How hockey field will fare at Winter Olympics

Updated: February 10, 2006, 6:15 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Canada | United States | Russia | Czech Republic | Finland | Sweden | Slovakia | Germany | The rest...

Canada
The Canadians enter the Torino tournament not only as the defending champions but also as the undisputed kings of international hockey.

After losing the opening game of the Salt Lake City Olympics against Sweden, the Canadians went unbeaten through the balance of the games and then swept the competition in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. They also have won two golds and a silver at the last three World Championships, plus two straight gold medals at the World Junior Championships for good measure.

This is a deep, gritty, experienced team that will feature no fewer than six team captains on the roster; the team returns 18 players from the World Cup of Hockey and 10 from Salt Lake City.

Joe Sakic
Jeff Vinnick/Getty ImagesJoe Sakic will again captain Team Canada.

Under coach Pat Quinn, who also was behind the bench in Salt Lake City and at the World Cup of Hockey, the Canadians will continue to play an aggressive, puck-possession style of game that will take advantage of their size, speed and skill.

The defense is mobile and physical and will jump into the rush. The goaltending is all-world, with three-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo between the pipes, both of whom have put aside shaky patches during the NHL season.

As usual, the Canadians will enter the tournament carrying the greatest burden of expectation of any team in the competition. That's nothing new; it has become a way of life in the land of the red and white.

Head Coach: Pat Quinn
Quinn is the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and also led the 2002 Canadian Olympic team and 2004 World Cup of Hockey team. He is assisted by a highly regarded coaching staff that includes Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin, Wayne Fleming and Marc Habscheid.

Go-To Guy: Joe Sakic
Unflappable and consistent, Sakic in many ways epitomizes the Canadian team's blend of skill and work ethic. Although he has endured a rare midseason scoring slump in Colorado, if there's a big goal to be scored or one to be prevented, Sakic will be on the ice.

Player Who Will Make A Difference: Dany Heatley
The star-crossed young star is enjoying a renaissance in Ottawa, where he is sixth in the NHL in scoring with 68 points through 50 games, with a whopping plus-31. Many believed Heatley wouldn't make the Olympic team after a poor showing in the 2005 World Championships and 2004 World Cup of Hockey, coupled with concerns about his mental state following the September 2003 crash that took the life of Atlanta teammate Dan Snyder. But Heatley has proved doubters wrong. He has the ability to score in close and has a great shot he can use from the circles; he could well be the Olympic MVP.

Why They'll Strike Gold
The Canadians are so deep, Jason Spezza and Eric Staal, who have combined for 124 points, will likely spend the tournament sitting in an Italian café as part of the team's taxi squad. With 17 players returning from the undefeated squad which ran through the World Cup of Hockey in 2004, the Canadians' blend of skill and experience should help them ride out any bumps or hiccups early in the tournament that might prove disastrous to other teams. Both Brodeur and Luongo have proven records at the international level. The defensive unit, so crucial to success on the bigger ice surface, is big and mobile, even without Scott Niedermayer, who is scheduled for knee surgery and will miss the Games. The defensive corps will be bolstered by Rob Blake, Wade Redden, Chris Pronger and Robyn Regehr. Even with Ed Jovanovski's injury and Niedermayer's absence, the Canadian defense is as deep as any in the tournament.

Up front, the Canadians have perhaps the best balance of scoring prowess and grit in the competition. Ryan Smyth, Kris Draper and Shane Doan will make life difficult for opposing snipers, while Simon Gagne, Vincent Lecavalier, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton and Heatley should provide ample offensive power.

The continuity of having Quinn and his coaching staff in place for the third big tournament is not to be underestimated; this is a tournament in which most teams get one on-ice practice before the competition begins.

Why They Won't
Injuries have already attacked the depth of the Canadian blue line, with Jovanovski out with an abdominal injury that will require surgery and Niedermayer out as well. Adam Foote has battled injuries this season. Bryan McCabe, the league's highest scoring defenseman who was elevated to the team after the Jovanovski injury, has been hampered by a groin injury.

Veteran Blake has only recently begun to round into form in Colorado and will have to log a ton of ice time if his colleagues have to scale back their time. If opposing teams can exploit the Canadian defense, putting more pressure on starter Brodeur and backup Luongo, the Canadians could be forced to play a more open, risk-taking style than Quinn would like.

