Patrick Kane (Harry How/Getty Images)
Rebuild complete. The Americans were plucky underdogs in 2010 in Vancouver, but they head to Sochi on the short list of teams who are a threat to bring home a gold medal.
The 2010 edition of Team USA was seen as too young to accomplish much against the world’s older, more experienced powers. But like sled-dog huskies unleashed in the field, the young Americans proved the haters wrong and went all the way to the gold medal game, taking Canada to overtime and scaring the bejeezus out of their northern neighbors before Sidney Crosby yelled at Jarome Iginla loud enough to commandeer the puck for the winning goal.
The silver lining for the Yanks is that those inexperienced kids and their pluckiness have now been transformed into a murderer’s row of top-line NHL stars in the prime years of their careers. The past two Conn Smythe Trophy winners, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Quick of the Kings, will have prominent roles, as will Norris Trophy runner-up Ryan Suter.
The Americans are blessed with a host of physical specimens, giving them size and skill, especially up front. Whether it’s the high-end puck wizardry of Kane and Phil Kessel or the bruising power forward games of David Backes and Dustin Brown, the U.S. can throw a lot of different looks at teams and adapt to whatever’s thrown at them. In net, the options are excellent and start with Quick, one of the best on the planet. A groin injury to the Kings stopper opened the door for Ryan Miller to reprise his starring role in net, but either way the Americans are good. The blueline has a ton of offensive potential, meaning the power play in particular will be devilish. Not only that, but it’s still a young squad with fresh legs.
Look for St. Louis rearguard Kevin Shattenkirk to have a bit of a coming-out party on defense, especially with the way he can carry the puck. That will be of the utmost importance on the larger ice surface in Sochi.
In Vancouver, the team was coached by Ron Wilson, who came in with an NHL resume that included a trip to the Cup final. This time around, Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma assumes the clipboard and he won the NHL’s famed chalice during his first season with the Penguins, so technically, there’s an upgrade in experience. Bylsma is very highly regarded in NHL circles and his puck-hunting philosophies have been successful in Pittsburgh, though goaltending and defense have stung the Pens in the playoffs. With Quick as his starter and Suter leading the charge on defense, that won’t be an issue.
The combination of skill and strength, youth and goaltending is pretty much all you’re looking for in a hockey team and the Yanks have plenty of motivation from Vancouver, given they were one goal away from snatching the gold from their archrivals. The Americans know they can beat the Canucks, so it’s just a matter of taking the challenges one game at a time, as the cliche goes. Along with Sweden and Russia, the U.S. will vie with Canada for favorite status heading into the tournament and is designed to be there right until the end.
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT?
On the larger ice surface, speed and skill are paramount, so Team USA’s relatively small collection of slick forwards has to be dynamite. Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise can’t take any games off. The Americans have oodles of brute strength up front and can dominate opposing defenders on the forecheck. Ryan Suter must log massive minutes as the squad’s one true No. 1 D-man and he’ll be doing it against the very best forwards in the world. Between Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller, the U.S. has little to worry about in goal.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
While David Backes, Dustin Brown and company are among the game’s top power forwards, the U.S. lacks elite finishers, 50-goal men in the vein of Alex Ovechkin, so scoring could be a problem. The brawny approach hasn’t worked when the Americans crossed the pond in the past, as they failed to medal in Nagano 1998 and Torino 2006. Too much sandpaper can be a hindrance if it gets the U.S. into penalty trouble. There’s a big drop from Suter to the next best U.S. blueliner. Whoever plays with him could be overmatched against superstar forwards.
THN PREDICTION: 5th
WHAT HAPPENED IN VANCOUVER 2010?
an MVP performance from goaltender Ryan Miller wasn’t enough as the U.S. ended up one goal short in its quest for the gold medal. After outscoring their opponents 14-5 for a perfect 3-0 record in the preliminary round, the Americans shut out Switzerland 2-0 in the quarterfinal and demolished Finland 6-1 in the semifinal before falling to the Canadians on Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in overtime.
A BRIEF OLYMPIC HISTORY
The U.S. has only sat out two Olympic Games in its history according to official records – 1928 and 1948. Two squads made the trip to St. Moritz, Switzerland in 1948, where the IIHF and IOC divided their support for the Americans, but just the IIHF team ended up actually taking to the ice. Team USA finished in fourth and did have an impact on who reached the podium. With the Yankees’ blowout 12-3 loss to Canada, a much stronger Czechoslovakian squad ended up conceding the gold medal after its final victory, a 4-3 triumph, left it two goals short in differential.