Who are the key players that Team USA will need to protect a late one-goal lead? Since every Olympic team will have an elite ability to score, the gold medal could very well end up being awarded to whichever team is most effective at neutralizing their opponents at the right time.
There's no question that the American team will be full of strong two-way players, but there are critical times when they'll need the best. Whatever opposing line nightmare you can concoct, whether it's Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos for Canada, or Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk for Russia, at some point Team USA is going to need elite shutdown play.
Not only do these key defensive players need to have a proven history of facing top NHL opponents in critical defensive situations—including playing shorthanded—but they also need to have the offensive credentials to avoid putting their team at a disadvantage while working their regular shifts.
In the end we've used analytics to identify eight players that fit the bill. Each of these key shutdown forwards and defensemen need to be on Team USA's roster in order to improve their chances of neutralizing the world's most potent scorers.
Shutdown Credentials: Andy Greene's defensive reputation was first established in 2005-06, when he was named the CCHA's defensive player of the year.
This year the highly underrated New Jersey Devil is sixth among American defensemen in average even-strength ice time. Greene handles the team's toughest minutes, and despite the ninth lowest ratio of offensive to defensive zone starts among American defensemen, Greene has the fifth best possession numbers.
Greene has also worked 68.5 percent of New Jersey's penalty-killing minutes this year, the highest total in the league among American defensemen.
Other Attributes: Greene's 20 points so far are tied with Torey Krug for eighth among American defensemen this year. His highly disciplined play also has him tied for third among American defensemen in penalty differential.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: A reserve defenseman, at the very least, ready to replace an injured player or provide additional defensive strength against a key opponent. In all likelihood he will however not be on the team.
Shutdown Credentials: New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan is your classic hard-working do-it-all player. His high-energy game has earned him the team's Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award four times so far in his career. It also guided him to a +10 net penalty differential last year, third among Americans to Dustin Brown and Erik Cole.
More importantly, Callahan would be an integral part of Team USA's penalty-killing unit. Last year he was assigned 51.0 percent of his team's penalty killing minutes, tops among American forwards by more than six percent.
Other Attributes: Callahan's experience and leadership could be a key advantage in critical situations.
Currently recovering from a sprained knee, the one downside is that Callahan does have a tendency to get injured. Of course, the injuries are usually a result of blocking shots or sacrificing his body in some other kind of dramatic defensive play.
Callahan was a member of the team that won the silver medal in 2010.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: A do-it-all player like Callahan can be slotted almost anywhere on the team's secondary lines and should be the key man on the top penalty killing unit.
Shutdown Credentials: Ryan McDonagh first caught the attention of the hockey analytics crowd after Marc Staal's injury in 2011-12 thrust one of the league's toughest assignments on him and partner Dan Girardi.
Since then, the Blueshirts' top pairing has been playing big minutes against top opponents and often in their own zone. In each of the previous two seasons McDonagh joined Ryan Suter as the top two American defensemen in average even-strength ice time, while ranking near the top of the league in average quality of competition.
McDonagh is also a key penalty killer, working 58.1 percent of the team's minutes in such situations this year, fourth among American defensemen.
Other Attributes: McDonagh's 23 points overall are fourth among American defensemen this year, and his 13 even-strength points are second only to Dustin Byfuglien. Unlike Byfuglien, he is a disciplined player who is unlikely to get his team into any penalty trouble.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: Though he may be considered a fringe selection for Team USA, McDonagh represents a slight upgrade over defensive-minded alternatives from the Penguins or Hurricanes. McDonagh should be selected as the key man on Team USA's defensive-minded third pairing, or potentially a shutdown presence in the top four.
Shutdown Credentials: Paul Stastny scoring just 24 points while carrying a cap hit of $6.6 million left a sour taste in the mouths of some fans last year. Those fans might not have realized that his softer numbers were a consequence of handling all of the team's toughest minutes so that the team's younger players could develop.
The benefits of having a player like Stastny in the lineup are more obvious this season, because he's getting a little bit more help. Among American forwards this year, Stastny is tied for sixth in quality of competition, and eighth in even-strength ice time per game.
On Team USA, Stastny will be getting all the help he needs, and his defensive play might finally start drawing the attention and recognition it deserves.
Other Attributes: Stastny's offensive upside was established early, by posting three 70-point seasons in his first four years in Colorado. He is currently tied for 13th among American forwards in even-strength scoring.