Without Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Al MacInnis and Paul Kariya, who were mainstays on the Salt Lake City team, the pressure falls on the next generation of Canadian stars -- Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Lecavalier and Heatley -- not just to perform on the ice but also to deal with the pressure that comes with knowing that only a gold medal will be acceptable.

Prediction: Gold medal victory over Sweden.

United States

The Americans have neither fully embraced a youth movement nor gone completely retro in assembling their roster. Can being somewhere in the middle between yesterday and tomorrow yield a medal? For a team with question marks about its ability to score and even bigger question marks between the pipes, the answer is not likely.

But this American team, with eight holdovers from the silver-medal effort in Salt Lake City and 12 first-time Olympians, has the potential to be a dark horse, the kind of underdog team the American public can fall in love with. If the Americans can use an "us against the world" mentality to forge a bond in the dressing room, they could be the surprise of the tournament.

Rick DiPietro
AP PhotoThe fortunes of Team USA will likely rest on young goaltender Rick DiPietro.

Head Coach: Peter Laviolette
The head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, Laviolette's stock is sky-high right now with his surprising 'Canes leading the NHL in points. Laviolette also has a lot of international experience, having been at the helm of both the 2005 and 2004 World Championships, winning bronze in 2004. He was also an assistant coach with the 2004 World Cup of Hockey team and is a two-time Olympian.

Go-To Guy: Keith Tkachuk
OK, we know this sounds strange, since Tkachuk isn't having the most stellar season of his career. But Tkachuk is the closest thing the Americans have to a big-time threat, both physically and offensively. When he's been healthy in St. Louis, he's usually been the best player on the ice. The veteran forward has a lot to prove, both inside and outside of the dressing room, and will get plenty of opportunities to make his point.

Player Who Will Make a Difference: Brian Gionta
With 29 goals through 52 games, the diminutive Gionta has emerged, at least in theory, as the team's new sniper. He will be counted on to produce on the power play and to disrupt opposing defenses with his speed and skill, just as he's done with the New Jersey Devils.

How They'll Strike Gold
Two main things will have to happen for the Americans to earn a medal of any shade, let alone a gold. First, Laviolette will have to forge an immediate identity in the dressing room. During the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, this team was uninterested and rancorous, and the effort on the ice reflected that. If Laviolette can reproduce the aggressive, teamwide attack style that has made his Hurricanes one of the surprise stories of the NHL season, the Americans could surprise.

What the Americans lack in terms of superstars like Peter Forsberg or Jaromir Jagr, they will have to make up for with balance throughout the lineup. Brian Rolston is hot as a pistol, while Erik Cole and Gionta are enjoying breakthrough seasons. Scott Gomez and Mike Knuble are also part of a new generation of U.S. players who will shoulder a larger role in Torino, taking the burden off veterans Mike Modano and Doug Weight. On defense, the Americans have good depth and a nice blend of size (Derian Hatcher, Aaron Miller), skill (John-Michael Liles, Mathieu Schneider) and experience (Chris Chelios, who is past experienced and is positively ancient at age 44).

The second and most pivotal piece to any medal puzzle will be the play of the U.S. netminders. The Americans' best netminder, Ryan Miller, is on the taxi squad, while the three on the roster -- Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame -- have all suffered through periods of uneven play or injuries. DiPietro, the de facto starter based on his international experience, has the potential to be a world-beater. He also has the potential to be painfully ordinary, as he has been for long stretches on Long Island this season. He better be the former if the Americans hope to come home with a medal.

Why They Won't
Eyebrows were raised when GM Don Waddell selected both Hatcher and Chelios as two of the team's seven defensemen. With the possibility of playing eight games in 12 nights, it seems a tall order for both to log the minutes needed to give the Americans the balance for success. If Hatcher cannot adapt to the bigger ice surface and Chelios simply wears down, it will put tremendous pressure on the other five blueliners. It could lead to breakdowns against skilled forechecking teams like Canada, Russia and Sweden.

The U.S. roster is full of players who used to be elite scorers -- Tkachuk, Modano, Weight and Bill Guerin. Guerin has been abysmal in Dallas, with just eight goals in 52 games. If a scoring hero doesn't emerge from the lineup -- a guy like Gionta, Gomez or Cole to carry the torch -- that shortcoming is likely to become the team's Achilles' heel.

