Slovakia-United States Preview
After a heartbreaking defeat in the gold-medal game four years ago, the United States hopes it's poised to avoid falling short again.
Its quest for the nation's first men's Olympic hockey gold medal in 34 years begins Thursday against Slovakia, a team looking to prove that its 2010 success wasn't a fluke.
The benchmark for U.S. hockey success remains the 1980 team that stunned the mighty Soviet Union and went on to win the country's second Olympic gold in men's competition. Since the "Miracle on Ice," the Americans have earned two silver medals, both coming in the last three Winter Games.
Coming up just short means that despite possessing a loaded roster that includes some of the top players in the world, the current squad has had to face questions about that long-ago gold medal. For the first time, no players on the U.S. hockey team were born when the 1980 Winter Olympics took place.
"I think the Miracle obviously is a great accomplishment for the U.S., but it was 34 years ago, and we're still living on something that happened 34 years ago," forward David Backes said. "As great as it was, and as awesome an accomplishment, I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter, and then we can talk about `80 and 2014.''
The U.S. almost ended the drought in Vancouver in 2010, losing 3-2 in overtime to Canada in perhaps the most memorable gold-medal game in Olympic history.
"They raised the standard in 2010," U.S. defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Nothing else is acceptable for us now, other than gold."
Though the United States might not have the superior offensive talent of Canada, the overall depth of Sweden or the national incentive of Russia, Dan Bylsma's gritty group can achieve success by grinding out games and frustrating opponents.
The U.S. also has the ability to score consistently behind Phil Kessel, who is fourth in the NHL with 65 points for Toronto. San Jose's Joe Pavelski ranks among the league leaders with 29 goals and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks had three goals with two assists during the 2010 Games.
Continuity - something that Bylsma and general manager David Poile made a priority when assembling the team - could also provide an advantage. Thirteen players on the roster are veterans of the squad from four years ago.
"A lot of us were on the team in Vancouver,'' said defenseman Ryan Suter, whose father, Bob, was a member of the 1980 team. "We felt how close we really were. We all learned a lot from that experience, and I think we're just excited to be here and have another shot at this."
Though Ryan Miller was named the Most Valuable Player of the Olympic tournament in 2010, Jonathan Quick will start the opener in net for the Americans. Quick, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when he helped the Los Angeles Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup, is 16-13-2 with 2.18 goals-against average this season. He was the No. 3 goalie for the U.S. in Vancouver.
"He's a great goalie and he's going to do great for us,'' said Miller, 14-22-3 with a 2.74 GAA for the lowly Buffalo Sabres. "We'll see where it goes from here and I'll be ready to play."
The U.S. has a much-anticipated meeting with Russia on Saturday, but first the focus is on Slovakia.
Led by forward Marian Hossa, Kane's teammate in Chicago, and 6-foot-9 star defenseman Zdeno Chara of Boston, the Slovakians hope to reach the podium after finishing fifth in 2006 and fourth in 2010. They fell 5-3 to Finland in the bronze-medal game in Vancouver, blowing a 3-1 lead after two periods.
Though Slovakia has fared relatively well in recent Olympic competition, it will be without injured NHL veterans Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky in Sochi.
"I don't think we will ever be among the favorites," Chara told the International Ice Hockey Federation's official website. "We do have potential and when we play as a team, as we have shown before, we can be a very strong team. But honestly, to predict who will win or even who will be the toughest team to beat is hard."
Hossa is enjoying a strong season with the Blackhawks, compiling 24 goals and 26 assists with a plus-26 rating that's among the best in the NHL.
Slovakia also boasts a strong tandem in goal with Jaroslav Halak, 24-8-0 with four shutouts and a 2.26 GAA for St. Louis this season, and Peter Budaj, who has a 1.97 GAA in 14 games for Montreal. Halak started every game in Vancouver four years ago, while Budaj is making his third consecutive Olympic appearance.