With the Olympic orientation camps for both the Canadians and Americans behind us and training camps just a couple of weeks away, it is time to do a little early handicapping of the U.S. team's chances of bringing home its first Olympic gold medal since 1980's "Miracle on Ice" team. Herein, five reasons the 2014 Olympics could mean gold for the U.S. men's hockey team.
1. Let's start with the obvious reason: the goaltending. No team outside the Finns perhaps will ice the kind of quality goaltending the Americans will bring to the tournament. Assuming good health, Jonathan Quick is expected to be the starter. Given his body of work the past two seasons, work that includes a Stanley Cup championship and playoff MVP honors, Quick has the potential to replicate the kind of difference-making performance the Americans got from Ryan Miller four years ago. Speaking of Miller, he'll be looking to play himself back onto the Olympic roster but will have stiff competition from Craig Anderson, who was terrific for the Ottawa Senators the past two seasons as he helped guide them to unexpected playoff berths both seasons. Jimmy Howard has elevated his game to elite status, as well, for the Red Wings, and Cory Schneider is also in the mix as the Americans will have some difficult choices between the pipes but should enter the tournament with quality, gold-medal netminding.
2. Special-teams play will be crucial in Sochi and the Americans have some of the best penalty killers in the NHL in their projected lineup. St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and teammate T.J. Oshie were exceptionally difficult to play against for a Blues team that had the seventh-ranked penalty kill. Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers have terrific chemistry killing penalties, as well. Another Ranger, Ryan McDonagh, is a fearless shot-blocker who took on greater responsibility when Marc Staal was injured. Also on the back end, the Pittsburgh duo of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were a key shutdown unit for the Penguins as they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals last spring. On the other side of the special-teams ledger, the Americans have one of the top playmakers in the game in Patrick Kane coming off his second Stanley Cup championship with the Chicago Blackhawks. Kane had eight power-play goals last season, the fourth-highest total in the NHL. He and Toronto's Phil Kessel, who had six power-play markers in the lockout-shortened season and enjoyed a terrific playoff, will be counted on to make opposing teams pay for their disciplinary miscues. And then there's Dustin Byfuglien, whose offensive upside gives the Americans another big power-play weapon if he makes the team.
3. The big ice factor cannot be underestimated, and the Americans will have to find a way to adapt quickly to a game that can often be played at a much different pace than NHL games. To try and dictate the tone and pace of games in the tournament, the Americans will need to capitalize on a strong collection of smart, nimble puck-moving defensemen. This blue-line unit will look dramatically different than the one in Vancouver, which had a more blue-collar identity. Young players like Kevin Shattenkirk of St. Louis, Keith Yandle, who is an underappreciated talent in Phoenix, Martin, Jack Johnson of Columbus and Ryan Suter, who should have won the Norris Trophy last season, have the potential to stretch opposing defenses and spring a fast, talented group of forwards.
4. When we talk about discipline, we're not just talking staying out of the penalty box, but playing sound positional hockey. And the American roster will include some of the game's top two-way forwards. Ryan Kesler, healthy after battling a myriad of injuries the past two seasons, is a former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the game's top two-way forward. Backes was a Selke finalist two seasons ago. Zach Parise is widely regarded as one of the game's premier two-way players, and Joe Pavelski has become a key part of the San Jose Sharks with a strong two-way game.
5. With the tournament being played far from the familiar surroundings of North America where Canada and the U.S. have thrived in two previous Olympic tournaments, a strong leadership core is imperative in riding out rough patches that are inevitable in such a tournament. Dustin Brown is the captain of the Los Angeles Kings and a former Stanley Cup champion. Parise was captain in New Jersey and led the Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals before signing in Minnesota. Callahan is captain of the Rangers, while Orpik is an associate captain in Pittsburgh and the leader of the Penguins' defensive corps. Callahan, Suter, Parise, Brown and Backes are the formal leadership group named by GM David Poile for the 2014 team.