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What you need to know about Winter Olympics' hockey tournament

The 2010 Winter Olympics men's ice hockey competition opens its 30-game schedule Tuesday, and the gold medal match Feb. 28 will be the final event of the Vancouver Games.

As a result, the NHL will close shop from Monday until Feb. 28 and send its top players to the Olympics for the fourth straight time.

So these Olympics will be more than Sidney Crosby leading Canada, and his rival, Alex Ovechkin, powering the Russians.

Here's what you need to know about the 12-country tournament, from the players to the teams to the rules:

MEDAL FAVORITES

Canada: An overwhelming favorite to repeat its 2002 gold-medal performance, Martin Brodeur, Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley et al. have home-ice advantage, but the pressure of satisfying a hockey-crazed nation.

Russia: Looking for its first gold since 1992, Russia is stacked up front with Alex Ovechkin, the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin, but are suspect defensively.

Sweden: The defending gold medalists return 13 players and have strength up front (Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg), on defense (Johnny Oduya) and in net (the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist).Medal possibilities

Czech Republic: The Czechs, who won the Gold the first time NHL players competed in Nagano in 1998, earned the bronze in 2006, and captain Patrik Elias of the Devils and ex-Ranger Jaromir Jagr lead an older but offensively stacked squad.

Finland: Fifteen players return from a squad that earned the silver in 2006, along with newcomer goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who missed 2006 to rest his hip and did not want to serve as the backup in 2002.

United States: Veteran stalwarts such as Mike Modano and Bill Guerin were omitted, but new leadership provided by the Devils' Jamie Langenbrunner, scoring from the Devils' Zach Parise and strength in net with Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas could be a good combination.

FAMILIAR FACES

Sergei Fedorov: Fedorov, 40, concluded his 18-season NHL career with 11 goals and 22 assists for the Capitals in 2008-09, then returned to Russia to play for Metallurg of the KHL.

Peter Forsberg: The injury-plagued Forsberg, who has not played in the NHL since a nine-game stint with the Avalanche in 2007-08, decided to resume his career while playing for free to help revive his hometown club, Modo Ornskoldsvik.

Jaromir Jagr: No. 68 left the Rangers to play in Russia for Omsk Avangard of the KHL before the 2008-09 season. There are rumors Jagr, who turns 38 Monday, will resurface in the NHL next season.

RULES TO KNOW

Smaller rink: This marks the first Olympics to be played on an NHL-size rink (200 feet by 85 feet) instead of the usual international dimensions (200 feet by 98 1/2 feet).

Four officials: For the first time, Olympic games will feature two referees to go with two linesmen — the NHL began using the extra referee in 1998-99.

No trapezoid: Goalies have no restrictions on going into the corners to play the puck, unlike in the NHL where they can only touch it in the trapezoid behind their net.

TOP THREE GOALIES

1. Martin Brodeur, Canada: The only goaltender in the tournament with an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup ring.

2. Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden: Hero of 2006 figures to get more offensive support than he's received from the Rangers.

3. Ryan Miller, USA: Sabres' goaltender will have to steal some games for the Americans to get on the medal podium for only the second time since 1980.

TOP THREE FORWARDS

1. Alex Ovechkin, Russia: Two-time reigning Hart Trophy winner will lead a Russian squad that is loaded up front.

2. Sidney Crosby, Canada: Left off the 2006 team because he was too young, Sid the Kid is having his best NHL season as a goal-scorer.

3. Henrik Sedin, Sweden: NHL MVP candidate will be at home in Vancouver playing alongside his twin brother, Daniel.

TOP THREE DEFENSEMEN

1. Duncan Keith, Canada: Produces points and can play against the opposition's top line.

2. Zdeno Chara, Slovakia: Reigning Norris Trophy winner has been hampered by a dislocated pinkie, but will have to be the anchor on a team that is thin on the blue line.

3. Nicklas Lidstrom, Sweden: Although he's not the player he once was, the six-time Norris winner still is among the best.

PRELIMINARY-ROUND GAMES TO WATCH

1. Czech Republic vs. Slovakia, Feb. 17 (midnight EST): Border battle in the Olympic opener for both countries.

2. USA vs. Canada, Feb. 21 (7:40 p.m.): Preliminary-round finale for both teams likely will determine which will get a bye to quarterfinals.

3. Sweden vs. Finland, Feb. 21 (midnight): Bitter rivals meet in rematch of the 2006 gold-medal game.

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