What can we expect in net for the American Olympic hockey team in Sochi? Goaltending is absolutely critical, and yet, it's almost impossible to predict. The fate of the team's medal hopes could ultimately rest on the shoulders of one of the team's three goalies, Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick or Jimmy Howard.
A look at each goalie's current NHL performance using analytics can help set expectations for Sochi. It can determine who the starter will likely be, his chances of getting dethroned before the medal games and how they might handle the toughest challenges along the way.
We begin with a look at each of these goalies, why we believe Miller will be the starter, how much to expect from Quick and Howard, and how they might fare both against their toughest round-robin challenge (Russia) and overall.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research, unless otherwise noted.
Miller has an impressive .926 save percentage this year, but surprisingly, it's just .928 at even strength. He has 24 quality starts in 36 games, or an excellent 66.7 percent. His great reputation in the shootout is backed by a very good career save percentage of .708.
Miller has been voted the league's best goalie in the CCHA, the AHL, the NHL and even in the Olympics. He brings the big-game experience of being the starting goalie and MVP in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
He's technically sound with great positioning and has a hybrid style that relies on his tremendous athleticism. He comes from a real hockey-playing family, with one brother and three cousins having played in the NHL.
In Buffalo, he has become quite comfortable with having to face a lot of shots while still maintaining a consistent level of play.
Miller has no obvious weaknesses, simply some areas that opponents might target. For instance, he's 33, not all that big and could be tired from his current NHL workload, making him therefore susceptible to some aggressive net-crashing. Other than that, any grievances are trivial, such as his being outspoken and not always a great puck-handler.
Quick has a roughly league-average .917 save percentage but a solid .931 at even strength. He has 16 quality starts in 28 games, or a decent 57.1 percent. His career save percentage in the shootout is a very good .705.
Quick is, well, quick! He works hard, has excellent technique and moves quickly from one position to another. That's a big reason why he was selected as a reserve on the 2010 Olympic team, why he was a Vezina finalist in 2012 and how he earned a Conn Smythe in 2012 with a .946 postseason save percentage.
Playing behind one of the league's best defensive teams, and having only one elite season under his belt, there is the possibility that Quick isn't actually among the world's best.
While his current play is technically sound, Quick's potential weaknesses were a little more apparent earlier in his career, at least as goalie coach Bill Ranford reported to Ken Baker at NHL.com.
There were early concerns that he needed improvement in his rebound control, specifically in overplaying his position on the initial shot, and that he spends too much time on his knees, the latter of which is a common weakness of butterfly goalies who aren't at least 6'6" giants.
Howard has a roughly league-average .916 save percentage this year, including .923 at even strength. He has 16 quality starts in 29 games, or 55.2 percent. His career save percentage in the shootout is a very good .699.
Howard is a solid but underrated goalie who has posted a save percentage of at least .920 in three of his four NHL seasons. Even his .911 AHL save percentage is better than it sounds, given that the team's other goalies combined for .895, according to Phil Myrland of Brodeur is a Fraud.
Howard, a runner-up for the 2010 Calder Trophy and participant in the 2012 NHL All-Star Game, holds multiple NCAA records for save percentage and goals-against average. He is flexible and acrobatic, with a great glove hand.
While the most common concern about Howard's play is usually about inconsistency, the possibility of a lapse is probably not his chief weakness.
Howard has a very aggressive style and comes far out of the net, and therefore, he becomes vulnerable to fast break-ins and rebounds. Shot-wise, the place to target is the blocker side, especially when he's having trouble seeing the puck.
There are a number of ways of evaluating goalies both objectively and subjectively, and Miller usually winds up on top.
In terms of Vezina voting, for instance, among Americans only Tim Thomas has more votes over the past five seasons than Miller, who is tied with Pekka Rinne for third. Quick is tied with Roberto Luongo for seventh overall, and Howard is 19th.
When using high-level, catch-all estimates, Miller is third overall over the past five seasons, just barely behind Thomas (Henrik Lundqvist is first). Howard edges Quick out for ninth.
In terms of straight-up save percentage in even-strength situations (to avoid the skewing effect of playing for highly penalized teams with ineffective penalty kills), Miller falls to 14th but is still ahead of Howard (17th) and Quick (21st). The only Americans who rate higher are Thomas (second) and Cory Schneider (seventh).
