Swedes content to be overlooked, for now
You've heard a lot about those two teams and you're only going to hear more as the Olympic tournament gets under way, but it just seems like we're all forgetting something, doesn't it?
Oh yeah, the Swedes. You know, the defending gold medalists.
Sweden is approaching this tournament with a quiet confidence. Thirteen of the 23 players on the roster are back after winning gold in 2006. The biggest difference this year is Mats Sundin is not playing, but the Swedes have some young guns ready.
They know that for Canada or Russia to win gold, at some point the road has to go through Tre Kronor, and that's when they plan on inserting themselves into the debate of who is the world's best.
For now, Sweden is happy to lie on the outskirts of the debate. The players are thrilled that they are barely even in the gold-medal-favorites discussion. They weren't four years ago either, but who stood highest on the medal stand in Torino?
It could happen again.
Just as it was four years ago in Italy, this is going to be the Henrik Lundqvist show.
Lundqvist posted five wins and a 2.33 goals-against average in Torino to help Sweden win gold. Ever since, he has been one of the elite goalies in the NHL and is a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist.
But Lundqvist has been hot and cold lately as he tries to keep one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL in the playoff race. He snapped a personal six-game losing streak in a 3-1 win over New Jersey on Feb. 6, but he still owns 23 wins and 2.44 goals-against average.
Lundqvist will be playing in front of a better defense in the Olympics and he usually brings his game up a few notches when there is a lot on the line. As for the list of concerns the Swedes may have entering the tournament, Lundqvist barely registers.
Stefan Liv, who plays in the Swedish Elite League, is back as his backup, while Toronto's Jonas Gustavsson also is in the mix.
If everyone is healthy, this is a formidable defense that's, of course, led by Nicklas Lidstrom. A key question, though, is how healthy is Lidstrom's teammate in Detroit, Niklas Kronwall, and will he even be able to play?
Kronwall, who played for the gold-medal winning team four years ago, had a knee injury earlier this season that forced him to miss two months. He re-injured his knee Feb. 2 at San Jose and missed the next few games waiting for a form-fitting knee brace.
The Swedes have to hope that doesn't limit Kronwall's effectiveness because when he's healthy he's a threat on the power play and is one of the most ferocious hitters in the game.
Mattias Ohlund joins Lidstrom and Kronwall as the other members of the defense corps that won gold in Torino. Henrik Tallinder, Douglas Murray, Johnny Oduya, Tobias Enstrom and long-time National team member Magnus Johansson are the newcomers to the Olympic team.
Johansson has represented Sweden at the World Championships seven times, and won gold in 2006. He plays for Linkopings HC in the Swedish Elite League.
Murray could have the biggest impact of all of Sweden's new defensemen. A former eighth-round pick in 1999, Murray is still a relative unknown playing in San Jose, but he's one of the League's most powerful defenseman.
In terms of skill, Sweden ranks right up there with Russia and Canada. The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, are only part of this artistic group of forwards. Let's not forget about Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson and, of course, Peter Forsberg.
Henrik Sedin and Backstrom are among the top scorers in the NHL.
Forsberg, who is playing in the Swedish Elite League, is supposedly healthy and ready to play in the Olympics. He has been targeting this tournament for quite some time, and it appears his chronically injured foot is ready to go. Forsberg also won gold with Sweden in 1994, four years before the NHL started sending players to the Olympics.
Figuring that the Sedin twins will play together, it's possible that coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson tries to use Backstrom and Zetterberg as a pair on a lethal second line. Backstrom already has a history of setting up a fairly good left wing (Alex Ovechkin) and Zetterberg is used to playing with a dynamic center (Pavel Datsyuk).
That would leave Forsberg and Alfredsson to play together on a potent third line. The extra winger on each of the first three lines can be chosen from a variety of players, including Tomas Holmstrom, Loui Eriksson and Patric Hornqvist, who leads Nashville in goals.
Holmstrom, though, has a bruised left knee.
Fredrik Modin, Sammy Pahlsson and Mattias Weinhandl, who plays in the KHL, would be the checking line. Sweden GM Mats Naslund picked only 12 forwards so he could go with eight defensemen.
Forsberg is a national icon in Sweden, but "Foppa" also is 36-years-old and has a history of chronic foot and ankle injuries that de-railed his NHL career. He has been playing this season for his hometown club, MODO, in the Swedish Elite League, but recently had a rib injury that cost him some games. Expectations on Forsberg are always big, and Swedes are expecting him to deliver in the Olympics.
Striking it rich
The Swedes are coming into Vancouver well under the radar, but if they stay within their structure and get another championship effort from Lundqvist, they have enough talent to get into the gold-medal game again. They have the experience, too, but it'll be up to the veterans to guide the young guns like Backstrom, Eriksson and Hornqvist in the right direction.