Three Washington Capitals named to Olympic team, while others await

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; D02

Everywhere Mike Green looked during the Washington Capitals' recent three-day visit to Vancouver, the high-scoring defenseman was reminded of the question that's consumed him since summer: Will he, or won't he, make Team Canada's final cut?

The five Olympic rings and the words "Vancouver 2010" adorned everything from billboards to taxicabs. Every other story on sports television, it seemed, focused on the approaching Games. Each morning after practice, a gaggle of reporters gathered around Green's locker room stall at GM Place to capture his thoughts on the matter.

"It would be pretty cool," he said. "Because the atmosphere is so crazy. The whole vibe -- the city was already buzzing for the Olympics."

Whether Green will experience that buzz in February, though, is uncertain. Hockey Canada is scheduled to announce its 23-man roster Wednesday morning, and Green remains a controversial candidate because of the style of game he plays.

If Green makes the cut, he'll join a handful of his Washington teammates in the Olympic Village. If he doesn't, it will be another near miss in a young career already marked by a pair of high-profile snubs. In January, Green did not receive an invitation to the All-Star Game in Montreal, despite posting 26 points in 28 games. In June, he finished second in Norris Trophy voting for the league's top defenseman, narrowly losing out to Boston's Zdeno Chara, a three-time finalist.

"I'll be nervous, obviously," said Green, who'll be in San Jose with the Capitals when the announcement is made on live television in Canada. "You get kind of excited for that day, but you don't want to get too excited."

After a brief pause to collect his thoughts and take a sip of his sports drink, Green added, "But this is a little bit bigger than an All-Star Game or an award."

While Green is sweating it out, many of his Capitals teammates figure to be at ease in the coming hours and days as the International Ice Hockey Federation unveils the provisional rosters for the 12 nations that will compete for Olympic gold beginning in 49 days.

On Friday, the IIHF announced that Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Semyon Varlamov will represent Russia in Vancouver. It comes as no surprise that Ovechkin, the NHL's two-time MVP, a 2006 Olympian and potential team captain, and Semin made the cut. Varlamov's selection as the third goalie behind veterans Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov, however, was somewhat unexpected. But the 21-year-old rookie's strong play coupled with the fact he might be his country's starter in 2014 likely loomed large in Russia's decision.

Now the question is how many more Capitals will join their Russian comrades.

Nicklas Backstrom, who is tied for seventh in scoring with 42 points, is expected to be named Sunday to Team Sweden; Milan Jurcina, a 2006 Olympian, should be on Slovakia's roster again when it's announced Tuesday; and Tomas Fleischmann, who is tied for second among his countrymen in goals with 14 despite missing 11 games with a blood clot, is expected to be among the Czechs chosen Wednesday.

"I can tell you, I won't be finishing any checks on Ovie," Backstrom said with a sly smile. "It's going to be a little bit weird [facing off against his NHL teammates], maybe. We're going to fight against each other on the ice. But that's something about hockey: We'll still be friends after."

With as many as seven Capitals representing their respective nations, Coach Bruce Boudreau, a Canadian, said he's going to have torn allegiances.

But as the days until Canada's highly anticipated announcement tick off the calendar, Boudreau, like everyone else in the Washington organization, is waiting anxiously, wondering whether Green, his prized pupil, has done enough in the season's first three months to convince Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman that he belongs in Vancouver, too.

Yzerman was spotted talking to Green after the Capitals played in Detroit on Oct. 10, and according to Green, he told the fourth-year Calgary native that the Team Canada brain trust wanted to see more balance in his game.

Since their chat in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena, Yzerman has dropped in multiple times to evaluate Green, who, on some nights -- but not all -- has been the best defenseman on the ice. His plus-minus rating of plus-14 ranks second among Canadian blue-liners.

Green, who is also the ice-time leader on a Capitals team one point out of first place in the league, would be a lock to make each of the other 11 Olympic teams. Canada, though, has the deepest pool of prospective players -- and the greatest pressure to pick the winning combination. Nothing, after all, will be of greater importance from Victoria to Halifax for two weeks in February. Each puck battle will be analyzed by the media and every turnover will be scrutinized by fans as Canada goes for gold, on home ice, in its most popular pastime.

"It's not easy for the Canadian team," Boudreau said. "They could put two real good teams together. I'm holding my breath and crossing my toes, hoping that he makes it."

Green said he fears his reputation rather than the current state of his game might hurt his chances.

"I feel like in Canada that they still have this reputation of me being just an offensive player," he said. "They don't see me. When I was younger I was very aggressive offensively. But my game has developed a lot more toward an all-around game. But I still have a reputation of being just an offensive defenseman."

What cannot be debated is this: Green possesses the type of sublime skill that can ignite a team and energize an arena. That could be critical if Canada's offense slumps as it did four years ago in Turin.

"There's not too many players who can make a pass all the way from the goal line to the red line on the tape, you know?" Boudreau said. "It's an important [option] to have."

Green has been scoring less frequently this season, but he's still racking up points while quarterbacking the NHL's second-rated power play. His 28 assists and 35 points are tops among defensemen and have him on pace for 78 points, which would be five more than his league-leading total from last season.

With two games remaining before the team is announced, Green hopes he's done enough. But as previous disappointments have taught him, he's taking nothing for granted.

"This year I've really concentrated on [defense] and done what they've asked of me," he said. "All I can do now is hope and wait."

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