Three goalies must fill Richter's skates

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For more than a decade, when America confronted the world's best, it started with the ultimate safety net named Mike Richter.

From the 1991 Canada Cup through the 2002 Olympics, Richter was "the man" for every crucial game, every crucial save. And if there was one brick upon which the foundation of America's rise to hockey prominence was built, Richter was it.

That safety net is now preparing for classes at Yale University, but Richter continues to cast a large shadow over this team and the World Cup of Hockey.

The shadow falls mainly across the shoulders of Robert Esche, Rick DiPietro and Ty Conklin, the three young men who now take his place and on whom a successful defense of the World Cup of Hockey ultimately rests. It also falls on the entire USA Hockey program and the long-term challenge of finding a goaltender for the future.

"It's always been a no-brainer," Team USA goaltending coach Keith Allain said as Team USA prepared for its first exhibition game against tournament favorite Canada on Monday. "This is a new generation of USA goaltenders.

"First off, we want to make sure the guys understand it's a wide-open competition. I think the competition is terrific. The way I see it, it'll bring out the best in each of them."

Each of the three netminders has a legitimate shot at claiming the No. 1 job. Each brings a distinctly different personality -- from the intensity of Esche, 26, who spent most of the NHL playoffs gruffly declining to talk to reporters; to the wandering, upbeat DiPietro, 22, the first goaltender taken first overall in the NHL entry draft; to Conklin, the old man of the group at 28, a late-bloomer who earned his first NHL starting assignment midway through last season in Edmonton and went on to backstop the U.S. to a surprise bronze medal at the World Championships.

"I think in the end it's going to be a very difficult decision," Allain said. "I think they're all going to play very well."

Starting with scrimmages last weekend in Columbus and following through the team's three exhibition games, every save, every blown opportunity, will carry with it some extra currency, extra meaning.

People talk about riding the hot hand in the tournament, "but it's such a short tournament, it's not like we have a lot of time to heat them up," Allain said.

"I think it's the best thing in the world," said Esche, who enters the competition as a slight favorite. "Competing against each other doesn't have to be a negative thing. You definitely find out a lot about yourself."

"I've always been a fiery type of athlete. I actually think that's taken me further than my talent. It's not always a good thing at family functions, but in the hockey world it's a good thing."

Esche answered a legion of critics or doubters when he led Philadelphia to within a game of the Stanley Cup final, posting a 2.32 GAA, .918 goals-against average in the postseason. Most telling, perhaps, was his ability to bounce back from a soft outing, a testament to his developing mental strength.

"I play in Philadelphia. I don't know if anybody told you that," Esche joked, referring to the city's well-earned reputation as a goaltending sinkhole. "It's always the same questions in Philadelphia: Are we ever going to get a No. 1 guy?"

In some ways, those questions continue to be asked here. Still, his ability to withstand the intense scrutiny in Philadelphia has helped Esche become a wiser man and a better goaltender.

"You learn about media," he said. "You learn about confrontation. What to say, what to worry about. And the truth is there's really not anything to worry about."

DiPietro is the Type A personality of the trio, never afraid to speak his mind or chase down a loose puck. Several times last season the Winthrop, Mass., native was embroiled in dust-ups with New York Islanders teammates during practice. He was also the team's best player in the Islanders' first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay.

"He's probably one of the most exciting goaltenders in the league," said Jason Blake, a teammate with the Islanders and Team USA. "He's like a circus."

DiPietro shrugs his shoulders at the suggestion of pressure.

"I think they're looking for someone to step up and carry the team," he said. "There's always a stigma around American goaltenders. We don't get the acknowledgement or the respect Canadian goaltenders do. The best way to prove them wrong is to perform well at a tournament like this."

Conklin is the darkhorse of the group. The native of Anchorage, Alaska, supplanted incumbent Tommy Salo as the top goaltender in Edmonton midway through last season and helped the Oilers to a solid second half with a 17-14-4 record.

Conklin's play earned him the starting role with the U.S. at the World Championships. He was terrific as the Americans upended a powerful host Czech Republic team in a shootout and then won a bronze medal, earning him best goaltender honors in the tournament.

"He made some absolutely spectacular saves," said defenseman Hal Gill. "Goals that were game-breakers, he stopped them.

"He's not a typical goalie. Most goalies are weird. He's a pretty normal guy."

For his part, Conklin said it's important not to get too "bent out of shape" about every rush, every play.

"It doesn't bank on one shot," he said. "You've just got to worry about yourself and play well when you get the chance. There's nothing wrong with that."

Most of the top teams in this tournament have a loosely defined long-range goaltending plan that looks at future Olympics or World Cup of Hockey events. The Americans saw their plan go off the rails with the disappointing play of Mike Dunham the past two seasons. Dunham, Richter's backup in Salt Lake City and the man most likely to succeed him as the country's top goaltender, wasn't invited to this camp.

Assistant general manager Don Waddell understands the goaltending will remain the main question surrounding the team as the start of the tournament draws near.

"That's what everybody's asking. What's the U.S. goaltending going to be like? I think it's going to be very, very good," Waddell said.

The Atlanta general manager boldly suggested the combined talent of the American trio "may be as good as anyone in the tournament. We just don't have the experience."

That experience is going to come; the question that remains is which of the three is ready to embrace it.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.