The Americans will take the ice in Sochi trying to prove that their run to the silver medal in Vancouver was not a fluke. In an effort to adapt to the bigger ice surface, the Americans have gone to a younger, more skilled defensive corps, but they'll return with a battle-tested forward unit and they still boast the best one-two goalie punch in the tournament.
Five things to watch
1. Let's start in goal, where Jonathan Quick's play early in the season, coupled with a long stint on the disabled list with a groin injury, looked like it might upset the Americans' goaltending plans. But Quick, the playoff MVP in 2012 and former Vezina Trophy runner-up, returned to action late in the calendar year and has been at his athletic best, even if his L.A. Kings are struggling to score in front of him. The interesting question for head coach Dan Bylsma will be how he handles his goaltenders with Ryan Miller in the mix and chomping at the bit to show he's still got the form that saw him win MVP honors in Vancouver, where he allowed eight goals in six games and played all but 12 minutes for Team USA. The U.S. plays Slovakia and then Russia before closing out the preliminary round with what should be an easy game versus Slovenia. Does Bylsma split the first two games between Miller and Quick, or does he simply name a starter and go from there as his predecessor Ron Wilson did with Miller in Vancouver? It's a nice choice to have, given that both Quick and Miller have proven they can deliver the goods on the big stage.
2. Are the kids on defense all right? We're about to find out. Veterans of the 2010 team, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson, were left off the '14 roster as a bevy of young, skilled defenders have risen to the fore for the U.S. Will the lack of experience on the blue line be an issue? Only Ryan Suter, the NHL's ice-time leader, and Brooks Orpik return from the '10 team, although Paul Martin would have been a lock to make that team had he not been sidelined with a broken forearm. He will provide veteran leadership and a calming element to the back end in Sochi. That said, there is going to be considerable pressure on players such as Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler, who emerged from the shadows to make this team, as did John Carlson. They were named to the team because of their ability to make smart plays in their own zone and move the puck quickly and smartly to the U.S. forwards. This group has the option and the skill level to join the play and help create odd-man rushes and scoring chances, but, of course, such play comes with more than a little risk. It's a lot to ask a group with no Olympic experience -- and frankly very little NHL playoff experience.
3. In theory the U.S. forward group is not as deep as say Canada's (let's face it: No one ices a group of forwards as dangerous as Canada's) or Sweden or Russia, but a closer look shows the Americans' forward group is deceptively balanced and dangerous. As of this writing, six Americans had at least 20 goals: Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Max Pacioretty and James van Riemsdyk. By comparison, the Swedes have just one (Alexander Steen), as do the Russians (Alex Ovechkin), although half the Russian roster plays in the KHL. Given the evolution of players such as Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Wheeler and Pacioretty, this is a much more potent team than the '10 squad. There is also the experience factor with nine forwards returning from the silver medal squad. That will help counterbalance the inexperience along the blue line and should help the squad ride out whatever bumps there may be in the road to the medal round.
4. How many times did Brian Burke, the general manager of the 2010 team, tell reporters in the lead-up to the Vancouver Games that no one gave the Americans a snowball's chance in a sauna (or some variation on the theme) of winning a gold? He created a barrier between the high internal expectations and the modest external expectations. That no longer holds true and everyone knows this team won't sneak up on anyone. That's a different mindset, but given the experience this team brings to the table -- especially in goal and up front -- the Americans should embrace heading into this tournament among the group of nations expected to compete for the gold. Now, whether that mindset will help them make a seamless transition to the big ice is another issue altogether.
5. Does it matter that head coach Dan Bylsma has no experience coaching at the international level? Certainly in conversations with the Penguins head coach and others, it appears he's left no stone unturned in trying to educate himself, having examined the coaching decisions made in the Vancouver Games and traveling to the World Championships, where he scouted some of the European teams to try and get a handle on their respective tendencies on the big ice. He also traveled to Wilson's Hilton Head area home in the summer to talk about the challenges of coaching in the Olympics. He'll also have the benefit of Peter Laviolette on his staff. Laviolette coached the U.S. team at the '06 Olympics in Turin, Italy. Make no mistake, coaching is a key factor in a short tournament, and Bylsma will have to assess what is working -- whether it's in goal, with his defense pairings or forward combinations -- very quickly and then make assertive moves, something we saw Wilson do with the U.S. squad in Vancouver.
Breakout player to watch: Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks
When he introduced the U.S. team after the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, GM David Poile suggested Fowler might have been the NHL's best defenseman in the weeks leading up to the announcement. His play for the NHL's best team in Anaheim has been sterling, and he'll get a chance to shine in Sochi.
We said in August at the U.S. orientation camp that this group could take the next step in the Olympic evolution -- and there's no reason to back off that belief. Gold medal.