Never has a fish on land flopped so beautifully.
Technically it was a fish on ice, and even more accurately, it was Dominik Hasek doing the flailing. But for teams trying to get pucks past him at the 1998 Olympics, Hasek surely resembled some menacing Japanese sea creature that rose up from the surf to steal gold.
Nobody has ever questioned the value of great goaltending in big games, but Hasek and his 0.97 goals-against-average at the ’98 event underscored how little you can score and still win a short tournament like the Olympics.
Twelve years later and Hasek, at 44, is actually in the mix to represent the Czechs again thanks to some solid play this season back in his home country. That’s just one of the intriguing storylines unfolding in creases across a number of hockey nations, making this as good a time as any to take stock of some Olympic puckstopper developments.
Sticking with the Czechs, it’s just as likely a fresh face will be leading that team into battle as a weathered one. Ondrej Pavelec has been outstanding in place of Kari Lehtonen for the Atlanta Thrashers. The 22-year-old has a .921 save percentage to go along with a 2.75 goals-against average, the highlight of his season being a 50-save win over the Ottawa Senators on Halloween.
Fun as it is to ponder either Pavelec or Hasek leading the Czechs, Tomas Vokoun still has the inside track, especially after getting on track with consecutive shutouts in his past two starts.
Finland has become a goalie factory over the past decade, which makes it even more surprising that Antero Niittymaki is the guy who backstopped them to their best Olympic showing over that span, a silver medal at the ’06 Games.
There’s no lack of star power on the scene for the Finns, who have Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and the emerging Pekka Rinne in their midst.
But when you get down to the ‘Niitty’-gritty, the Tampa Bay tender is a streaky goalie who’s been there before. He’s played very well this year and if he’s still on an upswing in a couple months, he could nudge his way onto that team.
Another guy who’s flashed good numbers in the past, but never really sustained them is Ilya Bryzgalov. Even if Andrei Markov recovers from his severed tendon injury by February, Russia’s blueline will still be underwhelming. The Russians may have firepower up front, but somebody is going to be asked to make some big, big saves for that team. Evgeni Nabokov and the resurgent Nikolai Khabibulin are quality options, but Bryzgalov has to be right in the mix for No. 1 at this point.
Craig Anderson’s great start with Colorado has some suggesting he could be part of Team USA, but the bigger story with the Yanks is Ryan Miller taking a stranglehold on the No. 1 job ahead of Boston’s Tim Thomas.
As for Canada, it’s still shaping up as a case of reputation versus right now. Martin Brodeur is rounding into form after scuffling a bit to start the season, just as Roberto Luongo was before some cracked ribs put him on the sideline.
Tough as it is to picture somebody who’s not either of those two guys being No. 1 to at least start the tournament for Canada, it’s becoming equally difficult to poke holes in the “Marc-Andre Fleury is the man” notion that’s gaining steam across the north. He’s got the numbers, will turn 25 later this month – meaning he’s not a kid any more – and has a Stanley Cup on his resume.
And he just happens to have the number of the guy who scored the gold medal-winning goal at the last Games.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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