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Stars' Olympians Looking To Be Golden

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

There's a good chance that the state of Texas will be the home of some shiny new medals in a couple weeks when the 2010 Olympics conclude in Vancouver.

Stars captain Brenden Morrow (Canada), and wingers Loui Eriksson (Sweden) and Jere Lehtinen (Finland) all will have a legitimate chance at watching his own national flag rise as the national anthem plays, while Karlis Skrastins and his Latvian teammates will all be playing out a lifelong dream.

Stephane Robidas, meanwhile, will be on-call as a reserve for Canada in case of injury.

"It's a big event, and I'm very excited," Skrastins said. "The Olympics are something special."

Below is a look at each of the Dallas foursome and how their respective countries could fare when the tournament that features plenty of NHL flare kicks off on Tuesday with a game between the United States and Switzerland.

Canadians get more from Morrow
photo by Trey Hill

Brenden Morrow may have had a restless night on the eve of Team Canada's selection day back in December, but he shouldn't lose any sleep over his role on the Canadian team that is the favorite to win gold in their backyard.

Morrow's grittiness has always been apparent to the casual NHL observer, but his value as a player goes well above and beyond that attribute.

"I don't know if I would just call him just a physical player because he's also a very good offensive player," Canada assistant coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's a proven winner."

Ruff, along with head coach Mike Babcock and assistants Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Lemaire will have plenty of assorted pieces to put into what they hope to be a gold-medal puzzle.

With the likes of offensive stars Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh), Dany Heatley (San Jose), Rick Nash (Columbus) and Joe Thornton (San Jose) combined with the goaltending of Martin Brodeur (New Jersey) and Roberto Luongo (Vancouver), the Canadians are loaded in their quest to capture gold for the first time since 2002 when they downed the United States in the championship game in Salt Lake City.

"That Crosby guy's not too bad," Morrow quipped. "We've also got Brodeur who's won at every level…he's won in the Olympics before, and he's won Stanley Cups. So just to have the experience of a guy like that gives us a lot of confidence."

With all the firepower Canada possesses, Morrow will likely be placed on the third or fourth line. But according to Ruff, the Dallas captain and his style won't be out of place in a tournament that showcases more glitz and glamour than dirt and grime.

"He's hard on the people he plays against, and is that grit that you sometimes need to win games," Ruff said. "Sometimes it's not always pure skill or pure scoring. It's the pieces put together that makes a difference."

The 30-year-old Morrow also understands his role, and despite being the leader of the Stars won't mind taking a backseat in that area for a couple weeks in Vancouver.

"I'll be an energy guy," he said. "Playing physical, and trying to change the momentum of the games. I'm probably not looked at to provide a whole lot of offense, but just go out and play physical and bring some energy to the team."

The Canadians will face stiff challenges from other countries such as the United States and Sweden in a tournament that undoubtedly will be the focal point of the Olympics for the natives.

"You get into a one-game showdown, there's a lot of things that can happen," Ruff said. "I'm really looking forward to getting into situations where you're going to feel the pressure, and you're going to feel the weight of the nation counting on you to win. That's really going to be interesting to see how that unfolds."

Morrow hopes that weight won't become a burden.

"If we use it the right way, playing in Canada can help our chances of playing well, but the competition's so strong," he said. "Coming off a disappointing finish in the last Olympics, there's a lot to motivate us. We’re sitting in a pretty good position."

Eriksson and Swedes searching for sweet repeat
photo by Trey Hill
It's been nearly 20 years since a country has won gold in consecutive Olympics, but the 2010 Swedish contingent, which includes Stars winger Loui Eriksson, has a legitimate shot at pulling off the repeat feat.

Sweden is armed with 13 players that were part of the country's 2006 gold-medal win at the Turin Games, and 19 players that are in the NHL.

"I think we have a good team," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "We have players that were part of the last Olympics that won the gold that have really developed and become marquee players for their teams, like the Sedins and (Henrik) Zetterberg. It's a good group and a good mix. We have some old guys like myself, (Nicklas) Lidstrom, and (Mattias) Ohlund, and some good young guys."

One of those youngsters is the 24-year-old Eriksson, who has emerged as a top offensive threat with the Stars.

"He's made huge strides the last couple of years," Alfredsson said. "He had an opportunity and ran with it. He's become a big part of Dallas."

