmosphere inside Bolshoy Ice Dome. If it becomes too much, the pressure will eat the Russians up and spit them out long before the tournament is over.

The Canadians were able to handle it in 2010, but they had to fight through from the preliminary round right up until Sidney Crosby's golden goal before they could stand highest on the medal stand.

The Russians are planning to stand where the Canadians did four years ago, with gold medals around their necks and their national anthem playing, but odds are their bid for gold will come with its share of adversity.

The Canadians had to overcome a tough Swiss team that took them to a shootout and a loss to the Americans in the preliminary round. They were forced to play (and win) an extra game in the qualification round before they beat Russia in a rout and held off a late rally by Slovakia to reach the gold-medal game, where they won an instant classic against the Americans.

4. Will the Russian goalie be Semyon Varlamov or Sergei Bobrovsky?

Entering the season it was Bobrovsky's job to lose. He was the Vezina Trophy winner and the Russians could feel comfortable hitching their gold-medal hopes to him. However, Bobrovsky was below average in the first two months of the season while Varlamov was sensational.

Bobrovsky then went down with an injury in early December and all of a sudden it became Varlamov's job to lose.

He hasn't necessarily lost it, but Bobrovsky has made a late charge to make it a tough decision again. Bobrovsky went 10-3-1 with a .926 save percentage from Jan. 6 through Feb. 7.

5. Will goaltending be enough to prop up the depleted Finns?

Finland's goaltending should be as good as any country's in the Olympics with Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.

However, the Finns lost two of their most important centers to injury as Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula had to withdraw from the tournament, so they will have to rely even heavier on their goaltending to medal for a fifth time in the past six Olympics. In addition, center Saku Koivu decided last month that he was not going to play in the Olympics because he wants to focus on the NHL season.

Rask is the likely No. 1 and he clearly knows how to handle the big moment judging by his performance throughout the playoffs last season. Niemi won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and has been a strong playoff goalie since. Lehtonen is a longshot to play.

6. Who will play center for Finland now that the Koivus and Filppula can't?

Mikael Granlund and Olli Jokinen should move up into the top two center spots for the Finns. Granlund and Jokinen would likely have been on the wing if the Koivus and Filppula were in Sochi.

Florida Panthers rookie Aleksander Barkov, somewhat of a surprise selection for the Finnish roster considering he is only 18 years old, will likely start the tournament as the third center. Despite his age, it wouldn't be a shock to see Barkov move up to the top six.

Petri Kontiola and Jarkko Immonen round out Finland's center depth. It's not strong enough, which is why the goaltending will have to be exceptional.

The Finns just don't stack up down the middle with the rest of the medal hopefuls.

7. Can Switzerland be the upset special team again?

Switzerland always seems to be the country that causes havoc for Canada, but fortunately for the Canadians they won't have deal with the Swiss in the preliminary round because they are in separate groups. Instead, the Swiss will focus on upsetting Sweden and the Czech Republic as well as getting past Latvia.

Sean Simpson has taken over Switzerland's program from Ralph Krueger, who is now a consultant to Mike Babcock's Canadian coaching staff, but the Swiss seem to only be improving. They hit a rough patch after finishing eighth in Vancouver, but came back strong enough to take the silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship, losing the gold-medal game to Sweden, 5-1.

Jonas Hiller provides stability in net, Mark Streit and Roman Josi headline a quality blue line, and the Swiss have a stable of skilled forwards, including Nino Niederreiter and Damien Brunner.

Most important, the bulk of the team has been together for several years, so chemistry is not a concern. They know how to play on the big ice and they should be confident coming off a strong performance in the world championship last year.

8. How will the North American players adjust to the big ice?

The rink is 15 feet wider, the neutral zone is bigger, the corners can seem like they're miles away, and the goaltenders have to adjust to different angles. There will be an extra 3,000 square feet of ice for the Americans and Canadians to deal with in Sochi, and they historically have not fared well on it in the Olympics.

Neither the United States nor Canada medaled in the previous two Olympic tournaments outside of North America with NHL players. Canada finished fourth at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and seventh at the 2006 Torino Olympics; the Americans were sixth in Nagano and eighth in Torino.