Prediction: No one expects the Americans to get anywhere near a medal. We beg to differ. The Americans surprise with a bronze medal over the Russians.

Russia

Well, at least the Russians are consistent. At every international tournament in recent years, the Russian team has been dogged by controversy, infighting and politicking. And the on-ice results have reflected that fractiousness. The Torino Games will be no different.

Russian GM Pavel Bure is seen by many players as a mere figurehead, and star players like Sergei Fedorov, Sergei Zubov and Alexander Mogilny declined to play. Nikolai Khabibulin, who led the Russians to a bronze in Salt Lake City, is hurt and likely won't be available. Alexei Zhamnov, who would have been in line for his fourth Olympic medal, is also out with injury.

Alexander Ovechkin
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesAlexander Ovechkin will bring his scoring touch to Team Russia.

But it's the notion that some top players have no interest in playing, regardless of the situation, that must be troubling to other members of the team. The Russians are the most ambivalent about playing for their country, a reflection of the historic social and political turmoil that has marked the country for decades. Russian reporters who live in North America say there is a great chasm between the players who have made their lives and fortunes in North America and the old guard that still has a stronghold on Russian hockey back home.

Russian players often feel they are mistreated at these tournaments, taken for granted by the country's hockey leaders, while the Russian hierarchy assumes the players' loyalties should supersede any personal feelings.

These dynamics make team-building almost impossible. That said, only once since 1956 (Lillehammer, 1994) have the Russians failed to win a medal. And any team that ices an offensive lineup that includes Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin will be a threat.

"There's a lot of differences from last Olympics," Maxim Afinogenov said. "I don't think [team chemistry] is an issue. I think we're going to have a pretty good team. We're going for the best there."

Head Coach: Vladimir Krikunov (Moscow Dynamo)
Krikunov was the coach of the Belarus team that upset Sweden in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and last spring he guided Russia to a bronze medal at the World Championships. He was also recently quoted as saying that three shots of vodka is the perfect tonic to relieve postgame stress. His assistants include legendary Russian forward Boris Mikhailov and longtime NHLer Sergei Nemchinov, who has been in contact with many of the Russians on behalf of Bure.

Go-To Guy: Alexander Ovechkin
Yes, he's just a rookie, but what a rookie. Ovechkin has the kind of chutzpah that will make him the most dangerous player on this team, maybe in the tournament. He has excelled in Washington -- where, to be kind, the talent level around him is pretty ordinary. Now, he'll have gifted players with whom to work his magic. Opposing teams will build their defenses around stopping Ovechkin. Or they should.

Player Who Can Make A Difference: Evgeni Nabokov
Nabokov did not play in either the World Cup of Hockey nor in the Salt Lake City Olympics (there were eligibility issues), so he makes his first starting role for Russia at a best-on-best tournament. Although he has struggled mightily this season in San Jose with a 2.97 GAA and .891 save percentage, the former rookie of the year has the tools to be among the best netminders of the tournament.

Why They'll Strike Gold
Although the emphasis will be on the explosive potential of the lineup, this team should be more well-rounded than that. Defensively, there is grit in the form of Danny Markov, Anton Volchenkov and Darius Kasparaitis. And with puck-moving youngsters like Fedor Tyutin and Andrei Markov, along with Sergei Gonchar, who will be trying to forget the nightmare of his season in Pittsburgh, the Russians will be better defensively than some imagine.

The Russians will be able to ice three lines of potent scorers and should be able to open up games. If the team can come together under a new generation of stars and accept different roles than they play in the NHL, the Russians will be in the hunt for gold. It's unlikely, for instance, that Kovalchuk will log the 22:47 he does on a nightly basis in Atlanta. Some players who normally lead their team's power-play units will find such special-teams work limited. These changes must be accepted without grumbling.

Why They Won't
Let's start in goal, where Nabokov has struggled and Khabibulin is unlikely to play. That puts backup Ilya Bryzgalov -- who was the starter during the World Cup of Hockey and is threatening to steal the starting job from J.S. Giguere in Anaheim -- in a more prominent role. Either way, there are questions that will have to be resolved for the team to be successful.

