Commentary

Goaltending key for U.S. underdogs

Updated: February 16, 2010, 12:52 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

The question almost always draws a smirk or a knowing smile. It's as if these players know something nobody else does.

How do you feel about nobody picking your team for the gold medal, Team USA?

"We have no problem [with] people thinking we're not going to be a contender, but all of us, to a man, believe we are," Olympic captain Jamie Langenbrunner told ESPN.com with a smirk.

"I think when teams play us they'll be thinking they should watch out for us, they'll be thinking we're a capable team with some skill," said forward Joe Pavelski. "But it's always fun to be an underdog, because everyone in our locker room knows what we're capable of."

It would indeed be a mild surprise if this edition of the U.S. Olympic hockey team captured gold in Vancouver. They don't have the overall talent and experience of Canada, Russia and Sweden. But they've got skill, the right level of cockiness and, most importantly, the best goaltending since the Mike Richter era.

Beware, hockey world: This team believes in each other. Here are 10 things you need to know about Team USA:

1. The goalie

Vezina Trophy candidate Ryan Miller is the most-often-mentioned player when anyone connected with hockey tries to predict Team USA's chances. He undoubtedly gives the Americans a chance.

"It's flattering when you hear that," Miller told ESPN.com. "I don't know how many photo sessions I've had with the American flag draped around me or behind me; it's bordering on ridiculous. You know, I'm one piece of the team. I understand the whole concept of a goalie being able to steal a game. In these tournaments, everyone starts to hype how a goalie can steal a game; just like the Stanley Cup playoffs, everybody starts to hype how a hot goalie can win you a Stanley Cup. But the team in front of you has to play solid, and the goalie almost always reflects the way his team is playing.

"You're not going to skate through a tournament or win a Stanley Cup without a team that's paying attention to detail," continued the Buffalo Sabres netminder. "So I'm going to try and hold up my end of the bargain and give my team a chance to win. And if I feel I've given them that opportunity, then I've done the best I can, and hopefully that's good enough."

Dominik Hasek at the 1998 Games in Nagano. Martin Brodeur in Salt Lake City in 2002. Henrik Lundqvist in 2006. Yes, a hot goalie can be the difference.

"Our goalie is playing well, and goaltending in that tournament is so huge," said U.S. forward Ryan Kesler. "A goalie gets hot for two weeks and you get a really good chance to win a medal, and possibly a gold medal."

Behind Miller stands reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas and the red-hot Jonathan Quick, who is having a standout NHL season with the Kings. The Americans take a back seat to no one in goal in this tournament.

2. Youthful Yanks

Team USA is believed to be the youngest squad in the tournament, with an average age of 26.5, although we won't officially know until all rosters are registered Monday night. There was a deliberate effort by the management team to usher in a new era. Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, Erik Johnson … this is your time now; you are the new Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Chris Chelios, and the Vancouver Olympics is your opening chapter.

The youth also translates into a lack of experience, but coach Ron Wilson chooses to embrace that fact.

"I like the youthful enthusiasm," Wilson told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "When we won the World Cup in 1996, we had easily the youngest team there. Our core players were 24 years old and less. That's essentially what this group is. At some point, you're going to crack through and win something where you don't have any experience, and suddenly you do after you've won something. I like the youthful enthusiasm, because on paper maybe we can't match up with some people in terms of experience, but that doesn't matter to a young group of guys. They don't care about that."

Well, what else is the coach going to say? The bottom line is, this is where the Americans might show cracks. This is the biggest stage of all, in perhaps the tournament of our lifetime for the sport of hockey, and you really don't know for sure how these youngsters will react and perform under that kind of spotlight. They've never seen anything like this before.

3. A balanced lineup

Team USA GM Brian Burke and his management team did not select an All-Star team; they tried to select a team. While star players on other countries' teams will be asked to play different roles, especially those for Russia, Sweden and Canada, the feeling with Team USA is that the players picked will be able to resume very similar roles to those they have on their NHL teams.

"Yes, I like the balance that we have in our lineup," Wilson said. "I think we have goal-scoring, I think we've got grit, I think we've got guys who can play on the power play and guys who are really good at killing penalties. We have balance; that's one area nobody really looks at. I can't say that we can throw out four high-powered lines like maybe a Canada or a Russia, but I think we have balance, a nice blend and mix."