The ice at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics was said to have been up to international specifications, but Canada associate coach Ken Hitchcock, who was also on the Canadians staff 12 years ago, said the rink was definitely smaller than 200 feet-by-100 feet. Canada beat the United States in the gold-medal game in Salt Lake and again on the regular NHL ice at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The Canadians and Americans tried to tailor their teams for the big ice, so they took skilled skaters who are defensively responsible. They'd like to play a safe style, but the hope is that if they do take a risk and get burned, they'll have quick enough skaters on the ice to be able to recover.

9. How much influence will Ralph Krueger have on the Canadians?

Krueger was brought on for the sole purpose of helping the Canadians play against the European teams on the big ice. He has spent the bulk of his career playing and coaching in Europe so he understands the game there and how to play on the international ice better than Babcock, Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Claude Julien.

Before Krueger became a coach with the Edmonton Oilers (two seasons as an assistant and one as the man in charge), he turned the Swiss national team into a serious threat on the international stage.

Babcock has commented on many occasions about how vitally important Krueger is and will be to the Canadian staff. If he has a question about a power play or a penalty kill and how it will be affected by the big ice, he can turn to Krueger for the answer. Krueger was in charge of scouting Austria and Norway, the first two teams Canada plays in Sochi.

10. Which Olympic veteran will have a greater impact, Finland's Teemu Selanne or Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic ?

Selanne is in his sixth Olympics and going for his fourth medal; Jagr in his fifth Olympics and seeking his third medal. Selanne has 96 points in 90 games for the Finnish national team; Jagr has 82 points in 96 games for the Czech national team.

Jagr made his national team debut in 1990; Selanne in 1991. Selanne made his Olympic debut in 1992; Jagr in 1998, when he helped the Czechs win gold in Nagano.

This is definitely the last Olympics for Selanne and it would seem likely that it's the last for Jagr too, but no one really knows with him considering he doesn't seem to age.

These two will likely find their way into the spotlight at some point in Sochi. They always do, so why would anything change now, even if it is a swansong story.

The good thing is both can still contribute for their respective countries.

Selanne can still skate and provided his minutes are managed he can be an effective top-six forward for the Finns. It is still nearly impossible to take the puck away from Jagr, especially when he's on the wall protecting it with his big backside as he inches closer and closer to the net for a scoring chance.

11. Will Slovakia be able to score enough to win?

The Slovaks still have Marian Hossa, but the loss of Marian Gaborik is a critical blow to their chances of scoring enough to advance.

Hossa has 50 points this season; the No. 2 scorer among Slovak forwards in the NHL is Tomas Tatar with 24. Defensemen Zdeno Chara and Andrej Sekera have more points than Tatar.

The Slovaks will have to find another front-line scorer to join Hossa as a threat. It might be former New York Rangers prospect Tomas Zaborsky, who has 21 goals and 41 points in 52 KHL games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa.

12. Can any of the so-called little guys pull off an upset?

Expectations are low for Austria, Slovenia, Latvia and Norway. Heck, for Slovenia and Austria just being in the Olympics is a major deal. It's the Slovenians' first appearance at the Olympics since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the first time the Austrians are playing in the tournament since 2002, when they finished 12th.

Norway and Latvia played in the 2010 tournament, but neither won a game. However, the Norwegians and Latvians proved once again in 2010 the underdogs should not be counted out.

Norway took Switzerland to overtime in the last game of the preliminary round and Latvia came back from an early deficit to force overtime against the Czech Republic in the qualification round before losing 3-2. Mats Zuccarello was so impressive for Norway he signed a contract with the New York Rangers shortly after the tournament, and now he's one of their top scorers and Norway's only NHL player.

Slovenia should have some confidence considering it took Canada to overtime in the 2013 IIHF World Championship without its only NHL player, center Anze Kopitar, in the lineup. The Austrians have Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl, but they haven't had any recent success against any of the top eight countries.

Latvia's only NHL player is Buffalo Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons. Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan is also the Latvian coach.


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