It is no big secret that goaltending is a key component to a country’s Olympic ambitions. With how short the the tournament is and the presence of the world’s top players, having your netminder catch fire at just the right time can be the difference between a medal around your neck or going home empty-handed.
Ahead of the Games, we take an early look at the goaltending situation for each of the countries participating in the men’s tournament.
Russian goaltending has never looked as good as it does right now. Sergei Bobrovsky has to be the favourite to be the starter, coming off a career year where he won the NHL’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder. He will be challenged however by Colorado Avalanche workhorse Semyon Varlamov, who backstopped the team to its most recent World Championship gold in 2012 and is more than capable of playing his best on the Olympic stage. Expect the hosts to also bring in a veteran presence in either Evgeni Nabokov or Ilya Bryzgalov to help with the young ‘tenders and even fill in if they falter. Nabokov and Bryzgalov can still provide top goaltending despite what many critics think.
The Slovaks are looking to build on their fourth-place finish from the 2010 Olympics and seem to have the lineup that can take home a medal. Goaltending looks great with Jaroslav Halak between the pipes. Halak has proven many times in past years that he is clutch and doesn’t falter under pressure, which is the biggest factor in a team to be successful at the Olympics. Backing him up should be Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jaroslav Janus who is honing his trade with HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL. You may remember Janus from the 2009 World Juniors where he put his team on his back and carried them to a monumental win over the USA in the quarter-finals. The 3rd goalie will likely be either Rastislav Stana or Jan Laco.
The former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia is appearing at the Olympic ice hockey for the first time, upsetting group favourites Belarus and Denmark in the qualification stage to get to Sochi. It will be interesting to see who exactly gets the nod as the starter for Slovenia. It appears to be a battle between a veteran, Robert Kristan, and the newcomer, Luka Gracnar. Kristan might have the edge because he has represented his country numerous times over his career and always plays well. Meanwhile there is Gracnar, a nineteen year-old, who is the first NHL goaltending prospect his country has ever produced. He first stepped into the international spotlight at the 2013 Worlds, standing on his head in games against hockey powerhouses Sweden and Canada, even taking the latter to overtime. The 3rd goalie on the Slovenian roster will likely be Andrej Hocevar, a journeyman netminder that can provide a veteran presence.
The Americans are coming off a bronze medal win at the 2013 World Championships and a gold medal at the World Juniors. It’s not hard to picture that Team USA will be full of confidence by the time that Sochi rolls around. Their goaltending looks incredibly deep right now with any one of the top three goaltenders: Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard, or Ryan Miller being the starter. Right now, the edge should go to Quick because he is one of the most dominant goalies in the world, however he will be out with a groin injury until at least Christmas. But that is not to take anything away from Howard and Miller who are both superb in their own right. It’s possible that the US might bring along Anaheim Ducks prospect, John Gibson, who excelled both at the Worlds and the World Juniors last year.
Austria is just happy to have qualified for these Olympics after winning a qualification group that included Germany and Italy. Between the pipes will be former MODO standout Bernhard Starkbaum, who has come into his own in the past few seasons and has recently garnered interest from many NHL clubs. With Starkbaum’s athleticism, he can keep his Austrian side in games against the big teams and might even possibly pull out an upset or two. Backing him up will be René Swette unless they can find a way to bring Reinhard Divis out of retirement.
Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Roberto Luongo, while all entrenched starters on their respective NHL teams, have had their ups and downs. Since Vancouver 2010, winning gold has been tough for the Canadians in the past few World Juniors and World Championships, and national media has pointed to goaltending as being the main culprit. Going into Sochi, it is likely that goaltending will again be the biggest question mark for the Canadians, if only because there are virtually no holes to be found in the country’s deep pool of forwards and defencemen. As alternatives Canada has Carolina Hurricanes netminder Cam Ward, the last Canadian goaltender to have won World Championship gold in 2007, and James Reimer, Mike Smith, or Corey Crawford could also be selected to the team if they can do enough to impress Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman.
The Finns will go into Sochi with arguably the world’s best goaltending trio. They have three of the top goalies in the world right now in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi, and Pekka Rinne; so they will be set in goal with whoever they choose as their netminder going forward. I think that this will be Rinne’s time to shine at the international level, although he did struggle late with Nashville last season, he was playing through an injury and recently had a successful hip surgery procedure, so I expect him to be at his best come Olympic season. The mysterious Antti Raanta, who dominated the SM-Liiga last season, could also be an option for the Finnish Lions. This year Raanta signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, so it will be interesting to see what he can do in North America as he has just been called up to the team to fill in for an injured Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Polar Bears are coming into Sochi after a disappointing World Championships where they failed to make the quarter-finals. But the Norwegians play a very physical game and could get hot and pull off a huge upset at any time so watch out for them. Norwegian workhorse Pal Grotnes has recently retired, so it will likely be Dinamo Minsk`s Lars Haugen between the pipes for Norway. Haugen is a talented goalie with very good reflexes and is very sturdy between the pipes. Backing him up could be Espoo Blues goalie and former Boston Bruins draft pick Lars Volden.
The Czechs are always dangerous at the Olympics, having most recently won gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. In 1998 they had Dominik Hasek in goal who carried his team to glory. Once again, goaltending will factor heavily into how well the Czech Republic does. Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec appears to be the likely starter as it sits now. Pavelec has been getting better every year with the Jets and is hoping to bring his top game to Sochi. Veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun was to be the main challenge to Pavelec's No. 1 status, but will almost certainly miss the Games with a blood clot issue. Another option should be Alexander Salak, who plays for SKA St. Petersburg after spending time in the Florida Panthers’ system.
The Latvians qualified for these Olympics by the narrowest of margins, defeating Kazakhstan taking France to overtime, getting the points needed to seal their spot in Sochi. With Arturs Irbe long gone, goaltending appears to be a weak spot for Latvia that the bigger nations will look to exploit. The likely starter is Edgars Masalskis, who is inconsistent but can play games once in a while where he stands on his head like we saw in 2010 Vancouver, where he made 50 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Czech Republic. If the Latvians want to win a single game, he will have to have another one of those performances. Twenty year old Kristers Gudlevskis could also see action; he played and fought off shots valiantly at the 2013 Worlds and might do the same in Sochi. The 3rd goalie should be Maris Jucers, a tall goaltender who plays in Dinamo Riga's system but hasn't yet seen any games with the team this year.
At the Torino Olympics, Henrik Lundqvist led his Swedes to the gold medal. In Vancouver 2010 however it was a different story as Sweden was upset by the upstart Slovaks. Lundqvist has proven over and over in his career that he is indeed one of the best goaltenders in the world, and it is no surprise that he will almost certainly be the starting goalie for Sweden in Sochi. King Henrik will be backed up by either Jhonas Enroth or Viktor Fasth. Both have represented Sweden in the past and it was Enroth in fact who led Sweden to gold at the 2013 Worlds. Robin Lehner could also be selected to the final team, as could either Anders Lindback or Jacob Markstrom.
La Suisse is feeling on top of the hockey world after taking home a surprising silver medal at the 2013 Worlds. Anaheim Ducks’ starter Jonas Hiller is no doubt the favourite to start for Switzerland., having played some of his best hockey in the last year. The Swiss will also be bringing along Calgary Flames’ prospect Reto Berra, who posted a 29-save shutout of the U.S. in the semi–final of the 2013 World Championship. It also wouldn’t surprise me if the Swiss also bring along Martin Gerber, who played in the gold medal game at the Worlds and was in net at the 2006 Olympics when his side upset Canada 2-0.