For the United States men's hockey team, medaling is no guarantee in Sochi. While their women counterparts should have no trouble rampaging their way to the medal round, the men not only face fierce competition but a shakier history than you would expect.
The United States has 11 medals spread over 20 Olympic appearances. Only two of those have come since 1980. Silvers in 2002 and 2010 have helped obscure a slow de-evolution into relative mediocrity on the national stage, where the United States currently sits sixth in the IIHF rankings.
In case you are unfamiliar, sixth-place teams aren't typically medal-worthy. Sure, the IIHF rankings are a little wonky. Canada, the world monolith in the sport, ranks just one spot ahead of its southern-bordering country. Both North American countries suffer from not always sending their best and brightest to competitions, which leads to results not always indicative of true talent levels.
That said, the United States faces an uphill battle. Hockey typically gives one of the greatest advantages to home countries, and Russia should be a formidable foe. Sweden is a medal threat thanks to the Sedin brothers alone. And then there's Canada. Sweet, dominant, poutine-eating Canada. The country lives and dies on the ice and has won two of the last three Olympic golds.
The United States has talent and will definitely compete in Sochi, but it's going to need a few good bounces along the way. It has been matched up in Group A against Russia, meaning no matter what, an ornery home crowd awaits. Slovenia and Slovakia are the two likely ousters from that group regardless of what happens in Russia vs. Team USA, but one slip-up is enough to change that entirely.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few players who have to step up to keep the United States' medal run alive.
Zach Parise (LW)
The reasoning here is pretty obvious. Not only is Parise one of the handful of best players on the United States roster—and possibly the best, depending on who is speaking—he also received an important distinction: team captain.
Nearly every country in the field takes on the personality of their captain. Parise, the Minnesota Wild star playing in his second straight Olympic Games, was as solid a choice as any for head coach Dan Bylsma. He's a calm, collected player with a ton of goal-scoring talent—and it helps that Parise scored the goal that sent the 2010 gold-medal game to overtime.
There are a ton of leaders on this team as is—winger Dustin Brown and defenseman Ryan Suter were announced as alternate captains—but Bylsma thought Parise embodied the attitude he was trying to put together for this roster.
"When it comes to a captaincy, you are looking for people who embody who you are and how you want to play," Bylsma said, per USA Today's Kevin Allen. "I can't think of a better group or better captain than Zach Parise to lead our team."
In group play, Parise's biggest task will be keeping his team together against Russia. The United States faces off against its fiercest Group A rival Saturday in a match that will likely help determine how the rest of the tournament plays out. Both sides want to avoid Sweden and Canada for as long as humanly possible. Lose once, and the odds you'll play one of those teams before the quarterfinals raises exponentially.
Parise needs to lead the United States by playing with a toughness and avoiding any signs of intimidation. Being scared isn't something Parise is exactly known for, so the United States will be alright in that regard.
We'll just have to see whether he carried over some of his goal-scoring magic from Vancouver as well.
Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick—Whoever Plays Goalie for the United States
Bylsma was quick to name his team captain. He did so definitively and sent out heapings of praise to Parise with the announcement.
The United States head coach has done no such thing in deciding who will be in goal. The decision comes down to Buffalo Sabres star Ryan Miller and Los Angeles Kings standout Jonathan Quick, but beyond that Bylsma's strategy deploying the pair is anyone's guess.
Miller, 33, has past Olympic heroics on his side. He was a reserve in Turin eight years ago and was an absolute shining star in 2010's Vancouver Games. Playing some of the best hockey of his life, Miller had a goals-against average of just 1.35 and was named the Olympic MVP despite playing on the silver-medal team.
However, Miller hasn't quite lived up to his Olympic promise in recent years. He holds a 14-22-3 record with the Sabres coming into the Olympics, allowing 2.74 goals per contest. That's the second-highest rate of his career over a significant sample, only eclipsed by his 2.81 GAA in 2012-13.
Quick, meanwhile, is one of the best handful of goaltenders in the world. He's 16-13-2 on the season with a 2.18 goals against average, putting him just barely off his career-best 1.95 GAA pace he set in 2011-12. The Kings do a great job of keeping Quick from facing too many shots—Miller has a higher save percentage despite the higher goals allowed—and he doesn't have the same Olympic experience.
Former Olympic coach Ron Wilson told ESPN's Craig Custance that experience should give the edge to Miller:
Yeah, I am. I’ve watched Jonathan Quick, I know he’s played really well. If you just go by record and Stanley Cup—that has just as much to do with the guys in front of you as it does the guys in goal. Ryan has the experience of the Olympic Games. He was the MVP of the Olympics...I wanted to see how both of those guys played this year. Ryan has played as well as Jonathan and he has the experience of being there.
Whether Bylsma agrees is unclear. He could start with Miller and have a quick hook for Quick (pun totally intended) should he struggle. Or the opposite. Or the duo could swap in and out with every game to keep fresh, though that also opens up the possibility of ruining both players' rhythm.
Either way, goalkeeping is important. You all know that.
Ryan Suter (D)
Suter is one of two defensive holdovers from the 2010 Olympics with Brooks Orpik but stands to have the most responsibility. He and Wild teammate Parise will have the responsibility of helping establish a mindset for this team—going along with Suter's ability to hold together a tight defensive line.
The key to great goaltending that always goes under-appreciated is a stellar back line. The fewer shots a goalie faces, obviously, the fewer mind-numbing saves he needs to make, and a defense's willingness to block shots and put their body on the line is a consistent dictating factor.
Suter, 29, is in a perfect position to do just that. He's emerged as one of the finest defensemen in the NHL in recent seasons, earning his first All-Star appearance in 2012 and winning the Bobby Orr Award as the league's best defender a year later.
The United States will benefit from having Suter on both ends of the ice. Not only does he play with a gritty form, blocking shots and pushing around near the net, he's also one of the finer passers on this team. Suter has 27 assists in 59 games coming into the Olympics, putting him on pace to approach his career-high of 46 points.
Suter, of course, has Olympic play in his blood. Bob Suter, Ryan's father, was a member of the 1980 gold-medal team, and the duo have basked in their shared honor.
Odds are, the father-son relationship won't lead to shared golds. The United States is in a difficult group, facing the Russians in Sochi and have the looming specter of Canada or Sweden likely upcoming before the quarterfinals if things fall as expected.
But, as history tells us, perhaps you don't ever want to count out a Suter in the face of Russian competition.
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