4. Where size matters

There were some pretty talented forwards left off this team, notably the likes of T.J. Oshie, Tim Connolly, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. But that's because Burke wanted to have some more beef in his ranks, as well. That's why David Backes and Ryan Malone, among others, are on the team. It's also why a rugged defenseman like Tim Gleason got the call to replace the injured Mike Komisarek.

"When we're playing Canada, for example, their top line -- let's say it's the [Joe] Thornton line -- you have to have the physical capability of being able to bang with those guys and make it difficult," Wilson said. "Smaller guys, we'd get eaten up by the Thornton line. … It's different than the previous three Olympic tournaments; you couldn't go out there and really start banging on a big rink and not eventually pay a price for it.

"We're not going to be running people or anything like that, but it's being able to be along the boards with a Joe Thornton or a Ryan Getzlaf and not being pushed out of the way."

5. The captain

Langenbrunner gets goose bumps when he pictures himself skating on the Canada Hockey Place ice with the "C" on his Team USA jersey.

"Yeah, I've thought about it," Langenbrunner said. "It's an honor. It's something that, until I actually pull the jersey over and see it on there, it may not quite sink in."

Is there enough leadership on this team? Defenseman Brian Rafalski is the old goat on the team at age 36 and brings a wealth of experience and leadership. Dustin Brown is an NHL captain, Kesler is a big leader in Vancouver and Chris Drury largely made this team because of his leadership skills.

6. The "Miracle" anniversary

It's been 30 years without an Olympic men's hockey gold medal for the United States, 30 years since the "Miracle" upset against the former Soviet Union that may never be matched. That 30-year anniversary is an easy motivational tool for this year's team.

"It's awesome. I've watched the movie; I've watched the actual game [on tape]," said Kesler, who was born four and half years after the "Miracle" game. "We're not a bunch of amateur players; we're professionals, but it's a chance to write our own script. We're not favored going in there, but we're going to leave everything out there."

7. The link to the 1996 World Cup

The "Miracle" talk is fine and dandy, but the truth is the more relevant link for these players is the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the biggest U.S. hockey victory since 1980 and one that also featured NHL players. Best on best. And it just so happens that the same coach is behind the bench this time around as '96.

"We don't have many guys on this team who watched, if any, the 1980 Olympics," Wilson said. "To them, it's the movie, and the coach isn't Herb Brooks, it's Kurt Russell. But the 1996 team is relevant to these guys because they would have been kids and watched it.

"They've maybe played with Keith Tkachuk or Mike Modano or Bill Guerin along the way. Those guys have told the stories, and everybody knows about that team. And I guess I'm the bridge now from that team to this one. We'll try to create the same sort of atmosphere."

8. A key injury

Everyone is saying the right things, but losing Paul Martin was a major blow to the Americans. He's arguably the best all-around blueliner in the NHL with a U.S. passport.

"That one is going to hurt somewhat, although not as much as in the past, because we do have depth," Wilson said. "Ryan Whitney [Martin's replacement] over the last few years has established himself certainly as a top-four defenseman, and maybe even deserved to be on the team that we announced on New Year's Day."

9. Go, go, go

Team USA wants to play an up-tempo style, a go-go-go system that will maximize one of the team's greatest strengths: speed.

"We've got really good speed that can match up with anybody," Wilson said. "We don't want to sit back and try to win games 2-1 or 1-0. We want to be able to pressure the puck up the ice, and if we don't have it, we're constantly in hot pursuit to get the puck back."

10. Still, they're underdogs

We end it where we started it. There are many things to like about this young and skilled Team USA outfit, but they remain underdogs going into Vancouver. Those are the facts.

"We're not underdogs by design; we're underdogs," Burke said. "There's not going to be a penny bet on this team. We know that and we accept that. We have much more faith in our group than the public's going to have. But in this tournament, all the money is going to be on Canada and Russia, and to a lesser extent on Sweden. And the pressure on Canada, being the clear favorite and playing on home soil, is going to be unbelievable."

There's a definite chip on the collective shoulders of this team.

"I guess you would like to be considered with a bit more respect," Miller said. "But we do have a team that has to prove itself. We have a lot of guys going to their first Olympics, and it's also a young team. I don't think we are without skill. I think we have a lot of talent, and we're going to have a lot of players that are hungry to play. I think that if we can come together and click in that system that Ron Wilson has been talking about, it's going to be up-tempo and puck pressure and puck control. If we can commit to that and we can execute it, I think that teams are going to have a hard time with us."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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