Paul is the son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, who competed for Czechoslovakia in the 1980 Olympics and Slovakia in 1994. A player of Slovakian descent born in Canada, Paul Stastny has elected to play for Team USA, where he was raised, and where he won the silver medal in 2010.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: While the team's top defensive forwards could be gathered onto a single elite shutdown line in certain situations, under normal conditions they would likely be spread out to center several lines. Stastny's playmaking abilities could be useful almost anywhere, including on the top line with Phil Kessel and/or Patrick Kane.
Shutdown Credentials: Though Zach Parise has been deployed in a more offensive-focused fashion so far in Minnesota, his credentials as an elite shutdown forward were well-established in New Jersey and in the 2010 Olympic games.
Despite the team's defensive duties being taken over by players like Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak, Parise still takes on the top players. Last year he led all American forwards in average quality of competition and is currently fourth this year. He is also fourth in average even-strength ice time, and has a +7 net penalty differential.
Most importantly, Parise is one of the game's best possession-oriented forwards. It is much harder for opponents to score when they're not the ones with the puck in the first place.
Other Attributes: Parise was simply amazing in the 2010 Olympic games, scoring a goal to take the gold medal game into overtime and being named to the all-tournament team. His work ethic, leadership and determination will be as critical in Sochi as they were in Vancouver.
His 38 points last year were sixth among American forwards. His father is Minnesota hockey legend J.P. Parise, who was a famously key defensive presence for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: Parise will almost certainly be on the left wing of the team's top two-way line, but could be used on the top scoring line as well.
Shutdown Credentials: David Backes is the workhorse of the St. Louis Blues. He always takes on the top opponents and often in defensive zone situations, whether at even strength or when killing penalties.
This year is no exception, as Backes leads all American forwards in terms of average quality of competition. Backes is a perennial Selke contender and was one of the finalists in 2012.
Other Attributes: Backes is a two-time 30-goal scorer and is currently ninth among American forwards in even-strength scoring and second among all NHL players with a 22.2 shooting percentage. He is also exceptionally durable, missing just three games in the past six seasons, all of them in 2009-10.
The 2010 Olympian and Blues captain is a physical and gritty player who does sometimes get his team into penalty trouble, with a net penalty differential of -11 last year, and -7 so far this year. Backes might be most effective in late-game situations when the whistles generally remain within the officials' pockets.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: Backes can serve as a goal-scoring and defensive presence on either the right wing or the center of Team USA's second or third lines. An argument could even be made to invite his defensively strong St. Louis linemate T.J. Oshie to serve as his center.
Shutdown Credentials: Ryan Suter was an instant success in Minnesota, helping them qualify for the post-season while being personally recognized as a first team all-star, the Hockey News defenseman of the year and a Norris finalist.
Suter currently leads American defensemen in average ice time, with a whopping 29:40 per game, a three minute lead over second place Dustin Byfuglien. He takes on top opponents, kills penalties and essentially carries Minnesota's entire blue line on his shoulders.
Other Attributes: Suter's hard work and leadership were key factors in the team's silver medal performance in the 2010 Olympic games. His family legacy includes his father Bob winning an Olympic gold medal in 1980 and his uncle Gary winning silver in 2002.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: Suter will obviously be on the top paring and lead the team in ice time. There is no one on any team more trusted on the ice against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin than Ryan Suter.
Shutdown Credentials: Ryan Kesler was a Selke finalist in back-to-back seasons before finally winning the award in 2011. A hard-working agitator and an elite penalty-killer, Kesler's effectiveness is based on getting under the skin of opponents and then out-working them.
Kesler has long served as Vancouver's choice to line up against top opponents so that the Sedin twins can safely unleash their offensive magic against more secondary opponents. This year Kesler is second among American forwards to Phil Kessel in average even-strength ice time and is ninth in average quality of competition.
Other Attributes: Despite his primarily defensive assignments, Kesler keeps top opponents honest by posing a scoring threat himself. Kesler scored 41 goals in 2010-11 and then an additional 19 points in Vancouver's subsequent run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Kesler, a veteran of the 2010 US Olympic team, is currently 13th among American forwards in even-strength scoring.
Where He Fits on the Depth Chart: Ryan Kesler could work out perfectly centering two-way playmaker Zach Parise on the team's top two-way line. If so, they could be joined by David Backes on the right side to form potentially the tournament's top shutdown line.