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NHL San Jose Sharks

San Jose Sharks Olympians to Play Prominent Roles

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks will have four players competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi this month. Veteran forward Patrick Marleau will suit up for Team Canada alongside defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, while Joe Pavelski will represent the United States. Antti Niemi will play for Finland, likely as the No. 2 goaltender behind Tuukka Rask.

With teams holding their first practices on Monday, reporters were given the chance to see what the line combos looked like for each country. Lineups tend to change from game to game so nothing is set in stone, but early indications are that San Jose’s Olympians will be playing key roles for their respective teams in Sochi.

Let’s start with Canada. Always among the top hockey squads at the Winter Olympics, Team Canada has the best roster in the tournament by far this year. In the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Marleau was joined by Joe Thornton and former teammate Dany Heatley on Canada’s star-studded roster. The three forwards formed an all-Sharks line and played together for the duration of the tournament.

This year, Marleau has been assigned to a line with Anaheim Ducks superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. They’re bitter rivals in the NHL, but Marleau’s incredible speed and two-way play make him a fantastic linemate for the Southern California duo. With Getzlaf’s play-making skills and Perry’s nose for the net, that’s a line that can be a game-breaker for Team Canada.

Meanwhile, Vlasic will be competing in his first ever Winter Olympics. The 26-year-old rearguard was an under-the-radar addition to the Canadian roster and was initially expected to play in a depth role, if at all. Now, however, Vlasic is partnered with Los Angeles Kings standout Drew Doughty on the squad’s second defense pair. It’s another terrific match, as Vlasic’s positioning and sound defensive play complement Doughty’s speed and offensive abilities.

For Team USA, Pavelski will be relied on heavily to produce offense. The forward played in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as well, albeit in a limited bottom-six role. He has since blossomed into a remarkable two-way forward who can play either center or wing, making him a highly versatile player.

Pavelski skated on the top line at practice on Monday alongside Toronto Maple Leafs wingers Phil Kessel and James vanRiemsdyk, forming a trio with tremendous offensive potential. Kessel is one of the league’s top goal-scorers, while vanRiemsdyk brings size, speed and strong possession skills. Pavelski’s cerebral play, elite hockey IQ and defensive acumen rounds out the line nicely. The Wisconsin native will likely be a key component of the team’s penalty kill, as well.

Finally, there’s Niemi, the 30-year-old goalie who won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks during his first full season in the league. He signed with the Sharks as a free agent the following summer and is now set to represent Finland at the Olympics for the first time in his career. He won’t be the starter, as that role will be filled by Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, who leads the league in shutouts with five. Still, he’ll slot in as Finland’s backup netminder and may see some ice time during preliminaries. Should Rask fall to injury, Niemi will be next in line.

The men’s tournament gets underway on Wednesday. The medal games will begin on Saturday, Feb. 22.

Sam Kelly is a San Jose Sharks columnist for RantSports. Follow him on Twitter and add him to your Google network.