By Sean Hartnett
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USA Hockey will unveil its 2014 Sochi Olympic roster at Michigan Stadium following the completion of the 2014 Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.
Twenty-five men will be given the honor and privilege of representing the United States on the Olympic stage, where hockey is played at its highest level.
Even though four years have passed, the 2010 gold-medal game remains a bittersweet memory for hockey-loving Americans. An underdog Team USA went on an incredible run that few thought was possible and came tantalizingly close to capturing the gold medal on Canadian soil in Vancouver.
With less than a minute remaining in regulation and goaltender Ryan Miller pulled from his net, six American skaters emptied their tanks. An offensive zone face-off opportunity with 54.8 seconds left on the clock gave the Americans a sliver of hope. Patrick Kane spun and threw a puck in front of Roberto Luongo’s net, Zach Parise won a scramble in front of the net and coolly scored the tying goal with 24.4 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime.
Teammates mobbed a jubilant Parise, and Americans gathered in homes and bars celebrated wildly, but celebrations would be short-lived. Sidney Crosby’s sudden death, game-winning goal sent Canada Hockey Place (Rogers Arena) into frenzy. Canada had won gold on home ice after an incredible, epic gold-medal game.
The Americans could hold their heads high as the silver medals were placed around their necks. Few expected this group to make it to the gold-medal game. This team overcame long odds to go on a run that no American hockey fan will ever forget.
USA came within a whisker of bringing home their first Olympic gold medal since 1980, when a rag-tag group of unheralded college kids pulled off “The Miracle On Ice” by defeating a dominant collection of veteran Russian stars at Lake Placid on their path toward defeating Finland, 4-2, in the gold-medal game.
Current odds-makers have listed the United States behind defending champion Canada, hosts Russia and 2006 gold-medal winners Sweden.
Once again, the Americans are considered underdogs. Team USA seems to have a knack of rising to that challenge and proving doubters wrong.
In my estimation, the pool of players whom Team USA general manager David Poile is able to choose from is deeper in 2014 than it was for previous GM Brian Burke in 2010. There will be some big names left off the final roster set to be announced on Wednesday at “The Big House.”
HARTNETT’S TEAM USA ROSTER PROJECTION
Here are the 25 men I’m expecting to be on the plane to Sochi:
Line 1: Zach Parise (C)-Joe Pavelski-Patrick Kane
Line 2: James Van Riemsdyk-Ryan Kesler-Phil Kessel
Line 3: Dustin Brown (A)-David Backes (A)-Bobby Ryan
Line 4: Max Pacioretty-Brandon Dubinsky-Ryan Callahan (A)
Extra Forwards: Paul Stastny, Blake Wheeler
Defensive Pairing 1: Ryan Suter (A)-Kevin Shattenkirk
Defensive Pairing 2: Keith Yandle-Ryan McDonagh
Defensive Pairing 3: Paul Martin-Cam Fowler
Extra Defensemen: Erik Johnson, John Carlson
Starting Goalie: Ryan Miller
Backup Goalies: Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard
DON’T EXPECT STEPAN, OKPOSO OR SCHNEIDER TO MAKE THE TRIP
Rangers center Derek Stepan started off the season in underwhelming fashion and is yet to raise his game to the level that allowed him to enjoy the finest season of his career in 2012-13. Going into the new season, Stepan was probable to make the Olympic roster, but has played his way off the team. He admitted in December that he was “a bubble guy.”
Meanwhile, former Rangers teammate Brandon Dubinsky’s play has certainly caught the eye of Poile and head coach Dan Bylsma. His production is slightly better than Stepan and plays an in-your-face game that is ideally suited for one of USA’s checking lines. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Dubinsky reunited on a line with Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
Islanders winger Kyle Okposo has enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2013-14, scoring an incredible 37 points in 40 games. Yet he’s on the bubble to make the Sochi Olympic roster. My guess is that Okposo misses the cut as Team USA will require more versatile players on their checking lines. If Okposo gets snubbed, it’s an example of the Americans’ incredible depth at forward.
Devils goalie Cory Schneider will be very unfortunate to miss out as it appears that Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings will get the nod as Team USA’s third-string goalie.
Schneider’s numbers (5-8-5, 2.13 GAA, .914 save percentage) are superior to Howard’s (6-9-7, 2.76 GAA, .906 save percentage). Unfortunately, there is a fear that Schneider will not get enough of a workload in ahead of the Olympics given that he’s splitting time with legendary Devils netminder Martin Brodeur.
It would be a shame if Schneider misses the cut. Outside of Jonathan Quick, he’s probably the most talented American goalie in the NHL.
MILLER WILL LIKELY RETAIN HIS ROLE AS USA’S No. 1 GOALIE
Ryan Miller has the experience of playing between the pipes during Team USA’s incredible run at the Vancouver Olympics and is in scorching form. Miller was able to record a career-best 49 saves in a shootout victory over Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Sunday night.
It was one of the finest performances turned in by any goalie so far in the 2013-14 season.
The 33-year-old is 4-0-1 in his past five games, which is amazing considering the dearth of talent on the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres.
TEAM USA WILL BRING STRONG CORE OF LEADERS TO SOCHI
Parise has become the face of American hockey. You can’t go wrong choosing either Parise, rugged and versatile St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, powerhouse Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown or Callahan as Team USA captain.
Each of these players are renowned for their work ethic, forechecking ability, goal-scoring skill and fearlessness. Yet Parise has a slight edge to have a “C” stitched into his USA sweater. The aforementioned Backes, Brown and Callahan and Wild teammate Ryan Suter are good bets to serve as rotating alternate captains.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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