Although the team is filled with offensive talent, this isn't an All-Star Game. There will be questions about the Russians' toughness and ability to grind it out against more physical opponents like Finland, Canada and the United States. Defensively, there will be tremendous pressure on younger players like Tyutin, Volchenkov and Andrei Markov, who has struggled this year in Montreal.

And then there is the ambiguous issue of team chemistry. Kovalev is a veteran who will have the respect of the dressing room, but the young stars like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are just learning their roles as leaders. Given the recent free fall in Atlanta, it's clear Kovalchuk is not yet there in terms of being a locker-room presence. It might be too much to expect them to produce team unity against more cohesive squads.

Prediction: The Russians lose in the bronze-medal game to the United States.

Czech Republic

The defending world champions have it all, from elite scoring to solid defense to superlative goaltending, plus a little magic from the past in the form of Dominik Hasek, the hero of the Czech Republic's gold-medal team in 1998.

Although there are notable omissions from this team, including Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias (who only recently returned to action following a long recovery from Hepatitis A), the Czechs are always well-coached and well-prepared for these tournaments. Torino should be no different.

Jaromir Jagr
AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy As Jaromir Jagr goes, so will the Czech Republic.

The Czechs have a tendency to play a patient, passive game, dropping back in the neutral zone and forcing teams to skate or pass through a five-man unit. Because of their speed and skill, they are the consummate transitional team that tries to create offense from turnovers vs. less patient or more daring teams.

"The expectation in the Czech Republic is very, very high," said Hasek, who just turned 41 but is playing like a 20-something pup. "The Czech Republic, it's almost like Canada, hockey is everything for the people."

Head Coach: Alois Hadamczik
Hadamczik, who coached the Czech team to a bronze medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships, took over the national team reins from popular Vladimir Ruzicka. Ruzicka left the job immediately after the Czechs' gold-medal victory at the World Championships last spring.

Go-To Guy: Jaromir Jagr
No kidding. Jagr leads the NHL in scoring and has been the main catalyst in the New York Rangers' revival as a playoff-caliber team. The knock on Jagr has always been that he doesn't bring it every night -- and that, if he's not motivated, he can be a distraction in the dressing room. Well, if he brings the same level of motivation to Torino, then the Czechs will be a strong contender to upend Canada as gold-medal kings.

Player Who Will Make A Difference: Robert Lang
With the emergence of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as the new go-to guys in Detroit and with the reemergence of Brendan Shanahan as an elite scorer, Lang has moved back into the shadows in Detroit. Plagued by a groin injury, Lang nonetheless managed 40 points in his first 46 games, with a plus-11. Lang's size makes him difficult to knock off the puck, and he'll be an important part of the Czechs' power play.

Why They'll Strike Gold
The Czechs always seem to move seamlessly from NHL to international play. Led by Jagr, the Czechs should have no trouble offensively. They have a good blend of veterans and young stars like Ales Hemsky, who is second in team scoring in Edmonton. Tomas Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky will lead a blue-line corps that will move the puck exceptionally well on the transition and will chip in on the power play. There is also size on the blue line, with 6-foot-3 Filip Kuba and 6-foot-4 Pavel Kubina. Lang and Milan Hejduk are both struggling to regain prelockout form in the NHL, but they have played in five Olympic Games combined, so their experience will be helpful up front.

And of course, there's the matter of the goaltending -- a tough choice for Hadamczik. Does he go with Tomas Vokoun, who led the Czechs to a dramatic world championship last spring, including a heart-stopping shootout win over the U.S. in the quarterfinals? Or does he give the nod to the ageless Hasek, who is up there in every meaningful goaltending category and became an almost mythic figure in the Czech Republic when he helped the team to gold in 1998? Both are sensational in shootouts, which is how games in the playoff round might be decided.

Why They Won't
If there is a question mark about the Czechs, it is their physical presence up front and on the back end. The team doesn't generally play an attack game that relies on a physical forecheck, but if the team gets behind, that might be a problem. Likewise, if teams like Canada and the U.S. generate the aggressive forecheck they desire, it will put pressure on less physical defensemen, like Zidlicky and the Kaberle brothers. The Czechs will miss defensemen Jiri Fischer (whose heart problems nearly ended in tragedy earlier this season in Detroit) and Roman Hamrlik (who has suffered through an injury-plagued season in Calgary, where he has appeared in 33 games).