Eriksson picked a good time to make his first foray into the Olympics. The Swedes have plenty of talent both up front and on the back end, as well as Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers) providing solid goaltending in their attempt to win back-to-back golds.

"We have a lot of players who played in the last Olympics, and they know what it takes to win gold. So that's really good for us," Eriksson said. "We've got some new guys too, but I think we'll have a really good team. All of our lines could be top lines, but other teams are going to have some really good players too. It's going to be tough, but it’s going to be fun."

Eriksson's stock has risen so much this year that he could find himself playing alongside the Sedin twins on the top line, or on the second triumvirate next to Detroit's Zetterberg or Alfredsson, who incidentally wanted his second son to be named "Loui" and subsequently checked Eriksson's bio online for the correct spelling.

"He doesn't have a great shot, and I don't think he's got great speed, but he has really good reach. He knows where to be, and he knows how to find those spots," Alfredsson said about Eriksson. "He's very skilled with his stick, so he can get the puck in the right spots. He's a really smart player, and he's going to be a big part of our team."

A team that has a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing once again.

"I think we have a pretty good chance of getting a medal," Eriksson said. "It's going to be a new experience for us new guys, but I think the veterans are going to help us with that."

Finns always have strong finish
photo by Trey Hill
Like a nagging child, Finland always seems to be around when they really aren't wanted during crunch time at the Olympics. Without a lot of marquee players, the Finns have medaled in three of the last four Games.

"We're always the dark horse," defenseman Toni Lydman (Buffalo) said. "We're always there bothering the big guy."

Stars winger Jere Lehtinen has had a lot to do with Finland's persistent knocking at the gold-medal door. Lehtinen has won two bronze medals and then a silver in 2006 when Finland was edged in the gold-medal game by Sweden, 3-2.

"We showed that we can beat anybody in the last Olympics, and playing in the World Cup in 1996 we made it to the finals," the five-time Olympian Lehtinen said. "We've been so close, so many years."

If Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff gets hot, and players such as Lehtinen, Saku Koivu (Anaheim), Olli Jokinen (New York Rangers) and former Stars forward Niklas Hagman (Calgary) step up, this could be the year that the Finnish players travel to the capital city of Helsinki with gold around their necks.

"Of course you want to go there and you want to win," Lehtinen said. "But it's going to be hard, especially now."

Like he is with the Stars, the 36-year-old Lehtinen is a glue-guy for Finland.

"He's the kind of player that any team would like to have, and I personally admire him," said Lydman, who was Lehtinen's Finnish teammate in 2006. "You can always count on him. He's a really good defensive forward, but he has a good shot and is a very good skater. He's hard to knock off the puck, and has great balance. He's one of my favorite players."

Latvia hoping to put scare in opponent's plans
Latvia captain Karlis Skrastins could care less if his country is brushed off as an Olympic hockey afterthought. The Dallas defenseman, who'll be participating in his third Olympic Games, isn't buying it.

"Our biggest thing is that it's about team play," he said. "We have three lines that have been playing together for almost the whole season for the Dinamo Riga team in the KHL. They know each other, and they know how to play together. The last World Championships shows we can play really good games against big teams."

photo by Trey Hill
Skrastins is one of only two NHLers on the Latvian roster, but what the team lacks in NHL experience it more than makes up for it in the chemistry category. Fifteen players are on the Dinamo Riga team that plays in the Russian Kontinental Hockey league, and their first opponent in the Olympics will be none other than the high-flying Russians themselves.

"We are ready for that first game," Skrastins said. "It's going to be a good game for us and for all of our fans back home. It will be really exciting. It's not every year when you can play against guys like (Alex) Ovechkin, (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Evgeni) Malkin, and (Pavel) Datsyuk. It’s a good challenge for us and I'm very excited."

The 35-year-old Skrastins is among five players that will be playing in their third Olympics, while Latvia returns 13 players from its 2006 Turin team that finished in 12th.

"We just go in and play one game at a time, and then we'll see how it goes," Skrastins said. "The first three games don't really count, so we could lose those (and still move on). The fourth game will be the biggest one for us. We don't know against who we will play, but we will be ready for every game. It's the Olympics. A lot of people, in Canada especially, are going to watch you."

So finally, after months of waiting, let the games begin.

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