Thursday, 11 February 2010

Pre-Olympic Preview

It's rare when one has the chance to see two national teams square off at any time. It's even rarer when those two teams feature the best players from that country at any one time. I was lucky enough to be witness to two of those very teams this week. The MTS Centre welcomed the Winter Olympic teams of both Switzerland and Belarus to Winnipeg this week as the two teams squared off in an Olympic men's hockey exhibition series. And it turns out that one of these two teams likes its chances to be the "darkhorse" at the 2010 Winter Olympiad.

"We’re going to be the upset team," Switzerland’s Olympic men’s hockey coach Ralph Krueger told Allan Besson of the Winnipeg Free Press. A bold prediction, to be sure, but one that the Swiss Olympic team can surely pull off if they play well.

The Swiss come into the 2010 Winter Olympics looking to build on a solid effort here in Winnipeg. The Belarussians pulled off a minor upset on Tuesday night when they upended the Swiss by a 2-1 score in overtime, but the Swiss responded on Thursday afternoon when they blew out Belarus with a 6-2 game.

Thomas Deruns beat legendary Belarussian goaltender Andrei Mezin just 2:32 into the game on Thursday, and the Swiss never looked back. Of course, Andrei Mezin was the Belarussian goaltender who recorded the win against Sweden in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Tommy Salo will never forget that day.

The Swiss have solid AHL talent if nothing else. Hnat Domenichelli, Tobias Stephan, Yannick Weber, Luca Sbisa, and Andres Ambuhl all have played or are currently employed in the AHL. Mark Streit, Jonas Hiller, and David Aebischer all have extensive NHL experience, so the Swiss aren't the fresh-faced team that some expect them to be.

While no one expects Belarus to shock the world, all it takes is one game. While it appeared that Andrei Mezin's best days may be in the rear-view mirror, goaltending partner and KHL teammate Vitali Koval of Dynamo Minsk looks like he could engineer an upset in a game. Koval was spectacular in the Belarussian overtime victory despite some sloppy play by the Swiss, and, in a short tournament like the Olympics, all the Belarussians need is for Koval to steal one game. Of course, the Kostitsyn brothers and Ruslan Salei were not in town for these two games, but they will undoubtedly be the leaders for this Belarussian team.

Honestly, I'm excited for the 2010 Winter Olympics to start, and I plan on watching as many hockey games as possible, including the 2010 Paralympic Sledge Hockey tournament. Canada is a favorite in all three events - men's, women's, and sledge tournaments - and I'll be cheering them on throughout the entire Olympiad.

A couple of notes to consider:

  • The IIHF doesn't play with the trapezoid behind the net like the NHL does. For goaltenders, this means that pucks can be played in the corners. Does that give goaltenders like Martin Brodeur an advantage, or does having him play under the NHL's rules suddenly make this option a disadvantage?
  • If you're watching the Opening Ceremonies tomorrow, keep your eyes peeled for several hockey players as flag-bearers. Aleksey Morozov is carrying the flag for Russia; Jaromir Jagr gets the honour for the Czech Republic; and, Zigmund Palffy will carry the Slovakian flag for his country. Jack Johnson of the USA will walk with the other athletes, but he is not carrying the flag.
  • Lucas Aykroyd has an excellent article on the number of jerseys and the amount of work needed for the hockey tournament. Honestly, the amount of work being done by volunteers and Olympic staff is insane. Huge thanks go out to these men and women for their tireless effort and work.
  • Speaking of jerseys, did you catch the goaltender's number in this picture? #66 is Ronnie Rüeger of the Kloten Flyers. Kind of an odd number for a goalie, no?
Ok, that's all for today. Saturday will feature a special look at all of the countries participating in the men's hockey event as I team up with Uni Watch Blog's Phil Hecken for a look at each country's fashion sense. Tune in for that as it looks to be a very interesting take on each country's jerseys.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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