Prediction: The Czechs lose a heartbreaker in the quarterfinals to the U.S. in a shootout.

Finland

At the beginning of the season, one had to figure the Finns would enter the Torino Games with the most enticing goaltending lineup in the tournament. Miikka Kiprusoff had established himself as an elite NHL netminder with the 2004 Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames, and Kari Lehtonen was ready to start his much-anticipated NHL career after twice being named the prospect of the year by The Hockey News.

But Kiprusoff has begged off taking part in the Olympics for health reasons, and Lehtonen -- who missed the first three months of the season with a groin injury -- has opted for rest as his Atlanta Thrashers pursue their first playoff berth. Now it appears Antero Niittymaki, the hero of last year's AHL playoffs for the Philadelphia Phantoms, will be the starter by default. His backup hasn't been determined, but figure on Hannu Toivonen if he's healthy -- and if not, perhaps Vesa Toskala from San Jose. Either way, it's a big step down from what might have been.

That's not all. Tuomo Ruutu is likely done for the year in Chicago after surgery to repair a severed tendon in his right ankle. The flashy forward was expected to carry a big offensive load in Torino for the offensively challenged Finns. Sami Kapanen, a dogged, versatile forward, has also withdrawn because of injury, as did Flyers' rising star and defensive stalwart Joni Pitkanen.

Despite all that, this Finnish team can't be overlooked, even though there is a tendency to do that at these best-on-best tournaments. There is terrific leadership and experience with Teppo Numminen on the back end and a revitalized Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu up front. And no matter who puts on the jersey, the Finns will be among the hardest-working teams in the mix.

Head Coach: Erkka Westerlund
Westerlund takes over for the acerbic Raimo Summanen, who coached the Finnish entry in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. The Finns lost to Canada in the championship game, and Summanen was fired and replaced by assistant Westerlund, who has a long history with the Finnish junior program.

Go-To Guy: Olli Jokinen
The Florida Panthers' captain has matured into a vocal leader and a talented player. He reflects the team dynamic, spirited with an iron will that won't see him back down from any opponent.

Player Who Will Make A Difference: Kimmo Timonen
The steady, talented Nashville Predators' defender is one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. Although not large at 5-foot-10, Timonen is like Swedish star Nik Lidstrom with his strong positional play and offensive abilities. A week before the Olympic break, Timonen's 39 points had him eighth among all NHL defensemen. His contributions at both ends of the ice will be crucial to the Finns' chances.

Why They Will Strike Gold
Although Canada's defense gets most of the ink, on paper the Finns had as good a blue-line corps as anyone. That took a hit after Pitkanen decided to stay home and nurse a groin injury. Without their blueline anchor, the Finns will be looking to the experienced Numminen, who will be playing in his fourth Olympics. The Finns will also be without Ossi Vaananen, who is out for the NHL season with a broken leg. That means the pressure will be on whoever ends up between the pipes. Niittymaki has proved -- by virtue of his 18-8-6 record with Philadelphia -- that he's a bona fide NHL starter. But can he take the pressure of the Olympics?

Although the Finns won't blow anyone out, they have enough veteran scoring in the form of Selanne, Jere Lehtinen and Koivu, along with top young forwards like Jussi Jokinen, who is an incredible 8-for-8 in NHL shootouts, to keep opposing defenses on their toes. Where the Finns will separate themselves from the competition is with their work ethic. It might not be pretty, but the Finns will be close.

Why They Won't
The Finns will have to make chicken salad out of what should have been a filet goaltending situation, and it will be asking a tremendous amount for Niittymaki (et al.) to compete with the Brodeurs, Haseks, Vokouns and Luongos of the tournament, especially considering the thinning defense corps in front of him. What remains to be seen is how the downgrade in netminding potential affects the team psyche, which is so important in these tournaments. With Kiprusoff or even Lehtonen, there is a built-in comfort zone. Less so with Niittymaki, who will have to quickly earn the trust of his Finnish teammates. If the goaltending falters, they don't have the quick-strike offense that can make up for goaltending flaws.

