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MALACARO: Making the case for Team USA

Four years ago in Vancouver a bronze medal would have been a major accomplishment for Team USA in Men’s Ice Hockey. An unforgettable two-week run ended one goal short in an overtime loss to Team Canada, and a silver medal. As the 2014 tournament is set to begin, there is no reason not to expect a return to the Gold Medal Game for the red, white, and blue, but with a different outcome.

It all starts from the goaltender position out, and the Americans have the best one-two punch in Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick. We all remember the remarkable run that Miller and the Americans made four years ago in Vancouver, but if you look back at the different Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey tournaments since Nagano in 1998, it is the goaltending position that has set the tone. In 2006 Henrik Lundqvist was a stalwart in between the pipes as Sweden won gold, and in ’98, when NHLers made their debut in the Winter Games, who can forget Dominik Hasek’s gold medal performance for the Czech Republic. When all is said and done, a goaltender can “steal a game” when the tournament shifts to a one-game playoff through the medal round. If Quick wins the starting goaltender position, head coach Dan Bylsma can feel confident in a recent Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winner backstopping the red, white, and blue. 

Miller’s rise back up the American’s depth chart was well documented as the roster was announced on January 1st. His goaltending numbers have slipped slightly since then, but his .923 Save Percentage puts his right behind his final numbers four years ago (.926 Save %), and for those of us that watch him on a game-by-game basis, the defense in front of the East Lansing, MI native does not compare to that of the 2009-10 season. Quick’s game has been up and down this season, but a lack of offense in Los Angeles has hurt the goaltender’s return from injury at the start of the year. The inexperience along the blue line at the Olympic level is far and away the biggest question mark for Team USA, and could put the goaltending to the test early. Two of the main cogs on defense are back and apart of Bylsma’s roster for Sochi. Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik are the only two rear guards that suited up in Vancouver, and are joined by young stars John Carlson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler, Justin Faulk, and Ryan McDonagh. Paul Martin was apart of the initial 2010 Olympic roster, but missed the games due to an injury. 

The United States is going to need the best out of its goaltending right out of the gate. Team USA will open the prelims on Thursday against Marian Hossa and Slovakia. Two days later, the experience of the Americans will be put to the test against host country Russia. Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Alexander Semin; that is the top scoring line for the Russians, based on several reports from Monday’s practice. That is followed up by a line that boasts former NHLer Ilya Kovalchuk, and Pavel Datsyuk if he is healthy enough to play. The team captain did not test his injured knee in practice on Monday, but his teammates expect Datsyuk to be ready for their opening game against Slovenia on Thursday. Thirteen of the 25 players, on the roster know what to expect facing the host country in the Preliminary Round. Miller’s 42-save performance helped Team USA stun the Canadians with a 5-3 win to close out the opening round. 

Offensively, the Americans are stacked up front like their counterparts from Russia and Canada. Only the Canadians boast a better set of forwards top to bottom, in my view. I am not sold on some of the line combinations that were reported out of Sochi on Monday, but pairings can quickly change on the fly as the games progress:

Zach Parise-David Backes-T.J. Oshie 
Dustin Brown-Ryan Kesler-Patrick Kane
Phil Kessel-Pavelski-James van Riemsdyk
Max Pacioretty-Paul Stastny-Ryan Callahan 

Backes and Pavelski represent the best the red, white, and blue have to offer down the middle at center. Both have become household names since Vancouver four years ago, with Backes having one of his best offensive seasons in his eight-year career. The same can be said for Pavelski, the Sharks forward who will easily shatter his 31-goal performance two years ago and establish a new career high following the Olympics. I am somewhat puzzled by the combinations of Parise-Backes-Oshie and Dustin Brown-Ryan Kesler-Patrick Kane on the top two lines. I would much rather see Kane and Oshie swap spots.

The “third and fourth lines” for Bylsma have a good mix of offensive explosiveness and smart, heady players to round out the front lines. It should come as no surprise that Phil Kessel-Pavelski-James van Riemsdyk constitute a line for the Americans. Kessel and JvR are a lethal combination for any team’s fifth and sixth defensemen to face, while adding in the touch of Pavelski between the Toronto Maple Leafs teammates. It is also hard to argue with the pairing of Pacioretty-Stastny-Callahan to throw out onto the ice every fourth time. Four years ago Team USA general Manager Brian Burke said that Chris Drury made the Olympic team “because he’s Chris Drury.” What the Connecticut native lacked in offense, he brought leadership and experience to the team. I have to believe his New York Rangers teammate, and now current Blueshirts captain Ryan Callahan learned plenty from Drury in those games. 

Team Canada are the odds-on favorite heading into the tournament, and rightly so. When you look at their offensive lines, no one can match these pairings:

Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Jeff Carter
Patrick Sharp-Jonathan Toews-Rick Nash
Patrick Marleau-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry
Jamie Benn-John Tavares-Patrice Bergeron

The closest match will be the Americans. I like how the red, white, and blue stack up comparably, but when John Tavares is anchoring close to the bottom of your offensive lines, you are doing OK. The biggest difference comes on the back end. Team Canada’s defensive pairings more than make up for the weakest link, goaltending. Duncan Keith and Shea Weber will be hard to crack for even the most skilled of top scoring lines. The shut-down pair from St. Louis, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Drew Doughty will be formidable foes as well. Yes, Roberto Luongo was in goal for Canada’s gold medal win four years ago. However, when you look back on the game, and even the tournament, Canada won gold despite its shaky play out of the goaltender position. Four more years of experience may help Luongo, but I am not convinced. Miller, Quick, and Jimmy Howard and a better collection of goalteders than Luongo, Carey Price, and Mike Smith. That is the biggest area the Americans hold an edge over their neighbors to the North. 

You can hear Team USA go for gold right here on the flagship home of the Sabres Radio Network - WGR Sports Radio 550. Here is a list of the Americans Preliminary Round games, complete with broadcast times:

Thursday, February 13 - 7:15 a.m. (Eastern Time) vs. Slovakia
Saturday, February 15 - 7:15 a.m. (Eastern Time) vs. Russia
Sunday, February 16 - 7:15 a.m. (Eastern Time) vs. Slovenia

Twitter: @PatWGR


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