With the Czech Republic’s elimination of Team Slovakia—and with it, forwards Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco's participation—and Henrik Zetterberg’s herniated disc forcing him off Team Sweden’s roster, the Detroit Red Wings' Olympic representation has been whittled down from 10 to seven players.
However, of the remaining players, only six will be taking part in on-ice completion.
As the tournament progresses into the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, Team USA goalie Jimmy Howard figures to be just another spectator.
Howard’s status as a third option behind goalies Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick was established as soon as his selection to Team USA was announced—so that he’s suited up only to ride pine in Sochi is hardly a surprise.
However, now that Quick is the presumptive starter for Team USA, Miller will be the one occupying Howard’s spot on the bench, moving the Detroit goaltender to the press box.
What this means is, barring injury or some catastrophic collapse in net, Howard’s Team USA participation is essentially over.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing for the Detroit Red Wings?
One could argue that Howard, and by extension the Red Wings, is benefiting simply by getting the physical and mental rest that he’s been afforded by not suiting up for game duty for Team USA.
The mental wear and tear of regular NHL action is significant, but add to that a compact schedule and the expectations of an entire country bearing down on your team, and the strain becomes even greater.
Then again, it’s unlikely that the Los Angeles Kings are lamenting Quick’s as being the No. 1 netminder for Team USA.
Not only is he staying sharp by playing ever more meaningful games for his team, he’s potentially leading Team USA to a gold-medal finish that would yield another coveted piece of hardware to lay next to his Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies.
Perhaps Howard is actually rotting away in Sochi.
After all, keeping focus when facing a minimal amount of shots during a single game is a challenging task for a goalie—how much tougher is it to be healthy yet removed from meaningful game action for two weeks in a foreign country?
While the rest of the Detroit Red Wings team not exported to Sochi is getting some comfortable rest and relaxation, Howard is now essentially stuck in Russia, forced to become a spectator along with everyone else.
As the Red Wings will need Howard to play better than he has all season the remainder of the schedule to have any hope of making the playoffs, is sitting in Sochi really the best use of his time?
Honestly, there may be no better place for him to be at this point.
While Howard’s chance of playing a single second of meaningful hockey outside of Detroit is minuscule, the experience of being a part of a gold-medal-contending team is sure to focus his resolve to be the best player he can be when he once again puts on his Red Wings jersey.
Howard is in the unique position of taking a break from the constant pressure of winning while still being smack dab in the middle of it. He may not be personally responsible for winning gold, but he’s still a part of a team that will view anything less as failure.
For a competitive athlete, that atmosphere can be more energizing than any number of warm, sandy environs.
Resting or rotting, which perspective is truly accurate won’t be known until the puck drops Feb. 26 in Montreal, where the Red Wings resume their season.
Gold medal or no, it seems impossible that Howard will not come back to Detroit refreshed and reinvigorated and ready to put his NHL team on his back in a way he was never able to do for his national team.