USA Has Strength in Returning Nucleus

With the NHL season going on hiatus for the 2014 Winter Olympics men’s hockey competition in Sochi, Russia, national teams will finally begin to take shape as players work to quickly integrate their individual skills within what amounts to brand-new teams. The preliminary round for men’s ice hockey is scheduled to begin on Feb. 12, leaving less than a week for the teams to assemble in Sochi and practice.

Teams with NHL players on their roster will be waiting for those pieces to arrive, and once that bridge is crossed, it will take practice for the coaches and players to get to know each other on the ice.

Courtesy USA Hockey

Courtesy USA Hockey

With the lack of time for teams to prepare together before the continuity will be even more important in this tournament format. Familiarity will be an advantage for Team USA coach Dan Bylsma and his squad. Some 13 players return from the 2010 Winter Olympics roster in Vancouver. That’s 10 more returnees than posted on the 2010 roster, which featured only 3 players who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

New additions on the blue line such as Cam Fowler, Justin Faulk, and John Carlson have all had experience wearing the crest at the junior level. New forwards Blake Wheeler,T.J. Oshie, and New Canaan, Conn., native Max Pacioretty have all had World Championship experience for the Americans.

A close eye should be kept on Pacioretty and the role he will play for the Americans in Sochi. Pacioretty skates for the Montreal Canadiens but did not play in the Feb. 8 game against the Carolina Hurricanes because of a lower-body injury. If healthy, he is the go-to guy for the U.S. in the offensive zone. He currently sits 11th in the NHL in goals with 26. That makes him the fourth-highest NHL goal scorer on Team USA this season,  trailing Phil Kessel (30), Joe Pavelski( 29), and Patrick Kane (27).

Greenwich, Conn., native Kevin Shattenkirk is another newcomer  but is the top-scorer from the blue line, ranking 10th in the NHL with 36 points. Watch him on the power play where his capacity to score will be critical to Team USA chances.

Goalie Jimmy Howard is another Winter Olympics’ newcomer, and he is expected to hold down the third spot in the depth chart. Hamden, Conn.,native John Quick ,who was in Howard’s spot just 4 years ago, is expected to take the starting job in Sochi. Quick has posted a .911 save percentage, with a 2.18 goals against average in 32 games for the Los Angeles Kings this season. He missed about a month of action because of a lower-body injury.

Quick’s credentials are unassailable. In the 2011-12 season, he backstopped Los Angeles to the Stanley Cup over the New Jersey Devils. He earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Quick will be relied on heavily for Team USA’s gold medal hopes.

Leadership for the Americans will come from familiar faces. Zack Parise will wear the “C” as captain, with Ryan Suter and Dustin Brown sporting the “A” as alternate captains. Parise has worn a letter in previous international tournaments, including the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Team USA is set to take the ice Feb. 13 against Slovakia to start their quest for the gold.

Commentary: There looks to be 6 real contenders for the podium these games based on an analysis of team rosters. Canada, USA, Russia, and Sweden all look to have a legitimate shot to go for gold. Finland and the Czech Republic, meanwhile, have the potential to trip any of the previously mentioned teams up to reach the podium.

All of these teams are thick with NHL talent. And it’s not talent alone. It’s elite talent, the best of the best. Canada alone has the look and feel of an All-Star team up and down the roster. Russian and Swedish sweaters are worn by some of the most skilled players in the world. Team USA has an enviable mix of top skilled players at the top and versatile talent sprinkled throughout the roster that has the capacity to shut down opposing teams’ top talent.

Courtesy USA Hockey

Courtesy USA Hockey

But it comes down to Quick for Team USA.  In a tournament setting in which teams are slapped together seemingly overnight, players need to quickly absorb a system of play and find a way to fit within it. Goaltending is the one constant. A goalie can either make a stop or not regardless of the system unfolding in front of him. It’s no guarantee that the U.S power play will click right away or that the players will adjust quickly to the larger Olympic ice sheet. If things don’t go right for the Americans in the early stages or any stage, Quick must be able to steal a game for the Americans.

Quick is arguably the best goaltender in the games and is more than capable of steering the action and keeping his team in games. Rewinding back to his Stanley Cup run in 2012, Quick steadied the waters for a L.A team that struggled to score all year and in the playoffs. Quick is a battler in net, and he is capable of making some of the most spectacular saves you’ll see. He is the key to the United States success in Sochi.

Jordan Samuels-Thomas

@jsamuelsthomas19

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