Before the games begin, a quick roundtable of the Pensburgh writers to share our opinions on how we see things shaking out.
#1- Who do you see as the best Pittsburgh Penguin in the Olympics and why?
Natasha: Evgeni Malkin. The bigger ice will open up more space for him to motor through the neutral zone with power and speed, and we are going to see a little, or a lot, of this.
Jimmy Rixner (aka Hooks Orpik): My answer is unconventional since he won’t be playing, but I’m taking Dan Bylsma. He’s got a very well-rounded, balanced and strong Team USA from the net on out. He’s got a ton of forwards who fit well into his system and his defensemen are - as a group - a young, dynamic bunch that can skate very well and move the puck to those big forwards. It’s a great fit for the coach. And they’re hungry to improve on their silver medal last Olympics, and if they can, Bylsma will come out of these Olympics looking great.
James Conley: Evgeni Malkin. Obviously these are his "hometown" games, so I think he's sharing in the same pressure as the rest of the Russian team. But I think he's alone in his ability to bull his way through opposing defenses, and he's going to have the benefit of the wider rinks to do so in these games. We know how hard he takes losses, and how he's turned it on in big moments before (the '09 Cup run). He's primed for a big tournament.
Mike Darnay: Paul Martin. The early pairings show him playing with Kevin Shattenkirk, and I see his game fitting very, very well in that pairing.
Derrick Graffius (aka TK-Noodle): It’s the cliche answer, but Sidney Crosby. He is the best player in the world and one of the few that is going to be skating alongside a familiar face. He has been in a bit of a slump lately, but nobody else possesses the raw skill that he has, so I expect big things.
#2- Team USA seems built for a small ice, do you see them translating Dan Bylsma's game to a larger ice surface?
NA: I think so. Save for Russia, USA has the best wingers in the tournament. Kane, Parise, Kessel, Pacioretty and Oshie have the skills that will translate well in a less cramped space. Also, Bylsma and his staff will place emphasis on excellent special teams and try to extract any minute advantage there.
JR: The lack of having any truly skilled centermen that are natural playmakers and excellent skaters might hurt…But those guys are all 50%+ in faceoffs, good positionally and should do enough to keep the play moving to the more skilled wingers. Choosing a mostly young and mobile defense corps also sets them up well for the open ice. It’s true that no North American team has medaled on a big rink in the NHL-attending-Olympics era, but I’m inclined to believe that trend will end this year.
JC: It's probably fair to suggest that this team was built not to keep up with the high-flying offenses of the Canadians and Russians, but to slow those types of teams down. The USA roster reads like a Who's Who of two-way forwards, and they've got the best one-two goaltending depth chart in the tournament. If they can force opposing teams into their style of play, I think the ice won't be a huge factor.
MD: Yes. The width being the size difference, with the same NHL-size length doesn't have that much impact on Bylsma's 'move the puck north' style system. Also, the early line combinations have a nice blend of scoring and toughness on each line, something that fits Bylsma's system perfectly. the goal scorers like Kessel, Kane, Parise, and company intertwined with guys like Backes, Brown, Oshie, and Callahan. I like it.
DG: I never thought of them as built for the small ice, their focus is size and speed, with some of the notable snubs being made because the staff felt they would not be able to handle the larger ice surface. So I don’t really foresee any issues with them translating Bylsma’s game to the large ice, if anything it will help them since there is more room to move and to make the risky passes that we see the Penguins try all the time.
#3- No team is under more pressure than the homestanding Russians, what will these games mean to Malkin and the rest of the team?
NA: I’ve been following the games since day 1 and you can already see that Russian athletes aren’t exactly sweeping the medal podiums. 150 million people in Russia all feel exactly the same way: if they win only one gold, but it’s the right one, the Games will be a happy, joyful memory. If they win 20 other golds but don’t win the hockey one, it will all be a colossal failure. It will be really hard for them to perform under this kind of pressure at home. Playing for their country is everything to these guys. Needless to say, I want them to win so very badly, but I am able to appreciate other Russian athletes and celebrate their successes so even if Russia doesn’t win in hockey it won’t be the end of the world for me.
JR: Everything. Olympic gold is cherished by the Russians, especially with all the attention from Putin on down. Hockey is the marquee event of the winter games, and Russia’s golden sport. As an American I hope Malkin doesn’t win gold, but I’ll almost feel sorry and disappointed for him and his comrades if they don’t, because of all the pressure they’ll be under.
