Article written by Ryan Hale - Community Contributor
Team USA Hockey Preview: Is Gold in Sight?
With the 2014 games upon us in Sochi, Russia the hockey community turns its attention to what is one of the more prestigious international tournaments. One that outside of maybe the World Juniors, every hockey player wants to win. There are two big questions heading into this tournament for team USA. First, who exactly is going to be our starting goalie? Second, can we finally capture the gold again?
Not to be overlooked however is the solid core to this team. Probably one of the deepest teams the United States has ever fielded in Olympic hockey and one could argue one of the deepest in this tournament. From a projected first line of Parise, Kesler, and Kane all the way through the fourth line and defensemen you have talent who can score and play two ways. Parise, who was named Captain, is one of the best two way wingers in the league. In the same class as say a Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and a Pavel Datsyuk.
Parise being named Captain was somewhat surprising to many hockey fans as most expected so called “Captain America” David Backes to get the nod for the captaincy. It does make sense though to have one of your top wingers be your captain. They both are having pretty comparable years in the major stat categories that matter. The main argument for having Backes captain this squad is the fact that he is currently the captain of the resurgent Blues who are atop the Central Division. Not to say that it’s due to his captaincy but it shows he has the leadership skills necessary. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Parise wears the “A” for the Wild.
The Goalie Situation
The USA is in a crisis of having too many good goalies on their squad for the 2014 games. It’s going to be like the Canucks when they had Schneider and Luongo. You can only start one goalie a game and when each goalie is capable of being #1 it can wreck some havoc. I really don’t like the term “goaltender controversy” but let’s just say that Bylsma better choose correctly or he may be facing a lot of questions down the road.
Jonathan Quick was presumed to be the starter of choice for Bylsma when the rosters were announced. He took his LA Kings team to a Stanley Cup win in 2012 and a deep playoff run only to lose to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final last year. He started this year well and then suffered a groin strain. After recovering it appeared that he was back on track until about a week ago. Going 1-4 in your last four games leading into the Olympics with your only win coming against the Blue Jackets does not really instill confidence.
Ryan Miller is probably the best guess to possibly steal the number one goalie spot from Quick. Miller hasn’t had the best four years since the last Olympic run. However, what he lacks in stats in the NHL he makes up for in international tournament experience. Miller helped to bring the USA into the gold medal match in 2010 and was the tournament MVP. Also, can you really trust his stats when the team that is in front of him isn’t really up to the task on a night to night basis? To be sure his .923 save % is nothing to shake a stick at.
Jimmy Howard is the one most likely to ride the pine barring injury. Although he has the most recent international tournament experience, playing in the IIHF 2012 World Championship, he himself is also coming back from an injury suffered earlier this year. Not to mention in fewer games this year he has already allowed the same amount of goals he allowed in all of last year. Look for Howard to be helping out in more of a mentoring sense than in actual playing time.
The Road to Gold
The path to gold for the United States, at least at first, will literally have to go through Russia. Being in the Red, White, and Blue division (all four countries have all three colors.) with Slovenia, Slovakia, and Russia should prove to be a good tune up for the tournament games. Although Slovenia should be a win, you can’t sleep on Slovakia and the game with Russia will likely determine who gets the automatic bye from this group. You have to figure that Russia will be one of the toughest opponents to face since they are on their home soil so getting to play them early can only be a good way to test the toughness of this USA squad early.
Even if the US isn’t able to get the automatic bye by winning their group, they still stand a decent chance of getting the fourth bye by being the “best of the rest.” Getting a bye one way or the other is going to be very important so they can avoid having to face one of the other high powered teams before the semi-finals. Avoiding Canada, Sweden, and Russia before that point will be very important. That’s ignoring the simple fact that rest is always welcomed. Looking at the two other groups it can almost be assumed that both Sweden and Canada will get the automatic byes from their groups respectively. The only team that could challenge either of them is the Czechs in group C with Sweden.
No matter which way you slice it though, the fans are the true winners here. There is simply nothing better than Olympic hockey. Fans of teams that have natural rivalries come together to cheer on their country hoping for Olympic Gold. It’s like the Stanley Cup final of international hockey. Everyone is watching and every goal feels like euphoria when your team scores and disaster when your rival does. Good luck to all teams involved and may the best played tournament win!