This article originally appeared on PhillyFanComplex.com .
Do you believe in miracles?!
(Thank you, Al Michaels, for that stirring introduction. Here's your $50. Go tell Cris Collinsworth to turn his mic off when he hocks a loogie .)
Entering the 2010 Winter Olympics, the American hockey team is far from a favorite to medal in Vancouver. For good reason, this year's roster is much changed from the one Team USA took to Italy in 2006, which finished in eighth place (1-4-1). Many of the players that helped the United States reach the silver medal game in 2002 against Canada are either on the decline or retired, and in their place is a new crop of skilled players well-suited for the "new" NHL. (We are still calling it that, right?)
Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, and John LeClair were all on the 2002 silver-medal team in Salt Lake City. While Modano is the only one left playing in the NHL, U.S. GM Brian Burke built his team around youth, grit, and speed, seeing as it may be the only way for the Americans to compete for a medal.
Jamie Langenbruner, Chris Drury, and Brian Rafalski are the only players on the team with previous Olympic experience. Drury may be the biggest question mark Burke chose, as the Rangers' captain is making just under $1 million ($8.05 million in 2009-10 salary) for goals this season (nine). Langenbruner will serve as the team's captain, while Rafalski will likely serve as the top defenseman, but if USA is to go deep into this tournament, it will be because of their young players.
No one is questioning the talent on Team USA; rather, it is whether they are talented (or experienced) enough. Patrick Kane is the top forward on the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the best teams in the NHL. Zach Parise finished third in the NHL with 45 goals last season, Paul Stastny has helped lead the turnaround of the Avalanche, and Phil Kessel is one of the top snipers in the game. Cherry Hill-native Bobby Ryan, however, may be the best of them all. Most of the forward group are either defensive forwards with some offensive upside or gritty players brought in to keep other teams on edge.
Team USA's defense has been decimated by injuries, as two of their top-six defenseman will miss the Games: Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek. Tim Gleason and Ryan Whitney replace those two. Rafalski is the senior defender on this roster, but is surrounded by Olympic rookies. Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson were two top draft picks, while Brooks Orpik is an underrated defenseman on the Penguins who played a big role in their winning the Stanley Cup last year.
What most are wondering is whom will play the majority of games in net, a position once regarded as the strongest by far on the team. Ryan Miller looked to be a lock to carry the starting job in Vancouver, but has struggled of late, perhaps because of his heavy workload for the Buffalo Sabres (49 starts in 58 games). Conventional-wisdom backup Tim Thomas has not fared much better, however, while newcomer Jonathan Quick has made a bid to get some time in net, if not starts. The Los Angeles netminder has 34 wins on the season for a surprise Kings team. If the other two goalies struggle, there is no reason not to give Quick a shot.
This team certainly is built in Burke's image—forward David Backes picked three consecutive fights with Team Canada members after being named to the American roster, and Vancouver Canucks forward (and R.J. Umberger's bro ) Ryan Kesler predicted the Americans would not only beat Canada, but would medal —but so were the Toronto Maple Leafs, the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Where Team USA will finish is anyone's guess. We'll give you ours on Monday.
Group A: One Powerhouse, Two Dark Horses...and Norway
Team USA will play in Group A, along with hockey dynamos Switzerland and Norway and relative newcomer Canada. The schedule as follows sets up for a North American showdown next Sunday night:
- Tuesday, Feb. 16: USA vs. Switzerland, 3:00 pm EST
- Thursday, Feb. 18: USA vs. Norway, 3:00 pm EST
Sunday, Feb. 21: USA vs. Canada, 7:40 pm EST
This Olympics will be the first played on an NHL-sized rink, with the games played in the Canucks' home, GM Place (renamed the internationally bland "Canada Hockey Place" during the games because of sponsor restrictions—not that it's any better than Bankrupt General Motors Place) and UBC Winter Sports Centre, home of college hockey's UBC Thunderbirds.
We would be remiss, of course, if we did not mention the American women. Much like the men's team, the women's is one short on experience, with only six previous Olympians on the roster. The U.S. women fared significantly better than the men at the 2006 Games, earning a bronze medal. In Group B, USA will play China, Finland, and Russia in round-robin play. Both Finland and Russia are tough draws for the American women, as Finland won the gold medal in 2006.
The men's tournament is larger than the women's, with 12 teams compared to eight, respectively. The teams are split into groups of four for round-robin play: three groups in the men's bracket, two in the women's. After round-robin play within the group, top-seeded teams move on to the medal round.
Norway's hockey team is participating in its first Olympics since 1994, and for good reason. Until recently, there was only one NHLer on its roster: former Flyer Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who is now playing in the AHL after being traded to Detroit. When the oft-injured Tollefsen is your only NHL player, your Olympic experience will likely be a short one.
Switzerland is a team the favorites should be wary of for one reason: Jonas Hiller. The Anaheim Ducks goaltender and Swiss-native will be in goal for the Flying Red Crosses in Vancouver, and, as shown in the NHL playoffs last season, is capable of carrying his team a long way. Canada already knows the impact a goaltender can have in the Olympics. Behind Martin Gerber's 49-save shutout, Switzerland defeated the Canadians in 2006, 2-0. Defenseman Mark Streit is the other NHLer on the Swiss roster, and Flyers-prospect-turned-Chris-Pronger-ransom Luca Sbisa, now playing junior hockey, will also play in Vancouver.
Canada, of course, is the birthplace of hockey. After winning gold in 2002, the best hockey players in the world finished just one spot above the Americans in Italy, seventh. This year's team is much-improved over that one, however. Sidney Crosby was left off the 2006 team, but will center the top line between Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash in Vancouver, bumping Joe Thornton to the second line with his San Jose teammates Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. With the pressure (relatively) off Thornton and co. to lead the way offensively, maybe they can step up for once in big games. Maybe.
Of course, two Philadelphia Flyers will be playing in Vancouver for Canada, the aforementioned Pronger and Mike Richards, and a third may be joining them (Jeff Carter). This will be Pronger's fourth Olympics, making him one of the senior members alongside Scott Niedermayer; he will serve as an alternate captain. Richards will be playing in his first Olympics. Expect him to play a checking role, probably alongside Brenden Morrow and perhaps Jonathan Toews. Carter will likely only play if Ryan Getzlaf is not ready to play.
The puck drops Saturday for the women, and Tuesday for the men.