Four years ago at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Team USA appeared poised to win its first gold in 30 years. It dominated group play, defeated the heavily favored Canadian squad and stormed its way to the gold-medal game.
The only loss the Americans would suffer would be in the final game, as they lost to Canada 3-2 in overtime on Sidney Crosby's goal that eluded goaltender and tournament MVP Ryan Miller.
The U.S. team had to settle for silver in Vancouver, but it has what it takes to win gold in Sochi.
This year's roster features 13 players from the silver-medal squad, a stark contrast to the 2010 team that had just three players with Olympic experience. It will begin its quest for gold when its round-robin schedule begins with a game against Slovakia on Feb. 13.
This slideshow is designed to make you familiar with Team USA's players, history, strengths, weaknesses and the all-important TV and streaming information. So click through and bookmark this page to reference throughout the tournament.
This may have been mentioned once or twice in the sports media over the past 34 years, but Team USA last won a gold medal in ice hockey at the 1980 Olympics. It is among the greatest accomplishments in American history, right alongside the creation of a polio vaccine, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the invention of Crocs.
There have been some close calls for Team USA since the 1980 team became weaved into the fabric of American society, but it's been mostly futility.
The U.S. team has won two medals—both silver, in 2002 and 2010—since 1980. It has failed to medal six times, finishing sixth or worse in five of those Olympics. Since the NHL began allowing its players to compete at the Olympics in 1998, Team USA has finished sixth, second, eighth and second.
The only other time the U.S. team won gold was in 1960.
From 1920 to 1956, the U.S. team won five silvers and a bronze, but that was before Armstrong's moon landing and the first time you saw a pair of Crocs on someone at a Walmart. The polio vaccine wasn't licensed until 1962.
It's not exactly a glorious history for the U.S. hockey team outside of that one gold medal in 1980, but a gold medal in Sochi would go a long way toward establishing the U.S. as a current world hockey power.
It was an inexperienced group that came within a goal of gold in 2010. This time around, Team USA is loaded with players who boast Olympic experience and success.
There are 13 players back from the 2010 team that won silver, including captain Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, David Backes, Ryan Miller and Ryan Suter. There is no shortage of leaders on this team, and the players getting their first taste of the Olympics are having outstanding NHL seasons.
James van Riemsdyk, Max Pacioretty and Blake Wheeler are all first-time Olympians who are on their way to 30-goal seasons in the NHL. There is great depth among the forward group, so scoring should not be a problem.
Miller was the tournament MVP in 2010 and the biggest reason Team USA reached the gold-medal game. He is joined by first-time Olympian Jonathan Quick, who has emerged over the past three seasons as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.
Coach Dan Bylsma will have a tough decision to make, if he hasn't made it already: Who should be his No. 1 goaltender? Miller has the experience and track record, but Quick has shown he can be nearly unbeatable on a big stage with his success in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the first game at least, the pick is Quick. Bylsma announced Wednesday that Quick will get the start against Slovakia on Thursday morning.
"We're dealing from a position of strength when it comes to the goaltender position," Bylsma said, via USAHockey.com. "A position where we have two very good guys to be in net, and Jonathan will be getting the nod."
It's possible Bylsma will wait to see how Miller and Quick perform in group play before deciding who will be his goaltender for the tournament's elimination games.
How will Team USA fare on the larger Olympic ice? History has shown the Americans struggle outside of North America on big European ice, as they failed to medal in Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006. But at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Team USA won silver playing on the larger ice.
This year's team may be better equipped than any recent team to handle the transition, as it has several players who played overseas during a lockout and spent some time on big ice in college. Carol Schram delved into this issue here and showed certain Americans may have an easier time adjusting.
Here are six players worth paying attention to. They will play key roles in the success or failure of Team USA:
Ryan Suter, defenseman
The 29-year-old plays nearly 30 minutes per game for the Minnesota Wild and is arguably the best defenseman in the NHL. He likely won't be called upon to log that much ice time at Sochi, but if anyone is up to the task of shutting down the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, it's Suter.
Joe Pavelski, center
Pavelski has 29 goals in 59 games for the San Jose Sharks, two shy of his career high of 31 in 82 games in 2011-12. The 29-year-old had zero goals in six games at the 2010 Olympics and will have a fire lit under him to improve on that in Sochi.
James van Riemsdyk, left wing
The first-time Olympian will likely find himself on the second line with Kessel on the right side and Ryan Kesler in the middle. The 24-year-old has 24 goals in 58 games this season and has played well over the past month. He'll be relied upon for offense in his first feature role in an international tournament since his junior days.
David Backes, center
Backes has 20 goals this season for the Blues, but his role for Team USA will be more of a defensive one. It will be up to him to shut down the top scoring threats of Slovakia and Russia in group play and any other nation that comes his way during the elimination portion.
Ryan Miller/Jonathan Quick, goaltenders
Who will be the starter? It could come down to whoever gets off to a better start when the tournament opens. If one falters early, that could make the decision for coach Dan Bylsma an easy one.
As of Wednesday, the lines in practice looked like this, according to Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.
Zach Parise—David Backes—Ryan Callahan
Dustin Brown—Ryan Kesler—Patrick Kane
Phil Kessel—Joe Pavelski—James van Riemsdyk
Max Pacioretty—Paul Stastny—T.J. Oshie
The defensive pairings at practice Wednesday, according to Elliott:
Ryan Suter—Paul Martin
Kevin Shattenkirk—Ryan McDonagh
Brooks Orpik—Justin Faulk
Cam Fowler—John Carlson
This is where we see the biggest makeover from 2010. Only Suter and Orpik were members of the team that won silver in Vancouver, with the rest of the group making its first trip to the Olympics.
