Three months from now, the men's hockey preliminary round at the 2010 Winter Olympics will be over and we'll be heading into the sudden-death quarterfinals. Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world will have at least an inkling of how they stack up in the first true best-on-best tournament since the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Pretty exciting, eh?
We've been discussing which players will dress for what country and what type of role they'll be given for at least a year now, maybe longer. But with the NHL season cruising past the quarter-mark, we've got some performances upon which to base our prognostications. Of course, there's still a lot to figure out, so let's focus on what people often call the most important position in sports: the goaltending.
Here's a snapshot of the 'Big 7' countries – Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and the United States – and who figures to be between the pipes when the puck drops in February:
Netminding was supposed to be the deepest position for the country that's loaded all over the ice. And, in all likelihood, it will be. But October was a shaky month for the Canucks – and we're not talking about Vancouver. Although if we were, we'd have to mention Roberto Luongo got off to his usual slow start (for him), and then the big guy got injured. He's back, and rounding into form, but Luongo hasn't helped his case a whole lot yet.
In New Jersey, perennial Canadian puckstopper Martin Brodeur also struggled out of the gates, but the veteran has come on in recent weeks.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, who sparkled in leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup last spring, has performed the best from the beginning of the season up to this point, but it still would be a huge shock if Team Canada turned to him as the go-to guy. As the youngest goalie of the three leading contenders, Fleury might have to settle for the No. 3 job and hope the NHL returns to the Olympics in Russia in 2014. (Stay tuned on that one.)
Who else? Well, Carolina's Cam Ward and Columbus' Steve Mason were on the radar heading into the season, but the Hurricanes' struggles – and the fact Ward will miss at least a month recovering from a gash in his upper thigh – has surely de-Cammed Canada. Mason, meanwhile, is having trouble repeating the heroic play that earned him the Calder Trophy – as well as Vezina and even Hart consideration – last year.
Dominik Hasek, anyone? Just kidding, Canada. Although the 44-year-old 'Dominator' tried to come back in the Czech League this season, only to go down with a pulled thigh muscle in late October.
Florida's Tomas Vokoun will almost surely get the nod for the Czechs; he's the type of netminder who's capable of doing a pretty good Hasek impression – that is, getting on a roll and proving to be unbeatable over a short period of time. Vokoun has been a top-10 goalie in the NHL for several years now, but his penchant for up-and-down play could also prove to be his country's undoing if he hits a February cold spell.
Atlanta’s Ondrej Pavelec will likely back up Vokoun. He's performed well for the Thrashers, but asking the 22-year-old to turn back the best offensive players in the world might be too much to expect.
If you haven't heard, the Finns have taken over from Quebec as the world's latest goalie factory. Whether it's Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff or Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom, Finland's biggest strength should be its netminding.
And on the off-chance both of those world-class stoppers falter, there's always Tampa Bay's Antero Niittymaki. Don't snicker: He was named best goalie at the 2006 Games, when Finland captured the silver medal.
Another name to consider is Nashville's Pekka Rinne, who came on strong as a rookie in the second half of last season and has continued his strong play this year.
With the likes of the Twin Marians – Gaborik and Hossa – and others, the Slovaks will be sparked by their forward corps. Plus, they have a little guy named Zdeno Chara spanning the blueline, which would make any netminder smile.
In this case, the grinnin' goalies are Montreal's Jaroslav Halak and Colorado's Peter Budaj. Halak has stepped up when called in to relieve Carey Price this season, including five consecutive starts in late October. But there's no denying Slovakia, the seventh-best team in the 'Big 7' – has the seventh-best goaltending, too.
As long as Rangers superstar Henrik Lundqvist is healthy, the Swedes have a chance. More than a chance, actually, considering he backstopped them to gold in 2006.
There's a drop-off after Lundqvist, though, with Atlanta's Johan Hedberg and Toronto's Jonas Gustavsson the next-best bets.
Another team that's destined to make life miserable for opposing goalies, with the incomparable Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk leading the charge.
But Russia has proven stoppers in goal, too, with San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov, Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulin and Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov all capable of carrying the crease load.
Bryzgalov is probably playing the best this season, but like Canada's Fleury, he's also the youngest of the three and may be relegated to backing up the backup.
Nabokov is more consistent than Khabibulin, but the Oilers starter has the big-game credentials, leading Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004 and Chicago to the semifinal last season.
If anyone gets hurt, there's always Washington rookie Semyon Varlamov, who burst onto the scene in the NHL playoffs last spring.
Similar to their old Cold War rivals, the U.S. has a pair of veteran stoppers who will likely fill the top two spots in Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Boston's Tim Thomas, last year's Vezina recipient.
There’s also an upstart in Colorado's Craig Anderson – who, like Bryzgalov, is probably performing the best this season, but doesn't have as long a resume as Miller and Thomas.
Miller has the edge for the No. 1 job on Thomas, as the Bruins stopper has joined his team in struggling this season.
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