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Stars Players Excited About Olympic Opportunity

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

When it came to securing a spot on Canada’s Olympic roster, Jamie Benn said he wanted to let his play do the talking for him. His play spoke loudly. The Dallas Stars captain was one of the 14 forwards named to Canada’s 25-man roster, which was announced Tuesday morning in Toronto.

“Obviously a lot of excitement,” Benn said. “Anytime you get a chance to put on the Canadian jersey and get a chance to represent your country, it is pretty special. I am excited to go there and represent my country.”

Benn wasn’t the only Dallas Star to have his name called to play at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen was named to Finland’s roster on Tuesday, and rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin was selected to play for Russia as well.

This will be the third time the 24-year-old Benn has represented Canada. He won a gold medal at the 2007 World Junior Championship and played at the 2012 World Championship. Stars coach Lindy Ruff, who is an associate coach for Team Canada and was in on the roster discussions, said Benn earned his spot.

“Real proud,” Ruff said. “Coming in and not knowing a lot about Jamie, not a lot of time watching the player, putting him in the position we put him in as captain of the team, he has really risen to the occasion. He’s probably been our most consistent player. He and Tyler [Seguin] have been right there with each other all year, and have been a big part of carrying our team”

Benn was among the notable omissions from Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in the summer. So was San Jose’s Patrick Marleau. Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman said both players made the roster due to their speed and versatility, and their performance over the first three months of the season.

“They both played extremely well. We like where we see them playing. They’re both left wingers, both can play center and both can take faceoffs,” Yzerman told TSN. “We continued to watch and we made decisions last summer based on what we had seen up to that point, and not so much what they didn’t do. We looked at some of the players that we brought to camp, and they outplayed them to this point.

“They played extremely well. They’re leaders on their team. Looking back today, I wish we had brought them to the summer camp, but we said at the time, just because the guy is not here we are not afraid to put them on the team.”

Lehtonen, 30, was considered a strong possibility for Finland and joins a strong goaltending group that also includes Boston’s Tuukka Rask and San Jose’s Antti Niemi.

“That makes me feel good. I’ve done some good things maybe the last three or four years,” Lehtonen said. “Being on the Olympic team is a huge honor, especially being on a Finnish team that the goaltending is really good. There are probably six, seven or eight guys that could play there easily. Being one those three guys, that is really exciting.”

This will be Lehtonen’s first Olympics, but not his first time playing for Finland internationally. He’s played in eight other IIHF tournaments for Finland, including the World Junior Championship and the World Championship. He won a silver medal (2001) and bronze medal (2003) at the World Juniors, and took home a silver medal at the 2007 World Championship and was named the tournament’s best goaltender.

“It was really exciting,” Lehtonen said of the call to play in the Olympics. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about for a long time. When the coach called me it was exciting, to be part of it. Have to go there, do well and beat those Canadians.”

There will be plenty of high level competition and plenty of high pressure situations in the Olympics, and Ruff said that will be good for Lehtonen, who hasn’t seen a lot of playoff hockey in his NHL career.

“I think it will be great for Kari,” Ruff said. “He’s had a real good season, maybe struggled a little bit of late. He obviously is getting the recognition he deserves. For him to be in those situations, those pressure situations, to get in those one game showdowns and understand what they are like, it should be one heck of an experience for him.”

Nichushkin wasn’t getting much attention as far as the Olympics early on, but his play over the first half of the season put him on the radar and, in the end, earned him a spot on the Russian roster. The 18-year-old has been one of the top rookies in the NHL this season with 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) in 41 games.

“I am not surprised,” said Ruff. “I said a couple of weeks ago when I went through the Russian forwards – I don’t know a lot about a few of the KHL forwards – but when I went through the number here and the ones he was up against, the way he was progressing and the way he was skating and his size alone, he could handle the physical and he could dominate some situations down low against the bigger players. You don’t look at him as an 18-year-old. If they watched him, they must have seen that progression. It wasn’t a spot given to him; it is a spot that he earned.”

The Russians were watching, scouting Nichushkin as he played with Dallas and noted the young forward’s progress over the course of the season.

“He is now in very good shape,” Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said on the Russian Hockey Federation website. “This selection is somewhat an advance, but an advance that a player who is extremely gifted and talented should justify. And again - he is currently in very good shape.”

Nichushkin, who has played for Russia three times internationally including the World Juniors, joins a Russian forward group that includes Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Olympic hockey tournament gets underway Feb. 12 and runs through Feb. 23.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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