From Feb. 15-28, the focus of the hockey world will turn to Vancouver as many of the National Hockey League's best players compete for their respective countries in men's hockey at the Winter Olympics. Here's a look at the teams that could be potential medal contenders.
Canada. Considered the favorite to win gold, Team Canada ices a formidable, well-balanced lineup. Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo will be the likely goaltending tandem with the defense corps anchored by veterans Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger along with rising stars Duncan Keith and Shea Weber. Their forward lines -- led by superstars Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Eric Staal, Jarome Iginla, Mike Richards and Rick Nash -- are a terrific mix of offensive punch and two-way grit. While they'll have home-ice advantage throughout this tournament they'll have to cope with the extremely high expectations of Canadian fans for whom nothing less than gold will do.
Russia. They enter the Olympics coming off consecutive gold medal triumphs over Canada at the World Hockey Championships. Led by offensive dynamos Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, with slick playmakers Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar on the blueline and Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, Russia has the scoring firepower and solid goaltending to carry them into the medal rounds. The only real concern is a lack of skilled two-way forwards, which could have an adverse effect upon their overall defensive game, particularly their penalty kill.
USA. This is a younger version of Team USA compared to recent Winter Olympic tournaments, but the team possesses a strong combination of speed, skill and muscle. Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas will be counted upon for clutch goaltending. Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and Bobby Ryan have got plenty of pure offensive skills whilst Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Ryan Malone and Jamie Langenbrunner provide two-way physical ability. The blueline, however, is considered the weak link, more so as Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin were felled by injuries. Still, this American squad has considerable talent and won't be taken lightly.
Sweden. They are the defending men's ice hockey Olympic champions but could find themselves hard-pressed to repeat. The Swedes have in Henrik Lundqvist one of the game's elite goaltenders and possess a good mix of experience and young talent on a blueline led by the great Nicklas Lidstrom. With the Sedin twins, Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Loui Eriksson on their forward lines, Sweden should be a dangerous offensive club. Still, with several aging key players, including Lidstrom, this is a team in transition, which could make a return to the gold medal round more difficult.
Czech Republic. The Czechs will ice a puck-moving defense anchored by Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Marek Zidlicky and in Martin Havlat, Tomas Plekanec, Thomas Fleischmann, Patrik Elias -provided he returns from a concussion- and former NHL star Jaromir Jagr will have decent scoring punch. Under-rated Florida netminder Tomas Vokoun is a big reason the Panthers remain in the NHL playoff race so his countrymen can count on him to rise to the occasion in this tournament. They'll be competitive, but the Czechs are lacking the defensive depth to compete with the Canadian, Russians, Americans and Swedes.
Finland. They have been renowned for their strong goaltending and defensive game and this year's team continues that tradition. Miikka Kiprusoff will once again stand tall in goal, their defense will be made up of notable blueliners Joni Pitkanen, Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen, and they can rely on talented forwards Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula, Niklas Hagman and Tuomo Ruutu for their scoring. Long-time offensive stars Teemu Selanne, Olli Jokinen and Saku Koivu however are past their prime which means the Finns could find offense much tougher to come by this time around.
Slovakia. This team is an interesting mix of current and former NHL talent. Montreal's Jaroslav Halak will likely be their starting goalie and if he plays as well for this club as he has for his NHL team, the Slovaks could prove tough to score against. Their blueline is anchored by the huge physical presence of 2009 Norris winner Zdeno Chara, while at forward they'll be led by scoring stars Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa. While they appear to lack all round depth to compete against the favorite the Slovaks have the potential to pull off an upset or two.