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  Quick Olympic Preview
by Michael Dell, editor-in-chief

Are you like us? Do ya... do ya got the Olympic Fever? Yes, the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, are just around the corner. While we anxiously await the results of the Biathlon, the whole ice hockey deal should be pretty cool, too. Now only if they'd let the players carry rifles...

As everyone knows by now, this year is the first time players from the NHL have been allowed to compete in the global quest for spot metals, making this tournament perhaps the greatest in the history of the planet. Except, of course, for LCS' own Happy Birthday Baby Jesus Tournament, but that should really go without saying.

While everyone is excited about the potentially great hockey, most are still sketchy on the details of the event itself. But that's why LCS is here, to help you, our valued readers. Hey, it's who we are, it's what we do.

In order to free up its stars to compete in Nagano, the NHL will shut down for 17 days during February. The last day for NHL games before the Olympic break is Saturday, February 7, with all 26 teams set to take the ice. The schedule resumes on Wednesday, February 25. In between will be all the international hockey high jinks.

There are 14 countries taking part in the competition. However, the details of who plays who can get kind of confusing, so pay attention.

The competition begins with a preliminary round running from February 7-12. Eight countries will compete in the preliminary round. These countries aren't exactly hockey powerhouses, but they do all have sticks and matching uniforms so the Olympic committee said, "What the hell?" They've been divided into two groups of four:



Each team will play three games in a round-robin format with all the other teams in its group. Then the leaders of each group will advance to the second round while the remaining six teams go home with lovely parting gifts. It's the usual point system, two for a win and one for a tie. There are no shootouts in the round-robin stages of the tournament. If two teams finish tied for the top spot in points, the first tie-breaker is their head- to-head result. The second is goal differential. If the clubs remain tied, then the situation will be decided with a rollicking game of "Chutes and Ladders".

The two teams that advance from the preliminary round are lucky enough to move on to the second round where they will compete with the big boys: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The teams are once again divided into two groups of four:

United States
Group A winner from preliminary round

Czech Republic
Group B winner from preliminary round

The second round gets underway February 13 and runs through February 16. The second verse is the same as the first. Each group plays a three-game round-robin to decide the seeding for the quarterfinal round.

The quarterfinal round is when stuff gets serious. It's single elimination. The quarterfinal matchups are determined by how the teams finished in their respective groups. All the games will take place on February 18. The first place team in Group A (A1) will play the last place team in Group B (B4). The first place team in Group B will play the last place team in Group A. The second place team in Group A will play the third place team in Group B. And the second place team in Group B will play the third place team in Group A.

The four teams that survive the quarterfinal will advance to the semifinals on February 20. The winner of the A1 vs B4 game will play the winner of the B2 vs A3 game. And the winner of the B1 vs A4 game will play the winner of the A2 vs B3 game. See how that works? A similar system was used on "Hee Haw" for the weekly hoe-downs.

The two semifinal losers will play for the Bronze medal on February 21. The two winners will compete for the Gold on February 22.

Because of the time difference involved, all the games are going to be played while most of North America is sleeping. The majority of games get underway between midnight and 6 AM EST. So if you want to follow the games live, take a nap.

And because the games are played under International Ice Hockey Federation rules, there are some noticeable differences from the usual NHL fare. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most important changes:

* The two rinks where all the games will be played are called Big Hat and Aqua Wing. Wasn't that a superhero team in the mid 70s? Anyway, both rinks are 13-and-a-half feet wider than the standard NHL pond. So that means more room to wheel.

* There are also two more feet from the goal line to the backboards. Which means there's more room to orchestrate plays behind the cage. That should make Wayne Gretzky all giddy.

* Icings get whistled as soon as the puck crosses the goal line. No touch-up is required.

* If a player is seen to be in the crease, the ref could blow the whistle and call for a faceoff at neutral ice. The puck could be over in the corner somewhere, but if a guy gets in the crease a whistle could be blown.

* Fighting isn't really appreciated by the international crowd. Two majors earns a guy an automatic game misconduct. And if a player is deemed to have instigated the fight, he receives a match penalty. That means he is removed from the current game and is automatically suspended from the next contest, as well.

* During the semifinals and medal rounds, if a game ends in a tie the two teams will take a 15-minute intermission and then skate a 10-minute overtime session. Except in the gold medal game, where the two clubs would skate a 20-minute overtime period. If the game still isn't decided at the end of overtime, then it goes to a shootout. Each team chooses five shooters and the clubs alternate penalty shots, with the order decided by a coin flip, until one team builds an insurmountable lead. If things aren't decided after the first five shooters, the clubs select another five each. But this time it's sudden death and only lasts until a decisive goal is scored. If a player is in the penalty box at the end of overtime he is not eligible to take part in the shootout.

