Four years ago, when the U.S. men’s hockey team came up just short in the gold medal match against Canada, its members had made tremendous strides just to get to that point. The silver medal that the U.S. won was the team’s first podium finish since 2002, when the Americans also finished second behind the Canadians. Led by some of the National Hockey League’s best players in 2010, the Americans were finally competitive against the typical Olympic hockey powerhouses: Canada, Russia, Sweden. When the first men’s hockey games of the Sochi Olympics start in a mere few days, Team USA will play a solid field of international teams and will need to beat these same teams to be successful, sometimes even back to back.
When Sidney Crosby scored the overtime goal to give Canada the gold in 2010, it left a bad taste in American mouth, one that wouldn’t go away. And as the U.S. looks to make another deep run in the 2014 edition of the Olympics, 2010’s disappointment still looms. The United States had a young team then, and despite still being relatively young, the squad has 13 players returning from the silver medal-winning team. This is a team of players who will do whatever it takes to win. Considering the Americans’ last gold came in 1980, their win-at-all-cost mentality will be more important than ever.
For U.S. men’s hockey to bring home a gold medal, here are five things it will need to have happen or do as the tournament progresses.
1. Solid goaltending
Success in hockey starts and finishes with a reliable netminder, and Team USA has a problem many teams wouldn’t mind having — too many options between the pipes. The likely choice is Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, but Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has made a strong case for the starting position in the last few months. Miller also has experience on his side: As the starting Olympic goalie in 2010, his quick glove single-handedly saved the Americans more than a few times during their surprise run through the Vancouver Olympics, enough so that he was named the tournament’s MVP.
While it appears that Quick will get the start, he’ll have a short leash, and Miller certainly can be trusted in net if called on. However, head coach Dan Bylsma will want one player to take the job outright — goaltender by committee can hurt both goalies by taking them out of rhythm on the ice. If the U.S. is to have any chance in Sochi, either Quick or Miller will need to perform well above average and have an MVP-type of tournament like Miller did in 2010.
2. Playing two-way hockey
Team USA entered Sochi with a combination of forwards who have the talent to put up impressive offensive statistics, but it’s what those goal scorers do when the puck’s in their own zone that will be much more important. Two-way hockey means that the forwards spread the ice well — a critical factor because the Olympic rink is bigger than the standard NHL rink — and get back to support the defensemen. With the likes of Canada and Russia and their high-powered offenses, Team USA’s defensive-zone coverage will be paramount in achieving a gold medal, and that starts with the forwards playing both ways.
3. Youth stepping up
When the U.S. Olympic Selection Committee chose this year’s roster, they were clearly going for something different — going younger, that is. Sure, committee members will say they chose the best possible team, but after looking at some of the players left off, it seems they picked a more versatile group of guys. Consider this: Five of the eight defensemen are 25 years old or younger. The average age for a player on the team is 27, and this youth follows the success of an even younger team in 2010.
Now, you never know what to expect from inexperienced players at the Olympic level — just look at the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980. The Americans brought a full team of college players to the Olympics with no international experience, let alone professional, and used that inexperience to surprise everybody. Yes, this year’s roster is almost entirely filled with NHL players, but if history repeats itself, youth can be the difference maker.
4. The success of the top line
Though Bylsma has revealed little as to who will play on what line, it’s almost a sure thing that forwards Patrick Kane and Zach Parise will play together as wings. Both Kane and Parise played instrumental roles in Vancouver in 2010 as linemates and will need to have similar success this year.
Whereas sometimes one of the lower lines that isn’t expected to tally many points can propel a team with unexpected production, a team’s top line is similarly important to set the tone for the offense. A year ago, Kane won the Conn Smythe Trophy for being named the Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP, and he hasn’t slowed down since — he currently sits tied for fourth in points in the NHL. Alongside Parise, who scored Team USA’s tying goal late in the gold medal game in 2010 to send the contest into overtime, Kane is primed for another impressive Olympic performance. As the top line goes, it seems Team USA will go.
Luck is one thing that cannot be controlled in hockey, no matter how good of a team you are or how good of a player you are. You’ll hear players talk about “puck luck,” and this is in reference to bad bounces — or good bounces, in some cases. Luck extends further than just a fortunate bounce, too: Run up against a hot goalie and no matter how lucky you are, you’ll be hard pressed to score. As we’ve seen in the past decade, a team’s fortune can turn at any minute during the Olympic hockey tournament with a mere tap of the puck. In order to improve on 2010’s silver medal, the U.S. might need more than just a few bounces to go its way. The Americans need to be luckier than unlucky, all while playing good hockey.