Faulk, Hurricanes teammates searching for gold in Sochi

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 9, 2014 

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk has heard all the preliminary horror stories about Sochi: surveillance cameras in hotel bathrooms, stray dogs, manholes with no covers, stuck elevators, dual toilets.

There's also a much more menacing threat -- concerns about potential terrorism at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

But Faulk headed to Russia on Sunday for his first Olympics with just one thing in mind, playing good hockey and winning an Olympic gold medal for the U.S.

Team USA begins preliminary-round play Thursday against Slovakia. For Faulk, that will mean looking across the ice and see his Hurricanes teammate, defenseman Andrej Sekera, as a Slovak opponent.

The two have been defensive partners all season for the Canes. For a few weeks in Sochi, they will play for their countries on a bigger stage.

"I have buddies in the NHL I play against but this will be different," Faulk said. "The stakes are higher."

Faulk, at 21 the youngest player on Team USA, smiled Friday when asked if the two had been chirping about the game.

"Not too much," Faulk said. "But if he sits next to me on the flight over, I'll probably have to hear it the whole flight."

Four years ago, the Winter Olympics were in Vancouver and the pressure enormous on the Canadians to win the gold medal. They did, barely, topping the U.S. in an overtime thriller on Sidney Crosby's goal.

Many believe the pressure shifts to the Russians in Sochi, in their homeland. But Crosby doesn't buy it.

"I think the pressure is always going to be there, wherever we play," the Pittsburgh Penguins star said. "I don't know if you necessarily will feel it quite the same when you're not in your home country. It was there every day in Vancouver. When you're in Russia it's a little different. But if anything teams will want to beat us even more since we did win in 2010."

Alexander Semin of the Canes again will be playing for Russia and Tuomo Ruutu for Finland. Both forwards were in Vancouver in 2010, Ruutu leaving with a bronze medal.

The U.S. has not medaled in men's hockey in an Olympics held outside North America since 1972 and was a disappointing eighth in 2006 when the Games were held in Turin, Italy. Canes defenseman John-Michael Liles was on Team USA -- guided by then-Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette -- in 2006 and said the larger ice surface of the Olympic rink was a problem, as was getting adjusted to the six-hour time difference.

"For me, the time change and jet lag was the biggest thing," Liles said.

Another problem, he said, proved to be Finland, which topped the U.S. 4-3 in the quarterfinals and ended the American hopes of a medal.

"It was a good Finnish team and they took it to us pretty good," Liles said.

That's the nature of the Olympic medal round. It can be one-and-done. Run into a hot goaltender or hot team and it can be over quickly.

"I think there are a lot of favorites," Ruutu said. "Russia, Sweden, Canada. The U.S. will have a good team. I think teamwork will be the strength of our (Finnish) team. But in any tournament like the Olympics, where one game can decide it, you never know."

Ruutu said he will not dwell on the security issues, trusting that a Russian security force of more 40,000 will keep things safe in Sochi.

"I look at it as I had one decision to make: to go or not to go. I decided to go," he said. "I will try to let the other people worry about the security concerns. They're the professionals. That's the way I look at it."

It has been four years. It's almost time to drop the puck again. The Olympic gold medal will be decided Feb. 23.

Crosby said that in the days and weeks after Vancouver, he almost had to pinch himself. Did he really score the "Golden Goal" to win it all for Canada, in overtime? Even for someone who has known little but success in his sport, Crosby said it can be a bit overwhelming.

"It's pretty cool to be a part of that and have that moment," he said. "I think every Canadian kid dreams of having that opportunity. But for the last little while I've been thinking about Russia and trying to do our best there."

They all will try to do that but only one team wins. Here's a look at the top five favorites in Sochi:

United States

When Zach Parise scored late in regulation to tie the score in the gold-medal game against Canada in Vancouver, the Americans were convinced they would win in overtime.

"We felt like the ice was tilted in our direction and we had a lot of good momentum," Parise said. "Unfortunately we all know what happened."

Crosby's goal won it for Canada and Team USA had to settle for silver. But the U.S. made its mark in Vancouver.

"Obviously the U.S. team is not going to sneak up on anyone this time around," said defenseman Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a member of the 2010 team. "But the U.S. should have as good chance as anyone and will go into it expecting to win the gold medal. That's the bar now that's been set."

Parise, of the Minnesota Wild, is the U.S. captain and there's offensive firepower with Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Phil Kessel of Toronto and others. The goaltending should be solid with Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, Ryan Miller of Buffalo and Jimmy Howard of Detroit.

There are questions about the strength at center. There also are some young faces on the back end -- Faulk, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues.

"I think we'll be a hard-working team with great goaltending," Parise said. "That's going to be our strength -- goaltending, and just being a tough team to play against."

Canada

Just look at the names on the roster: Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Corey Perry … it's like an NHL All-Star team.

There will be no team in Sochi that can match the talent level of the Canadians, even without the injured Steven Stamkos. The question for Team Canada is whether the goaltending can hold up.

Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks held up in net in 2010, and Carey Price and Mike Smith make for a nice-looking threesome of goalies. But Olympic pressure is like no other.

Hurricanes captain Eric Staal played for Canada in 2010, returning with a gold medal. He wasn't chosen this time, but believes Canada is the team to beat in Sochi.

"They're definitely favored," he said. "In a short tournament like that, you've got to come together at the right time and you've got to play a team game. If (the Canadians) do that, they have enough skill and talent to get the job done."

Russia

Gold, or else. That pretty much sums it up for Team Russia.

Spend $50 billion to hold a Winter Olympics and the home country is expecting golden results. And probably no more so than in men's hockey.

Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, the NHL's goal leading scorer, has been pointing to Sochi for four years. When the NHL at first balked about allowing its players to continue competing in the Olympics, Ovechkin said he would be going, with or without permission.

The Russians fell flat in Vancouver, losing 7-3 to Canada in the quarterfinals. But with Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyk, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and others from both the NHL and KHL, with the home-ice fan support and under the gaze of president Vladimir Putin, they could be hard to beat in Sochi.

Finland

It didn't help that Finland had to make last-minute replacements for Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild) and Valterri Filppula (Tampa Bay) because of injuries.

But there's much to like about the Finnish team, and not just that ageless Teemu Selanne is making his sixth Olympic appearance. Goalie Tuukka Rask (Boston) has won a Stanley Cup and can steal games. There's good depth at forward and the defensive corps has a nice blend of experience and youth.

The Canes' Ruutu competed for Finland in 2010 and will be joined in Sochi by a former Canes teammate, forward Jussi Jokinen.

The Finns were bounced from the Vancouver Games by Team USA, losing 6-1 in the semifinals, but topped Slovakia to take the bronze medal.

Sweden

The Swedes will have Henrik Lundqvist in goal. That's a good start toward gold.

The New York Rangers goalie loves the limelight and should be able to handle the pressure. Around him will be such NHL standouts as Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa), Alex Steen (St. Louis), Nicklas Backstrom (Washington) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix).

Sweden, the Olympic champion in 2006, expected to have the Sedin twins -- Henrik and Daniel -- in the lineup in Sochi. But Henrik, the captain of the Vancouver Canucks, had to pull out because of a rib injury.

Sweden was upset by Slovakia in the quarterfinals in 2010. That stung. It won't be a surprise if the Swedes are playing for gold this time.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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