So that's the schedule and the rules for the big Olympic tournament. Earlier in the issue we already said that Team Sweden will skate away with the Gold medal. But how will the rest of the team's do? Well, let's take a gander, starting with the eight clubs in the preliminary round.

Austria: Thanks for coming. Have a safe trip home.

Belarus: Um, I have no idea where Belarus is. It sounds kind of made up if you ask me. It would be just like those wacky Olympic committee folk to invent a country. Those guys are nutty...

France: The red-and-white striped jerseys, black pants, and black berets make for an eye-pleasing uniform, but France doesn't have much of a chance in the tournament.

Germany: With Olaf "The Berserker" Kolzig in net, Sergeant Schultz on defense, and Colonel Klink in the middle, the Germans should emerge from Group B and advance to the second round. Kolzig played out of his skull at the World Cup. He'll need a similar effort this time around. Here comes Olaf, he's a berserker...

Italy: It'll be tough for the Italians to get out of Group A. Unless they make Slovakia a deal they can't refuse, the Italians will be goin' home early.

Japan: Do you really have to ask?

Kazakhstan: Okay, now I know this one's made up! Kazakhstan... that's a good one.

Slovakia: The Slovaks are clearly the team to beat in Group A. Their offense is stacked with the likes of Peter Bondra, Ziggy Palffy, Jozef Stumpel, Richard Zednik, Pavol Demitra, and the Prince of Darkness himself, Miroslav Satan. The great Robert Svehla is also around to anchor the blue line. The only problem for the Slovaks is that the preliminary round starts on February 7, and all those guys will still have one game left on their NHL schedule. So if the NHL clubs don't cooperate and let the stars leave early, Slovakia could be in trouble until the reinforcements arrive.

Slovakia and Germany should leave the pups on the porch behind and meet the big dogs in the second round. Here's a look at the tournament powers.

Canada: With the memory of the US World Cup victory still turning stomachs, the Canadians will be mission men. Whether they have the players to get the mission accomplished is still open to debate. The Americans were clearly the better team at the World Cup. That forced Canada GM Bobby Clarke to make some changes in his lineup. He tried to build a better overall team, adding a grinder like Shayne Corson, a solid two-way center in Joe Nieuwendyk, and a defensive role player in Rob Zamuner. The forward ranks have a pretty good mix of talent, size, and role players, but the Canadians don't really have that much speed. That could be trouble on the big international rinks. And if Eric Lindros, Joe Sakic, and Paul Kariya fail to deliver the big goals, there could be some problems. While the offense is a bit questionable, Canada is rock solid on defense with Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens, Adam Foote, and Chris Pronger leading the way. The one man that could have Canada challenging Sweden for the Gold, though, is Patrick Roy. Never bet against St. Patrick in big games.

Czech Republic: The Czechs are the wild card of the tournament. They don't have a team strong enough to compete for Gold, but they do have Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek. If those two get hot, the Czechs could pull off a major upset along the way.

Finland: Team Vowel is always a force. They play exceptional two-way hockey and they always skate as a cohesive unit. Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu will power the offense, while Jyrki Lumme, Teppo Numminen, and Janne Niinimaa will pace the defense. Finland's only real weakness is in net. Unfortunately, you can't be weak in net and win a medal. Looks like it'll be another fourth place finish for the Finns.

Russia: The Russian hockey federation is still a mess. You know it's bad when guys are turning down invitations to play. The club is coming off an incredibly disorganized performance at the World Cup and there's not much hope they'll be able to right the ship. The roster is void of stars such as Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny, Vladimir Malakhov, and Nikolai Khabibulin, who all declined to play. It doesn't look good for the Russians. With some luck, they might be able to supplant Finland for fourth place.

Sweden: Peter Forsberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tommy Soderstrom... Gold medal.

United States: The USA has it all. The Americans will once again be led on offense by the baddest of the bad, big John LeClair. He'll be joined by a superstar supporting cast that includes Brett Hull, Pat LaFontaine, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, and Doug Weight. The blue line will be secured by Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, and the Hatcher boys. USA's biggest worries could be in goal, where Mike Richter, John Vanbiesbrouck, and Guy Hebert have struggled for most of the season. Failing to select Tom Barrasso could come back to haunt the Americans.

Overall, the US has the most talented group of forwards. Canada has the deepest defense and the living legend, Patrick Roy, in net. But neither one has real wizard yellow jerseys. Sweden will win the Gold, leaving the US and Canada to fight it out for Silver and Bronze.

LCS will have more in-depth looks at the teams in our next issue, due out Tuesday, February 10. But it won't matter, we'll still pick Sweden. Yee-haw! Sweden! Yee-haw!

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