Canada's tourney to win

Talent, depth as good or better than any other at Olympics

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VANCOUVER — In an Olympic hockey tournament where the early talk has been about the disparity in the skill level between countries, it might never have been tougher picking a winner in the end.

But this tournament is Canada’s to win.

It is as talented as any team.

Canada is always going to be deeper than any team from the first to the 23rd player.

It is just going to come down to how the Canadian players deal with the monstrous expectations placed upon it as the home country, playing in a country where winning the men’s hockey gold medal determines whether these Games will have been a success or a failure.

That, of course, does a disservice to all the other medal-winning athletes who will bring honour upon Canada before Feb. 28.

But that is the way it is in the minds of many Canadians.

“You can use it as an advantage; you can use it as a distraction,” Team Canada defenceman Chris Pronger, who is playing in his fourth Olympic Games, said of the pressure of playing on home ice. “You can armchair quarterback in two weeks and say this is the reason they won or the reason why they didn’t win.”

The Canadians will find a way to make all this work for them.

While Scott Niedermayer is the captain of Team Canada, this is Sidney Crosby’s team. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain is making his first foray into senior men’s international play and, coming off the Penguins win in the Stanley Cup final, he is prepared to to drive this team forward. He personifies the change in direction the program has taken under first-time executive director Steve Yzerman.

It is a younger, faster team than the one that finished seventh in Turin four years ago, but still maintains a mix of veterans with the likes of Niedermayer, Pronger, Jarome Iginla and goaltender Martin Brodeur — who all won gold in 2002 in Salt Lake — in place to complement the 14 first-time Olympians on this team.

Brodeur has had his ups and downs lately, and his last major victory was six years ago in the 2004 World Cup, but that does not make him much different than most of the Olympic goaltenders going into this tournament. American Ryan Miller, by far the top goaltender in the NHL for almost the first four months of the season, has flagged lately.

Any of the other goalies on the contending teams, Henrik Lundqvist with Sweden, Miikka Kirprusoff of Finland and Evgeni Nabokov or Ilya Bryzgalov of Russia, are capable of delivering gold-medal winning performances. Since Dominik Hasek’s dominating performance to lead the Czechs to the gold medal in 1998, this tournament has become less about goaltending. It’s less about your goaltender winning it for you and more about him not losing it.

The difference will be in the details and Team Canada coach Mike Babcock is nothing if not about the details.

The Russians are probably the most skilled team up front with two lines made up of mad talent: Alexander Ovechkin skated with Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Semin and Ilya Kovalchuk was with Evegeni Malkin and Maxim Afinogenov Monday.

But workhorse defenceman Andrei Markov, a huge key to the Russian effort, has been nicked and while he pronounced himself “okay,” Monday if he can’t perform to the peak of his powers, that will be a blow.

The Russians will play the young USA team for the bronze and win.

The defending champions from Sweden will prove to be Canada’s opponent in the gold medal game, but the defence of their title will come up just short.

As Pronger said, the pressure can cut both ways.

In less than two weeks from now, we’ll be saying it’s the reason they won.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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