Everyone outside of Orpik is extremely mobile, and that should serve them well on the larger ice. It's very possible Bylsma could opt for Fowler's skating ability over Orpik's physical nature in certain games, but those top six are likely the players who will be on the ice most in the opener against Slovakia.
1. Jonathan Quick
1a. Ryan Miller
3. Jimmy Howard
It has become a cliche among hockey coaches who don't want to damage the egos of their goaltenders and refuse to label one as a backup. But in the case of Team USA, it truly is a tossup between Miller and Quick.
Howard is perhaps the best third goaltender to ever be a third goaltender in the history of third goaltenders and should only take the ice if Miller and Quick are stricken with food poisoning or retire from hockey between now and Team USA's first game.
Both Miller and Quick are having very good NHL seasons in completely different environments. Miller is on the NHL's worst team and dealing with trade speculation in Buffalo, while Quick is on a perennial Stanley Cup contender in Los Angeles.
It's a tough decision for coach Dan Bylsma, but both Quick and Miller are capable of leading Team USA to gold.
Head coach: Dan Bylsma
Assistant coaches: Peter Laviolette, Todd Richards, Tony Granato
Bylsma lacks international coaching experience, but that's something his assistants have.
Laviolette, a one-time rival of Bylsma when he was coaching the Flyers, was the head coach of Team USA at the 2006 Olympics and coached the national team at the World Championships in 2004 and 2005.
Richards was an assistant coach at the 2010 World Championships, while Granato was a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team as a player.
All four coaches have served as a head coach in the NHL.
That encompasses all meanings of the word experience. The roster is filled with players who have played in previous Olympics, which means the stage won't be new for a lot of them. For many players who are getting their first taste of this tournament, they have NHL teammates who have been here before whom they will likely find as linemates.
When you're deciding between the MVP of the most recent Olympics and the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, that's a tough but fun decision for anyone to make. Perhaps only Finland has a better group of netminders (Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi, Tuukka Rask), but Team USA should have no issues in net.
Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, Justin Faulk, Paul Martin, Cam Fowler and John Carlson are all taking part in their first Olympics. They are clearly elite defensemen based on their being chosen for this tournament, but none have played on this stage. Take it a step further: None has reached the Stanley Cup Final with his NHL team.
All NHL players will have to adjust to the bigger ice sheet in Sochi, but the Europeans should have the immediate edge. There are a few Americans with limited experience on ice of this size, but how quickly they get used to their new surroundings could make or break them.
• United States
This appears to be the most competitive of the three groups, with only Slovenia looking like an easy mark.
Slovakia is somewhat weakened with the absence of Marian Gaborik, who will miss the tournament with a broken collarbone. But goaltender Jaroslav Halak carried the team to the bronze-medal game four years ago and can steal a game against competition.
Russia will be playing in front of its home fans and should provide the U.S. team with its toughest test. The Americans will open against Slovakia before facing Russia two nights later.
The Americans wrap group play against Slovenia, but their fate within the group will likely be decided in their first two games.
Thursday, February 13
Team USA vs. Slovakia, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN
Saturday, February 15
Team USA vs. Russia, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC
Sunday, February 16
Team USA vs. Slovenia, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC*
* CBC may air the Slovakia-Russia game instead
Fun is a relative and subjective term, but hopefully we can all agree that this photo of Phil Kessel is fun and the following facts are at least somewhat fun in comparison:
This is Paul Martin's first Olympics, but it's also his third Olympics
The defenseman was a member of the 2006 team that went to Turin, but he never played in a game. He was selected to the 2010 as well and was likely to see plenty of ice time, but a broken arm meant he had to stay home. In a way, Martin is a three-time Olympian playing in his first Olympics.
The U.S. team has really, really struggled in overseas Olympics
The last time Team USA beat either Russia, Canada, Sweden or Finland in an overseas Olympics was 1992, when it beat Finland 4-1 in Albertville, France.
Teemu Selanne was a member of that Finnish team, because much like a Highlander, he no longer ages and will live forever. The U.S. boasts wins over powers like Germany and Italy, but it hasn't beaten a true international power outside North America in a very long time.
Jimmy Howard's mask is the greatest thing ever
That sounds like an opinion, not a fact, but I assure his mask is the greatest thing ever. Look at it. It's glorious. The only problem is it belongs to Jimmy Howard, so if you see it during a real-live game, chances are things have gone horribly wrong for Team USA.
You will hear a lot about the Miracle on Ice team
The U.S. men's team defeated the Soviet Union 4-3 on Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, N.Y., so the anniversary of that game will fall on the same day as the bronze-medal game and one day before the gold-medal game. If Team USA is involved in either of those games, brace yourselves for all sorts of nostalgia.
A medal is a realistic goal for Team USA. But does it have what it takes to win gold in Sochi?
Absolutely. But will they win gold? Probably not.
It's a one-game elimination tournament, so anything can happen, but there are too many obstacles standing in the way of Team USA.
The Americans will need some time to adjust to the larger ice, and they have two tough opponents in Russia and Slovakia who are just as talented but have much more big-ice experience. Team USA earned a bye into the quarterfinals in 2010, but that likely won't be the case this time.
Team USA will have to find its way out of the qualification round, but it will run out of a gas just short of a gold. Look for the Americans to bring home bronze, but another trip to the gold-medal game is not out of the question.