Prediction: Finland bows out to Russia in the quarterfinals.

Sweden

Let's do a little word association. Sweden -- choking dogs. Harsh? Maybe. But this is the team that choked up a possible gold medal in Salt Lake City by losing to lowly Belarus in the quarterfinal and has since failed to live up to expectations at every international tournament.

On paper, the Swedes appear to be the team to beat, boasting a galaxy of stars including Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Forsberg, Nik Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. But it is the indelible image of Vladimir Kopat's long, fluttering shot bouncing off netminder Tommy Salo's noggin and tumbling across the goal line, just out of the reach of defenseman Kenny Jonsson in Salt Lake City, that defines this nation's hockey team. It will be so until the Swedes exorcise those demons with a commanding performance.

With the emergence of the ice-in-his-veins Henrik Lundqvist as a world-class netminder, it might well be this tournament. Although the daily concerns over Forsberg's health will be a story throughout the Olympics (assuming he ends up going), and the withdrawal of Vancouver captain Markus Naslund is a huge blow to the team's gold-medal dreams, Lundqvist is the country's best chance at erasing the "choking dogs" memory from Swedish hockey.

Head Coach: Bengt-Ake Gustafsson
Gustafsson has been aided by NHL and international legend Mats Naslund, who is acting as the team's GM.

Go-To-Guy: Nik Lidstrom
Like Sakic with the Canadian team, Lidstrom embodies the Swedish identity: cool, skillful and positionally strong. Lidstrom leads the NHL in average ice time (28:51 per game) and he hasn't gone more than two games without a point through his first 52 games of the season. A three-time Norris Trophy winner, Lidstrom might not be the engine that drives the Swedish team, but he is its pulse.

Player Who Will Make A Difference: Mats Sundin
The beleaguered Toronto Maple Leafs captain has come under fire in Toronto, where he had just 10 goals through his first 40 games. But Sundin is a fiery competitor who loves to play for the Tre Kronor (the three crowns that are Sweden's national emblem), as witnessed by his selection as team captain. Dangerous on both the power play and penalty kill, Sundin will be on the ice in the most crucial situations for the Swedes, especially with Naslund sidelined.

Why They'll Strike Gold
A little history lesson. Back in 1994, when the Swedes won their first and only Olympic gold medal, an unproven netminder named Tommy Salo became a national hero, stopping four penalty shots in the gold-medal game, including Paul Kariya's final, desperate attempt for Canada. Salo, of course, would see his career come full circle with the debacle in Salt Lake City. But it's entirely possible that history could repeat itself, with Lundqvist reprising the role as young hero.

Not that Lundqvist will have to do it all on his own. The Swedes boast a nice blend of physicality and elite skill on the back end, led by all-world defenseman Lidstrom, understated L.A. Kings captain Mattias Norstrom and talented Vancouver rear guard Mattias Ohlund. Ohlund and Norstrom might be two of the more underrated defensemen in the league.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin have both matured this season in Vancouver and have taken on larger roles there. Detroit coach Mike Babcock raves about the emergence of Mikael Samuelsson as an elite scorer with the Red Wings, and Fredrik Modin has become a gifted two-way player in Tampa Bay, where he was a big part of the Lightning's Stanley Cup run in 2004. Trading off Naslund for Tomas Holmstrom isn't great, but Holmstrom will spend most of the tournament antagonizing opposing goalies from the front of the net and might prove to be an unsung hero.

Why They Won't
If Forsberg's health keeps him out of the lineup, that's a huge blow to the Swedish lineup, both on and off the ice. Forsberg, when healthy, remains one of the top four or five players in the world. Without him, the potential for doubt to creep into the Swedes' minds increases. And let's be honest, this tournament is all between the ears for such a talented cast.

If the team or Lundqvist falters early, the world media and the Swedish hockey press will pounce, and the Tommy Salo allusions will come fast and furious.

Prediction: The Swedes get to the brink, but lose the gold-medal game to Canada.

Slovakia

The Slovaks might be the most difficult team to figure out in the entire tournament. Deep with offensive talent, they want desperately to be considered among the elite hockey nations in the world.

