THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2010 AT 10:48PM
By Derek Esposito, TheSportsHatch.com correspondent
In just over a week, the United States Men's Hockey team has gone from a long-shot, a "wing-and-a-prayer" scrappy underdog to an undefeated favorite. The American public, not to mention the world, is getting a taste of the excitement that US hockey fans have been feeling for over a year, when it became clear just how different our national team would look from years past.
These games represent a changing of the guard for U. S. hockey - the faces that people have become accustomed to for the last decade (or longer) are becoming fazed out for the future. Names such as Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, Doug Weight and other classic figureheads of team U.S.A are not represented on this roster.
In fact, only two players from the 2006 Winter Olympics return for this year - defenseman Brian Rafalski and forward Chris Drury. Interestingly, they have been two of the most effective players, and they are certainly offering just as much off the score sheet, providing leadership and veteran savvy to this young roster. The forwards are especially wet behind the ears, with 10 of the 13 being age 25 or younger.
It's safe to say that this team has performed well above expectations. Most would project USA to be a solid "maybe" for a medal. Canada and Russia were heavily favored, with Sweden right behind them and dark horses Slovakia, Finland, and the Czech Republic right in the mix.
After Canada's absolute thrashing of Russia, and the United States squeaking by the dangerous Swiss, all eyes are looking towards a possible US-Canada rematch in the gold medal game. Even the most optimistic of American fans cannot be salivating at that possibility, but you never know what can happen in a single-elimination tournament.
While Canada is a true hockey juggernaut, America is brimming with confidence at their success, with much thanks to the absolutely stellar play of goaltender Ryan Miller.
Playing for Team USA for the first time, Ryan Miller's performance has been a revelation to the country. Since Sunday, I've had more people ask me who Ryan Miller plays for in the NHL than just about any other hockey-related question. The reality is that Ryan Miller has been quietly putting up a career season in Buffalo, and barring a complete post-Olympic collapse, has the Vezina Trophy (awarded to best NHL regular season goaltender) locked up.
His outstanding play this year was just making people anticipate his Olympic debut even more. Miller's stoic confidence and poise are the perfect compliment to this exuberant, young US team. Hockey goaltenders are a unique breed in sports - the closest comparison would be a football quarterback, but it goes even further than that. They are the focal point of the team, and good goaltending makes a team better just as much as a poor goaltender makes a team bad.
There is a bit of a "chicken or the egg" scenario - whenever teams go into freefalls in the standings (see the Bruins recent slump). Is the team playing worse because they are getting spotty goaltending, or is the goaltending worse because the team is playing poorly defensively?
There's no question that a timely save will give a team a surge of energy just as much as scoring a goal of your own. On that same token, a soft goal going in at the wrong time is one of the most deflating feelings in hockey, the equivilent to a sucker punch to the gut. Ryan Miller just exudes calmness and confidence, which simply gives his team confidence in his confidence.
A red-hot goaltender can absolutely steal a game that the team has no business winning - observe Jonas Hiller nearly accomplishing that exact thing in Switzerland's 2-0 loss to the USA in the previous round. Miller gives Team USA that opportunity each and every night, and Canada certainly would have steamrolled the US if not for the game he played.
One thing the United States needs to figure out is how to score more goals. Bobby Ryan (2nd overall pick in 2006, behind Sidney Crosby, you may have heard of him), who scored a beautiful goal in the opening game, has been quiet lately. Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, 2 of America's quick, young snipers, have not scored since the 6-1 blowout versus the lowly Norweigens. Kessel had a beautiful chance in the Swiss victory, but rang it off the crossbar.
America's "role players", like Chris Drury, Ryan Callahan, David Backes, Ryan Malone, and Brooks Orpik have been America's best players, and the reason they've advanced to the semis. Now it's time for the goal scorers to step up, or the U.S. will not prevail against Miikka Kiprusoff and the Finns and (I assume) Roberto Luongo and the Canadians.