In ranking the Olympic contenders positionally, Team Canada had a stranglehold at forward and on defense. Only twice did a player, coach or executive in our very unscientific poll suggest a country at the top other than Canada for those positions.
Goaltender, as it turns out, is the great equalizer. Canada didn’t get one No. 1 vote in goal. That’s not to say Roberto Luongo or Carey Price won’t go out and win a gold medal, but there’s no doubt that goaltender is the one position in this tournament where other countries can go into a game against Canada with an edge.
And one hot goalie can change the course of an entire tournament.
“I remember back to 1998; [Dominik] Hasek pretty much stole a game, beat us in the quarterfinals where we outshot them and then beat Canada in the semis too,” said Jamie Langenbrunner, two-time Olympian and Team USA captain in 2010. “A guy gets hot, he can carry a team a long ways.”
Which team has the best candidates? Here's the list of the top five:
1. Team Finland
Not many countries could lose arguably their top candidate, like Finland did with Pekka Rinne, then roll out three more high-end No. 1 goalies. The trio of Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen is an embarrassment of riches for Team Finland.
Rask, who has a .928 save percentage this season, would be my starter, especially considering he led the playoffs last season with a .940 save percentage and nearly won a Stanley Cup. Niemi was nearly as good last spring, posting a .930 postseason save percentage, and won a Cup as a starter with the Blackhawks in 2010. Lehtonen is as talented as both goalies but comes with an extremely limited postseason résumé.
The problem with having so much goalie depth is that you can play only one. It’s the one position where depth doesn’t always come with a payoff.
“It’s good to have strength in numbers,” said one Western Conference GM. “[But] at goaltender, only one is going in net. It doesn’t matter.”
This may be an advantage for Team Finland, but there’s a realization that it doesn’t automatically mean success.
“I don’t think there’s a goalie in the world that can save every shot if you’re giving up chances all night long,” said Team Finland assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen.