- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The oldest men’s hockey team in the 2006 Winter Olympic Games will be the United States, and age is just one of the questions surrounding this club.

The best U.S. goaltender, Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, will not be in Turin. He was injured when the team was selected, but is healthy now. Rick DiPietro (Islanders), Robert Esche (Flyers) and John Grahame (Lightning) were picked instead.

What about forward Keith Tkachuk of St. Louis? He was selected despite being injured at the time, still is hurt and probably won’t be able to play. Team USA has provided ammunition for its critics before the first puck is dropped.

How about the schedule? Players like 44-year old defenseman Chris Chelios will have to play five grueling preliminary round games in a seven-day span with the eight surviving teams making it to the single-elimination medal round. A quarterfinal match would make it six games in eight days.

What are the chances for Team USA, with an average age of more than 31, to come home with a medal? Pretty slim with mediocre goaltending, an aging defense (five of the seven blueliners are 33 or older) and a fair but not overwhelming offense. Worse, perhaps, international rules apply, which means there are larger rinks to go with anti-obstruction enforcement that only started this season in the “new” NHL.

The biggest plus for the Americans might be their coach, Peter Laviolette , the leader of a surprising Carolina team that tops the NHL with 76 points. The amazing job Laviolette has done with the Hurricanes is just one of the many with which he is credited. Laviolette led the previously inept Islanders to the playoffs in both of his seasons on Long Island (they missed the postseason seven straight years before his arrival) and won a Calder Cup in the AHL with Providence.

But he may not have enough magic for a miracle in Italy.

“There won’t be one easy game,” he said during a conference call. “It’s not like Game 57 in the NHL. The focal point has got to be every single game. You can’t take anybody lightly.”

Laviolette, who played for the United States in 1988 and captained the 1994 squad, has learned that even the favorites cannot look past teams in international tournaments.

If the United States can play an NHL-type game — taking the body at every opportunity, grinding other teams into submission — it is possible the Americans could surprise. Qualifying for the quarterfinals is likely, but a medal is a longshot.

The Americans have the potential for two good scoring lines with emerging young star Brian Gionta of New Jersey joining a veteran cast that includes Mike Modano of Dallas and Laviolette’s newest Hurricane, Doug Weight. Where the United States team appears to be weak is in the support troops who will be in charge of checking duties against the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin.

Defensively, there’s enough scar tissue on those knees to be a major concern. The old guard (Chelios and Philadelphia’s Derian Hatcher) will need a lot of help from the team’s second- and third-youngest players, Calgary’s Jordan Leopold and Colorado’s John-Michael Liles.

There appear to be three favorites for the gold: The Czech Republic, with either Dominik Hasek or Tomas Vokoun in net and Jagr leading the way; Canada, with enough depth for two contending teams; and Russia, although its chances dimmed somewhat when goalie Nikolai Khabibulin went down with an injury. The Russians will likely rely on San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov in net.

The Finns weren’t far behind the top three, but goalies Mikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen have decided against playing. Esche’s partner in Philadelphia, Antero Niittymaki , will get the call in their place. Slovakia has plenty of offensive firepower but no goaltending (Colorado backup Peter Budaj and two non-NHL players). Sweden could ride the Rangers’ rookie sensation, Henrik Lundqvist, to a medal.

There will be three Capitals’ players in Turin. Olie Kolzig will try to carry Germany to a quarterfinal berth, Ovechkin skates for Russia and defenseman Ivan Majesky will play for Slovakia.

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