JC: We obviously get a very North American perspective on things around here, so I don't think the pressure that's on the Russian team has really been captured yet. There's probably no less weight on this Russian team than was on the Canadians in 2010. If I were Malkin, these games would mean as much as a Stanley Cup, and I couldn't blame him or any other Russian player for thinking as much.
MD: Malkin has most always risen to the occasion when it comes to being on the big stage (NHL playoffs, World Championships, etc). The rest of the Russian team is a wild card to me. A 4th line made up of KHL guys REALLY makes them a wild card. I don't see them being able to hang with USA, physically, in the preliminary round.
DG: In a word, disappointment. The Russians want to win so badly at home, winning Gold in hockey after watching Tretiak light the flame would mean so much to them as a nation. But I’m not even sure if they will medal, let alone taking home the Gold, so wherever they wind up it will not be enough for them and the home fans.
#4- Go out on a limb and give a bold prediction of a surprise or impressive performance.
NA: Sweden’s Alexander Steen and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. These guys live in large shadows of Henrik Sedin and Erik Karlsson, but I think we will finally see them break through in this tournament. Steen will play on the line with Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog and Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg and that will be a fantastic line to watch. Ekman-Larsson will be paired with Karlsson and by default have to shoulder more responsibilities on the back end, but still his game is tailor-made for the big ice, with fluid skating, mobility, poke check and stick work. A guy with Nick Lidstrom’s skill set and hockey IQ still plays for Tre Kronor, and he’s only 22.
JR: Joe Pavelski emerges as a star. He already has 29 goals in the NHL this season (good for 4th in the league) but playing out in San Jose and in the shadow of Thornton, Marleau and Couture, Pavelski isn’t really as known of a name as he should be. These Olympics should change that, he’s practicing on the 1st line today and also on the point on the power play, a place that Bylsma really likes him. I think Pavelski has a monster Olympics and really emerges as a face of USA Hockey.
JC: I don't think they have the artillery to get into the final rounds of the tournament, but if Team Finland posts an upset or two, I think we're going to see Olli Maatta have a bit of a coming out party, at least as far as the hockey media in North America goes. Pittsburgh knows what the kid is all about, but a good tournament -- and I think he's got one in him -- should really propel his Calder Trophy candidacy.
MD: Sweden exiting the tournament early in elimination round play. I feel like injuries will catch up with them quickly, unless King Henrik can keep them afloat.
DG: I think people are underestimating some of the Euro teams just because they are not stacked with NHL stars. I’m expecting Switzerland and Austria to be more impressive than most people give them credit for, they may not be the NHL, but the Swiss NLA is one of the top Euro leagues and Austria’s EBEL isn’t half bad either. I don’t expect them to medal, but I do expect them to be good enough to steal a few games. Not overly bold, but I also look at Norway and Slovakia as a shadow of their former selves, which opens the door for some of the up and comers (Swiss and Austria mentioned above, perhaps even Latvia) to steal a spot in the standings. And my final bold prediction is that Finland, having been so heavily devastated by injury, will struggle much more than anticipated and go home early.
#5- Anything can happen in a short tournament, but who's your pick to take the gold?
NA: I’ve had Sweden as my gold-medal pick for a long time and despite the absence of Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen that hasn’t changed. It may even be a blessing in disguise as it will give their younger forwards such as Landeskog, Hagelin and Berglund a chance to shine. This team will still have plenty of experience with Zetterberg, Backstrom and Alfredsson, and with Henrik Lundqvist having regained his form and confidence over a stretch of strong games in 2014, they are still the team with the best blend of skating and skill in my view.
JR: Never bet against Sidney Crosby. I’m going to take Canada, their depth is unmatched and on paper they have the best teams. The games, of course, aren’t played on paper and anyone with a hot goalie could have a chance, but until further notice, Crosby and Canada have to be thought of as the kings.
JC: Give me Team USA. It's a short tournament, I think they've got a lineup that's well-rounded enough to get them to the Finals and enough defensive sand to keep the Canadians or Russians down in a one-and-done championship round.
MD. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
DG: Sweden is the obvious choice, they are the favorites to win on the big ice and have quite a stacked roster. I am surprised though that knowing they were playing on the larger ice they didn’t take advantage of some of the excellent SHL players and built their entire lineup out of NHL stars. That, and some late injuries, could take them from obvious favorites to being beatable. So I’m going to go with USA for the Gold, they are built as the most complete and balanced team on paper and seem to have had the larger ice surface in mind as well. Anything can happen, they could get upset by a bad goal, but they are built to win it all. I’ve got USA Gold, Sweden Silver, Canada Bronze, and Russia as #4. And I guess Czech as #5.