Led by Slovakian icon Peter Stastny, who is the team's general manager, the Slovaks won a World Championship in 2002 and a bronze in 2003, but were jobbed out of a real shot at a medal in Salt Lake City because of the NHL's refusal to allow players to take part in the play-in portion of the tournament. The Slovaks, with half a roster, failed to qualify for the main tournament, and that system has since been abolished by the IIHF. Now, the Slovaks are hungry to earn their first Olympic medal.

Despite a star-studded offensive lineup, the Slovaks didn't perform particularly well at the World Cup of Hockey in 2004 and it will be no easier this time, despite the presence of elite scorers Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra, Marian Hossa, Peter Bondra and rookie phenom Marek Svatos, who is second in rookie scoring with 30 goals. The Slovaks still lack a premier netminder, and depth along the blue line is a work in progress. Still, assuming they can finish in the top four in the preliminary round (they should), the Slovaks could surprise any team that takes them lightly.

Head Coach: Frantisek Hossa
Hossa, father to Olympic team members Marian and Marcel, is described by Marian as pretty quiet and given to occasional meltdowns.

Go-To-Guy: Marian Hossa
Hossa has struggled to assume a more prominent leadership role in Atlanta, where the team has struggled of late. Still, the quiet forward remains one of the true NHL studs, capable of single-handedly changing a game. Hossa, whose 64 points through 55 games had him ninth in NHL scoring, is a dynamic two-way player and will be counted on to be the man in the dressing room.

Player Who Will Make A Difference: Pavol Demitra
With nerve damage in his leg, Demitra was touch-and-go to make the Olympic team. But he's back and will be an important cog in the Slovak offensive machine. A key free-agent acquisition by Los Angeles, Demitra has been terrific for the Kings, with 51 points in 46 games for the demanding Andy Murray. Demitra will have to lead the Slovaks down the middle.

Why They'll Strike Gold
If Zdeno Chara, Lubomir Visnovsky, Milan Jurcina and Ottawa rookie Andrej Meszaros play all but five minutes of every game, the Slovaks have a chance. That's not much of an exaggeration. Chara and Visnovsky, who is having a Norris Trophy-worthy season in L.A. and leads all NHL defensemen in scoring, will have to carry the vast majority of the defensive load for a team that is thin along the blue line and has questionable goaltending to boot.

But if they can hold the fort, and if Jan Lasak or Peter Budaj can cobble together a handful of strong performances, it will give the Slovaks' offense a chance to knock off more proven teams. At the World Cup of Hockey, the team seemed tentative and unwilling to open up for fear of being exposed defensively. It didn't work. The Slovaks' best chance at victory might be to try to pressure opposing teams with their speed and skill. Miroslav Satan is red-hot on Long Island, and Michal Handzus is on the roster.

In goal, there are a number of options, none guaranteed to bring success. Budaj briefly had the starting job in Colorado and lost it to David Aebischer. Lasak has had international success but hasn't faced the kind of talent that will be on display in Torino. Still, both have the tools to pull off an upset or two, especially if the offense becomes more aggressive.

Why They Won't
Of the top eight teams in the tournament, the Slovaks rank eighth in goaltending, talent and depth. Can they get lucky? Sure. Remember Belarus. But if luck doesn't play into the equation, the Slovaks will simply be overmatched at the most important position in every crucial game. With the compressed schedule, the demands on Chara and Visnovsky could lead to breakdowns at inopportune times as the tournament moves along.

Up front, there is talent, but they will miss Ladislav Nagy, who is out with a knee injury. The bigger question is whether there is enough leadership to get the job done with a medal on the line. We say no.

Prediction: The Slovaks drop out in the quarterfinals with a loss Canada.

Germany

Jochen Hecht of the Buffalo Sabres figures it's a good thing Olaf Kolzig plays net for the Washington Capitals. That way, he won't be surprised when he faces the hail of pucks he can expect to see when the Germans face the meaty part of the Olympic schedule in Torino.

"He'll be used to it," Hecht said.

For the Germans, it's not so much winning a medal, but continuing to maintain that coveted position somewhere between contender and hockey outcast.

With the number of German players slowly growing among the NHL ranks, it might not be long before Germany will improve its position as the true dark horse. But for now, it will have to be content to stay ahead of Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Latvia and the other bubble nations who would love to be in Germany's position, where invitations to such events are guaranteed.

