a7a284b241158210VgnVCM100000e56411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2010-02Pressure firmly on the hosts97a284b241158210VgnVCM100000e56411ac____Pressure firmly on the hostsAs the ice hockey tournament begins today, <i>The National</i> looks at what to expect from the contenders for medals.<p>All the groups feature geographic rivals - at least among the "Big Seven" nations - with Group A made up of host country Canada and the United States, as well as Switzerland and Norway.
The pressure is immense on the home side to deliver gold and Canada go into the Games with a line-up that is more than capable of winning it. But it will not be easy, and Canada will be challenged for Group A supremacy by an upstart American team that is short on experience, but boasts plenty of speed, skill and enthusiasm.</p>
<p>After Canada claimed gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City - beating the United States 5-2 in the final - the US would like nothing more than to return the favour and defeat the host nation.
When the two countries square off on Sunday it is almost guaranteed the winner of that game will top Group A and get the all-important bye into the quarter-finals.
With the likes of Martin Brodeur, the netminder, Scott Niedermayer, the team captain, Jarome Iginla, their veteran winger, and, of course, the one-and-only Sidney Crosby leading the charge, Canada have more talent, depth and experience than any other nation. The home ice should help, too.
Victories over Norway and Switzerland should build confidence before the US clash.</p>
<p>With Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - as well as Latvia - this features three of the world's best seven ice hockey teams.
Russia, with a bounty of offensive skill led by Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, might be able to score their way to Olympic glory.
The Russians are also motivated by the fact the 2014 Games are at home in Sochi, but the NHL has not yet committed to participating. The thinking is, if Russia win gold in Vancouver, it will force the NHL's hand to head to Russia in four years.</p>
<p>Questions arise when the Russian defence and goaltending are scrutinised, but Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov are proven puck-stoppers who have been among the NHL's best this season, while the blueline should be alright as long as Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov, the squad's savvy veterans, are able to play for any substantial amount of time.
The Czechs, winners of the first NHL Olympics in 1998, have not kept pace in recent Games and are an ageing group with half of their squad over the age of 30.
However, Jaromir Jagr is back for another North American appearance and his contributions can never be discounted; if Tomas Vokun gets hot in net and a supporting cast of scorers led by Martin Havlat and Tomas Plekanec find their footing, the Czechs could be in the mix.
Slovakia, meanwhile, need everything to go right to rise above their status as the seventh-best team in the Big Seven.</p>
<p>Sweden and Finland, the Scandinavian rivals who faced off in the 2006 gold medal final in Turin - Nicklas Lidstrom's third period goal proving the winner in a 3-2 Swedish victory - headline the final group.
Belarus, who shocked Sweden in the 2002 Olympics to reach the semi-finals, and a relatively young German side complete the foursome.
As the defending champions, you would think Sweden would enter the 2010 Games under some weighty expectations, but the fact the tournament is in Canada - and that Russia are so explosive - has resulted in the Swedes being able to sneak in relatively undetected.
But make no mistake, they are again a medal favourite and perfectly capable of winning it all once again. For Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Forsberg this surely represents their final stab at international glory.</p>
<p>And with plenty of depth, Henrik Lundqvist in net and a wealth of offence in the Sedin twins, Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, a golden encore is within grasp.
The Finns, meanwhile, have quietly impressed in the past three Olympics, with the silver in 2006 and a bronze in 1998.
Like Sweden, these Games are the final foray for Finnish veterans Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. With Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Anterro Nittymaki the Finns' strength is in net.</p>
<p>Finland always seem to be able to punch above their weight and while they are not swimming in big names, any team that looks past Finland do so at their own peril.
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