As we’ve seen since NHLers began participating in the Winter Olympics in ’98, one hot goalie can make a world of difference.
Dominik Hasek stole the show en route to the Czechs capturing gold in Nagano. Finnish netminder Antero Niittymaki was named tournament MVP for the silver medal-winning Finns in 2006. Ryan Miller did much of the same in Vancouver, capturing MVP honors as the U.S. lost to Canada in the gold medal game.
So… which netminders are looking sharp heading into Sochi?
United States: Miller and Jonathan Quick
American head coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t tip his hand as to who would start in Sochi — “that’s not a question I’m ready to answer,” he told NHL.com on Friday — but Quick didn’t do himself any favors last week when he got hooked in a 4-1 loss to the Penguins.
Quick’s two games since weren’t great, either. He gave up two goals on 13 shots in a loss to Philly on the weekend, then got torched for five goals on 30 shots in a loss to Chicago two nights ago.
Miller, meanwhile, was hooked in his last outing — a 7-1 drubbing by Colorado — but had been playing well prior to that, allowing six goals over three games. He’ll have a big chance to make a mark on Bylsma tonight, as he’ll start when the Sabres host the Pens on NBCSN.
Canada: Carey Price and Roberto Luongo
Head coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet radio Price and Luongo will likely split Canada’s first two games — against Norway and Austria — but wouldn’t say which goalie would start when Canada opens against the Norwegians on Feb. 13.
Price has been rock solid lately, rebounding from a rough stretch in January when he allowed at least four goals in five straight games. He’s given up just four goals over his last four starts and posted shutouts over Calgary (27 saves) and Carolina (36 saves).
Luongo has been average over his last five, winning just once while allowing 16 goals.
Czech Republic: Ondrej Pavelec
Pavelec might be the NHL’s most improved netminder over recent weeks, as his play took a noted uptick after the coaching change from Claude Noel to Paul Maurice. Pavelec is 7-2-0 since the switch, putting up quality wins in Anaheim (stopping 40 of 42 shots) and Carolina (stopping 28 of 29). It’s a far cry from the substandard play he displayed in the early parts of the season, and that has to be a boon for the Czechs heading into Sochi.
Sweden: Henrik Lundqvist
Here’s the big one. Lundqvist’s been outstanding lately and is peaking at the right time. He’s held opponents to two or fewer goals in nine of his last 10 games — going 8-2-0 over that stretch — and stopped 27 shots against Colorado in a 5-1 win on Tuesday. Sweden boasts one of the deepest and most talented rosters at the Olympics and will be a formidable foe should Lundqvist continue this run.
Finland: Tuukka Rask
Assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen wouldn’t commit to which goalie — Rask, Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen — would start in Sochi, but it’s widely speculated the B’s netminder will get the call. Rask’s been a model of consistency all season long and, save for some sketchy goals allowed in mid-January, has been one of the NHL’s best goalies this year, boasting a 25-13-3 record with a 2.09 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Slovakia: Jaroslav Halak
Halak continues to platoon with Brian Elliott in the St. Louis goal, but he’ll be the clear-cut No. 1 for the Slovaks in Sochi. Halak’s biggest issue, as it’s been for a while, is with consistency. Check out his last 10 games:
Good overall, but some big letdown games in the mix. The Slovaks will hope that Halak can get on a crazy hot streak, much like what he did with Montreal during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Russia: The hosts have to be thrilled with their options in goal. Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky have both been great over the last month — Bobrovsky went 8-2-0 in January with a .926 save percentage, while Varlamov thrived in the face of some really high shot totals (he beat Chicago with 46 saves, Dallas with 41 and Florida with 34.)
At this point, there’s no clear-cut favorite as to who’ll start when Russia opens the tournament against Slovenia, but either option will be a quality one.
Switzerland: It stands to reason Jonas Hiller will be facing a lot of rubber in Sochi, as Switzerland was drawn into a group with the Czechs and Swedes. Thankfully for the Swiss, Hiller is enjoying a tremendous campaign in Anaheim — he was named one of the three stars for December and earned a star of the week in January. Hiller’s 24-8-4 on the year with a 2.35 GAA and .915 save percentage, but has cooled off of late by losing four of his last five starts.
The rest: Slovenia, Austria, Norway and Latvia don’t have any goalies currently playing in the NHL. The closest is Latvia’s Kristers Gudļevskis, currently playing for Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Gudlevskis is 10-8-2 for the Crunch this season, with a 2.78 GAA and .898 save percentage.