By Sean Hartnett
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The United States men’s ice hockey team’s quest for gold will begin just after the sun rises on the East Coast on Thursday morning.
The 7:30 a.m. start (4:30 p.m. in Sochi) will force many Americans to follow along on their laptops, smartphones and office computers with a cup of coffee in hand, while West Coast hockey fans will have to set their alarms for an ungodly 4:30 wake-up. A dedicated few will gather at New York City bars dressed in red, white and blue when captain Zach Parise and Co. kick off their Olympic campaign.
It will be crucial for the U.S. to get off to a flying start in their opening game against Slovakia, as the top four teams at the end of the preliminary round will automatically advance to the quarterfinals. Making this game even more crucial is the fact that the U.S. will continue preliminary round play on Saturday morning against host nation Russia, which is considered one of the favorites in this tournament.
Thankfully for the Americans, this year’s edition of the Slovakian national team is much weaker than years past and is hampered by two key injuries that will prevent it from being a tricky opponent at these Olympics.
In previous Olympics, Slovakia has shown that it can match the U.S. firepower. The last time these teams met was in 2006, when the Slovaks defeated the Americans 2-1.
In 2014, the scenario has changed dramatically. Gone are Slovakian goal-scoring heroes of yesteryear: Ziggy Palffy, Miroslav Satan and Jozef Stumpel. A young group of talented offensive players has not emerged to replace those retired stars.
SLOVAKIAN TEAM IS BATTERED BY KEY INJURIES
Slovakia is light on goal-getters due to the absence of Columbus Blue Jackets’ winger Marian Gaborik. A broken collarbone has ruled him out for the entire Olympics. His loss will allow American defenders to focus on Chicago Blackhawks star sniper Marian Hossa.
Slovakia’s blue line is also lighter due to the absence of New York Islanders’ defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who missed more than 40 games this season due to a concussion. Despite recently returning to his NHL club, Visnovsky was not cleared to participate in Sochi.
AMERICANS ARE MORE PHYSICAL AND FASTER
The U.S. team is packed with speed and brawn. The Americans not only possess speedsters like Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane, but also a number of big hitters in David Backes, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan.
This year’s U.S. team has the ability to play solid hockey in all three zones, frustrate opponents with puck pursuit and use tireless legs to wear teams down. The American roster is loaded with players who excel in the two-way game.
U.S. PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Blackhawks’ superstar Patrick Kane is one of the tournament MVP favorites due to his explosive stride and exceptional sniping ability. He has the complete package of lighting speed, nifty stick-handling skills, accurate shooting and hockey sense.
The Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh is already known as a shutdown defenseman. He has now added an increased offensive dimension to his game under coach Alain Vigneault. McDonagh is capable of logging 25-31 minutes per game and can play in all situations.
While this is McDonagh’s first Olympics, he’s a cool customer who will not be awed by the Sochi spotlight.
SLOVAKIAN PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Captain Zdeno Chara, who plays professionally for the Boston Bruins, is equally adept at launching devastating hits and unleashing monster shots. The 6-foot-9 defenseman is lethal on the power play, featuring a slap shot that has exceeded 108 mph.
Jaroslav Halak is a very capable netminder. Through 39 games this season for the St. Louis Blues, Halak is 24-8-4 record with a 2.26 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.
Keep in mind, though, those numbers were amassed behind a St. Louis defense that is one of the strongest in the NHL. It will be interesting to see how Halak fares with an ordinary Slovakian defense in front of him.
QUICK STARTS IN NET FOR TEAM USA
To the surprise of some, U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma made a big call by naming the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick as his starting goalie over veteran Ryan Miller, who led the Americans to the gold medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Games and is enjoying an excellent season for the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres.
Quick is regarded as a top-tier NHL goalie with a winning pedigree and big-game experience. In 2012, the former New England prep hockey standout led the Kings to a Stanley Cup championship. Quick earned Conn Smythe honors, posting an unbelievable .946 save percentage during the playoffs.
Through 32 games this season, Quick is 16-13-2 with a 2.18 GAA and .911 save percentage.
Miller’s win-loss record and GAA this season are deceiving considering the Sabres have a league-low 38 points in 57 games. He is 14-22-3 with a 2.74, respectively, but his save percentage is .923. Any playoff contender with a goaltending issue would be desperate to get their hands on Miller, as he’s capable of stepping in and providing elite-level play. For the U.S., Miller will serve as an outstanding backup option, ready to step into the spotlight should Quick suffer a dip in performance or go down with an injury.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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