"Yeah, needless to say, it's going to be a tall task for us. The one thing about the Germans is, we play with a lot of heart. We play with a lot of pride. We're a more talented team than we were back in Salt Lake. We gave a lot of teams some trouble in 2002," Kolzig said. "The odds are against us, but teams better be ready, because we could be ready for an upset. It's a one-game deal. If teams aren't ready to play us, [it] could be an upset. It's a good way to get into the tournament, that's for sure."

Head Coach: Ewe Krupp
Krupp, the longtime NHL defenseman who won a Stanley Cup in Colorado, makes his home in Atlanta and is heavily involved in organizing and developing the Georgia minor hockey system. He will try his hand at international coaching for the first time.

Go-To-Guy: Marco Sturm
Sturm struggled to get acclimated in Boston when he first arrived as part of the Thornton trade, but he is a key part of the Bruins' revival, playing on the team's top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes. He will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his great speed and deft scoring touch on a German team that will struggle to stay close to the rest of the big teams.

Player Who Will Make A Difference: Olaf Kolzig
Kolzig, 35, has enjoyed a strong year playing in front of a still-learning Capitals team. It will be more of the same in Torino with an undermanned German team. Still, when it gets to elimination time, Kolzig has the wherewithal to turn in the virtuoso performance that will be needed for the Germans to pull off an upset.

Why They'll Strike Gold
Let's be honest, the Germans aren't going to win a gold medal. Think apocalypse if they do. But the Germans remain the kind of stumbling block that could prevent another gold-worthy team from achieving its destiny.

If the Germans can hold off the Swiss and finish fourth in Pool A (never mind the host Italians, who are here solely for the postgame trinkets), they'll play the top team in Pool B, likely Sweden or Russia. In order to advance beyond the quarterfinals, the Germans will have to play the perfect game, a patient outing with stifling defense and an out-of-his-mind goaltending performance from Kolzig. If the Germans can keep a more powerful opponent at bay early in that first elimination game, there is always the chance such an opponent will start to press and take needless chances. In a close game, the Germans have enough offensive zip in the form of Sturm, Hecht, Marcel Goc and Dennis Seidenberg to pop in a power-play goal or two. The Germans aren't looking to win a playoff series. They're looking to win an elimination game.

Why They Won't
There are ample reasons why the Germans won't win a gold. Quite simply, they don't match up defensively or offensively with any of the other big squads in the competition. Even playing a fall-back style in an effort to limit the number of odd-man rushes against them, the Germans are still going to give up a ton of scoring opportunities. The Germans have made an art form of obstruction in previous tournaments, and if the IIHF makes good on its desire to mimic what the NHL has accomplished, the Germans will take too many penalties against teams with potent power plays.

Prediction: German loses in the quarterfinal to Sweden.

The rest...

There are 12 teams split into two groups of six teams. But in reality, there are seven legitimate medal hopefuls -- and Germany. Then, there are the rest: host Italy, Switzerland, Kazakhstan and Latvia.

Italy is there because Olympic rules allow it to be; there's no other reason. They are cannon fodder. Latvia, Switzerland and Kazakhstan all have at least one NHLer. The best Italy can hope for is to knock off a lower team during the five-game round robin and advance to an elimination game. As witnessed in Salt Lake City with the Belarus miracle win over Sweden in the quarterfinals, anything can happen. But it shouldn't.

Switzerland has the best chance of moving on because it is in Group A with Germany, which is vulnerable to being upset -- as opposed to Group B, where Russia, Sweden, Slovakia and the United States are miles ahead of the Kazaks and Latvians. The Swiss will have terrific netminding in the form of Colorado's David Aebischer and Martin Gerber, who has been sensational in leading Carolina to the top of the NHL standings.

The Swiss will have to play it close to the vest, given the absence of scoring punch (they have no NHLers among their 20 skaters). But the same can be said for all of these teams. Still, their goaltending will give them a chance against Germany, and it would be a significant moral victory to appear in an elimination game.

In Pool B, the task for Latvia, which will feature veteran NHLer Arturs Irbe in goal, and Kazakhstan, which boasts lanky Toronto forward Nik Antropov, is to knock off either Slovakia or the U.S. in the round robin and hope to advance based on the tie-breaking system. We don't like their chances.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.