Olympic Hockey Predictions: Norway Needs Big Games From Zuccarello

olypmic hockey predictions
Jan 4 2014 Toronto Ontario CAN New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello 36 shoots the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre New York defeated Toronto 7 1 John E Sokolowski USA TODAY Sports

The team from Norway will make its second straight appearance at the hockey portion of the Winter Olympics after not making the final tournament from 1998-2006. In Vancouver, the Norwegians managed to take the favored Swiss team to overtime in those games, even though they lost to the USA and Canada by a combined score of 14-1.

The road for Norway in Sochi is going to be a difficult one. Their team finds themselves in the same group as Canada, Finland and an upstart Austrian team that could surprise some people. If Norway hopes to upset some of the bigger teams, particularly in the qualification stage, they’re going to need help from their stars.

Goaltending

Lars Haugen has been the man in net for Norway for a few years now at the World Championships. Haugen, who played at the World Juniors back in 2006 and has been with Dinamo Minsk of the KHL for three years now, was in net for the games at the 2012 Worlds where they only lost 3-1 to Sweden, 4-2 to the Russians and forced the Czech Republic to a shootout (which they would eventually lose). Haugen was expected to get the starts for Norway but he suffered a lower-body injury in a KHL game in the second week of December and hasn’t returned to action since.

Should Haugen not be able to go, or should he reinjure himself while in Sochi, then the starts will probably fall into the lap of Lars Volden, a 21-year-old draft pick of the Boston Bruins.

I won’t sit here and pretend  I’ve watched a lot of Lars Volden’s career (or any). But after a few YouTube videos like this one, one thing becomes apparent:

The one thing that becomes apparent is that he has great awareness for a goaltender. Most goalies – including some NHL ones – would keep sliding as the puck was going into the net. He had the sense to kick his left pad out to keep the puck from going in. Sure, he was a little lucky to keep the puck out. As the cliché goes, though, you have to be good to be lucky.

Volden has put up solid numbers in limited action in the Finnish SM-Liiga over the last couple years, but don’t be surprised if he gets some games in Sochi.

Defensemen

The name you’ll recognize most on the defense corps for the Norwegian side is Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.

Known more for his fists than his passing, Tollefsen played nearly 150 games in the NHL yet managed just 12 points. He did manage nearly 300 penalty minutes, though.

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Not much has changed for Tollefsen since going back overseas to play professional hockey as he’s managed just 28 points in 177 games between MODO and Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League (now the Swedish Hockey League). He does, however, have 343 penalty minutes in those 177 games. He’s pretty consistent about having nearly two minutes in penalties every game.

Tollefsen is the kind of defenseman who has to make other teams scared, but do it the right way. He’s not a big defenseman at 6-foot-2 and about 210 lbs, but he’s aggressive and can strike fear into players coming down his side. If he gets over-zealous in his pursuits, he’ll end up in the penalty box and he’s not helping his team from there. I’ll direct your eyes to this video, full of him drilling players as they take outlet passes, and then fighting anyone that would try to defend their teammates. When he plays with an edge like this, players are a little wary of picking up those suicide passes.

A team like Norway needs to create advantages at the fringes to try and beat the better teams. If Tollefsen can make some of the more skilled players think twice about trying to reach for a pass across the middle, he can change the game incrementally at a time. Or he can spend the whole game in the penalty box.

Forwards

The offense will start and end with two players, Patrick Thoresen and Mats Zuccarello.

Thoresen should be familiar to most hockey fans as he was a member of the Edmonton Oilers, and briefly the Philadelphia Flyers, from 2006-2008. It’s not as if Thoresen was a bad hockey player by any stretch, but sometimes players are too good for the AHL (which he was) but not good enough for the NHL (which he was not). This is the group that Thoresen fell in.

Despite not succeeding at the NHL level, Thoresen certainly has in the KHL playing for SKA St. Petersburg the last few years. Over his last 124 games for them, Thoresen has managed 113 points.

Zuccarello is a player who took some time to bloom, but he’s finally hitting his stride in the NHL. Zuccarello only managed 34 points in his first 67 games over parts of three NHL seasons, but now at 26-years-old, Zuccarello has managed 30 points in 42 games so far this year. He was a point-producer for MODO in the SEL as a young 20-something, he was a point producer in the AHL when he got signed by the Rangers and he’s a point producer now in the NHL.

If Norway hopes to stay in games against the bigger nations, and they have the depth to stay in games, it will be the game-breaking speed and offensive prowess of Zuccarello that will put them over the top. Teams don’t succeed in these tournaments without their best players playing their best, and that’s what they need for Zuccarello.

Between Haugen/Volden, Tollefsen, and Thoresen/Zuccarello, there is enough star power here to strike fear into their opponents. This wasn’t a team that had to qualify for the Olympics; they had accumulated enough points through their success at recent World Championships. The Norwegians beat the Latvians at the 2012 World Championships and the Slovenians at the 2013 World Championships, so this is far from the worst team at the tournament. Any nation that looks at them as a stepping stone could quickly find themselves losing to a team they wouldn’t have expected to.

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