If there's an argument to be made for Howard, it's by how far his save percentage exceeds his partner's. He has bested Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin by .015, the fourth-largest advantage over this five-season period. Among Americans, Miller is tied with Craig Anderson for the next largest advantage, at .009, with Quick trailing not far behind at .007.
Finally, there's quality start percentage, which is meant as a replacement for wins and losses to crudely estimate how consistently a goalie gives his team a chance to win. By this measurement, Schneider is the league's best (69.4 percent) over the past five seasons, Thomas is third (65.9 percent), Howard is eighth (60.6 percent), followed by Quick (58.6 percent) and Miller (58.2 percent) in 15th and 16th, respectively.
While Quick may pull even and Howard may have a slight edge in some areas, the analytics still favor Miller overall. Add to that the fact that he was the team's starter in the 2010 Olympics, where he was voted the tournament's best goalie, and it's clear that the job is Miller's to lose.
Historically, the American team picks its starting goalie in advance of the tournament and sticks with him. It may play one of the backups, and possibly both, in round-robin games against non-contenders, but it always give the bulk of the starts, and the elimination games, to the prechosen starter.
The 2010 Olympics were a good example of that. The only action backup Tim Thomas saw was when there was concern that Miller would get hurt in a semifinal matchup with Finland that turned chippy when the U.S. was leading 6-0.
The precedent was set back in 1998, the first time NHLers were included in the Olympics. Mike Richter played all three round-robin games and only yielded the net to backup John Vanbiesbrouck for less than two minutes in the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic.
There is hope for Quick and Howard seeing some action, however. In 2002 and 2006, both backups got to play a round-robin game against a non-contender. In 2006, John Grahame got the first start against Latvia, and Robert Esche got the last start against Russia. OK, it's not always a non-contender, but Rick DiPietro had all three starts in between and the elimination game.
Playing really well won't help the backup win the job. In 2002, backup Mike Dunham threw up a shutout against Finland, and Tom Barrasso wrapped up the round robin with an 8-1 win over Belarus, but it was still the starter, Richter, who got the nod for all three medal games.
In short, unless Miller gets hurt or plays particularly poorly, do not expect to see either Quick or Howard between the pipes, except potentially for the final round-robin game against Slovenia.
The round-robin schedule worked out quite nicely for the American team. It starts out with a spirited opponent in Slovakia, before taking on Russia's big guns. A final and potentially easy game against Slovenia gives the team a break before the elimination rounds.
While Slovakia has its share of offensive weapons, the true test is Russia. Playing on home ice, the former longtime Olympic dynasty can still ice some of the world's best offensive players in Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. In the NHL they rank second, fourth and 11th in goals per game over the past three seasons, respectively, and first, fifth and sixth in shots per game.
Each of these players are fast and highly accurate shooters. They can all get into position and take a lot of shots. Even with a great collection of two-way talent between them and the American net, these three players will score. The challenge for the American goaltenders is to keep them to one or two goals at most and shut down the rest of the lineup.
While the balance of Russia's roster is a little bit less iconic in its goal scoring, it is still easily at the same level as an NHL playoff team. There is still Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin and Alexander Radulov, most notably, followed by young snipers like Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin.
This game could very well turn out to be the greatest challenge the American goaltenders face in the entire tournament. Their ability to neutralize the scoring of three of the world's best snipers could foreshadow their ultimate fate.
The bottom line is that the American team's goaltending is competitive with any other nation. While Finland is considered to have the best netminding, it wouldn't be a shock if the American goaltenders prove to be even better.
Miller has been here before, and he was fantastic, being named the tournament's best goalie. He's having a stellar season in Buffalo and could easily be the difference-maker in Sochi, especially with the benefit of potentially having the best two-way team playing in front of him.
Miller is capably backed up by Quick and Howard, both of whom can reliably provide solid goaltending should something happen to the starter. They are both fast and aggressive goaltenders with plenty of big-game NHL experience of their own.
Miller gets to warm up against Slovakia before facing Russia's big guns. It's potentially to his advantage to get tested in the round robin, to help get prepared for comparable shooters in the medal-elimination games that follow.
In the end, the Americans can certainly depend on excellent goaltending. Solid, consistent play throughout the round robin and potentially a game-stealing performance or two in the medal games.