Tomorrow, Hockey Canada will unveil their 2014 Winter Olympic squad and Pittsburgh Penguins fans are drenched in a sweat that reeks of anticipation and dread over whether or not Chris Kunitz and/or James Neal make the cut. Each are tearing the NHL apart this year with staggering offensive numbers. Each are putting on top-shelf performances nearly every game. Each are helping the Pens win with more than just goals. But despite all this, each are not locks to make the Canadian team.
You can blame that on tradition. Hockey Canada has a archaic approach to selecting their Olympic teams and it's cost them in the past. Remember the 2006 Winter Games? Canada relied on the success of their 2002 Gold-medal winning team and brought back almost the exact roster. The game changed in those fours, becoming faster and those Canucks just got slower. Team Canada was offensively challenged and finished the Turin Games in seventh place. That's right, seventh place. The birth place of hockey was embarrassed and the decision not to go with younger players was the main culprit. History buffs may remember a rookie Sidney Crosby being notably left out . . .
But Hockey Canada learned their lesson in time for the 2010 games and trends being what they are, that squad will probably return in 2014. That is cause for concern for Kunitz and Neal. Guys from that Gold-medal winning 2010 team who are having less productive years have a very good chance of beating out the Pittsburgh duo. Think of Eric Staal or Rick Nash or Mike Richards. One's hurt, one's underachieving like it's what the cool kids are doing, and one's not what he was two years ago. Heck, even Dany Heatley (more like the shadow on the ice that is pretending to be Dany Heatley) has good odds of making the team. If Canada wants to win back-to-back Gold Medals, they need to take chances. They need to bring Kunitz and Neal to Sochi.
The reality, however, is that only one of these guys is making the team. If you're placing bets, the smart money's on Chris Kunitz. It's not because of his twenty-two goals or twenty-four assists or plus-22 rating. It's not because he goes to the dirty areas like a fly to a open trash can or his ability to play gritty and hit heavy. If (and that's a sizeable if) Chris Kunitz makes the team, it will be based on his chemistry with Captain Canada, Sidney Crosby. Words can do it zero justice so just watch this and know that Hockey Canada officials have to crave that on Olympic ice.
Sadly, the pool of players Canada has to choose from will spell doom for James Neal. The Real Deal has been real dangerous this season, tallying thirty-four points (16 goals, 18 assists) in twenty-four games. Crazy good, but possibly not good enough. His sniping wrist-shot is quickly being regarded as one of the best in the NHL (ask Al Montoya) and his passing is underrated. But there are just too many names in that hat. It'll be great if he does make the roster, but not surprising if he doesn't. Well, to Penguins fans it will be at least.
Kunitz and Neal learn their fates tomorrow in Vancouver. Penguins fans can be assured that Sid makes the team.
- Chris Kunitz Making Serious Case for Top Tier Status
- To James Neal – from the Pittsburgh Penguins Power Play
- Beau Bennett Skates as His Return to the Pittsburgh Penguins Nears, James Neal Also Takes the Ice
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