Four years ago, the United States played the underdog role well.
The page was being turned on the red, white and blue careers of such greats as Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk with the torch being passed to the Zach Parises, Ryan Suters and Patrick Kanes.
The Olympics were being played on Canadian turf in Vancouver, so then-GM Brian Burke reminded everybody in earshot that the pressure on Canada was “massive and glacial and unrelenting.”
But the young Americans, who had only three players with previous Olympic experience, turned out to be unrelenting themselves, riding a hot goaltender in Ryan Miller and storming all the way to the gold medal game before Zach Parise paralyzed a nation with fear by forcing overtime in the waning seconds of the third period.
Sidney Crosby ruined the gold medal dreams of Parise and the other Americans with the overtime winner, but the United States’ surprise silver in 2010 has raised the expectations in Sochi.
“We won’t be sneaking up on anybody this time around,” said the Wild’s Parise, who will be a left wing on one of the top two lines for a U.S. team returning 13 players from Vancouver.
They’re no longer long shots. They’re one of the favorites.
This will be the fifth and possibly last Winter Olympics in which NHLers participate. Some teams, the Wild among them, voted against participating in these Games, so the chance the NHL will agree to halt play four years from now to allow its players to travel to South Korea is quickly becoming doubtful.
The Americans medaled in both tournaments — Vancouver and Salt Lake City in 2002 — where games were played on NHL-sized rinks. It did not medal in Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006, where games were played on an Olympic-sized rink, which is 15 feet wider.
So that’s the challenge. The U.S. brass is trying to change its poor overseas showings by choosing a team that can skate and move the puck fast, especially from the defense.
The blue line will be led by the Wild’s 30-minute-a-night, cerebral and often effortless defenseman Ryan Suter, and fellow puck movers Ryan McDonagh (Rangers), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis), Cam Fowler (Anaheim) and Justin Faulk (Carolina).
“This team could be great defensively,” said coach Dan Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. “There will be less emphasis on the physical play and more on defensemen who can really move the puck for us. There are certain aspects of the big ice that we try to be aware of. We looked at as much international hockey as we could’ve that’s been played over the last two or three years.
“We’re playing the Russians, Slovakia, Slovenia [in group play], and the way they’ve played the game the last couple of years on the big ice is different than the North American style of play.”
The Americans boast the past two Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Chicago’s Kane and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick. Coming into this NHL season, most felt Quick would be a lock to be the No. 1 goalie, but after a terrible start to this season followed by a two-month groin injury, the door has opened for Miller to potentially tiptoe back into that No. 1 role.
Either way, goaltending should be a strength.
“I wouldn’t want to face them,” said center David Backes, the captain of the St. Louis Blues.
Backes, Parise and Suter are three members of the five-player leadership corps, which includes Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown and the Rangers’ Ryan Callahan.
There are gamebreakers in Kane and Toronto’s Phil Kessel, quality two-way players such as Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler and St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie and some big, aggressive players who can score, such as Montreal’s Max Pacioretty and Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk.
“You look at this team, it’s not a team that will overwhelm opponents with star power or skill,” Bylsma said. “This is a team. This is a group of guys — a lot of leaders, a lot of role players, a lot of grit, a lot of character.”
It took a while for the 2010 disappointment of not winning gold to wear off for Parise. He has made it clear the Americans are going to Russia determined to win it all.
“I’ve been either fortunate or unfortunate to lose in both finals [Stanley Cup and gold medal game],” Parise said. “You grow up and you dream about winning the Stanley Cup, not so much about the Olympic gold. Once you experience it and play for the national team, you see what it signifies for the country.
“[In 2010], we just found ourselves a tough team to play. We really played for each other, and I don’t think we really knew what we were capable of accomplishing. We found some good goaltending, and the next thing we knew we were in the gold medal game. Hopefully, this time around, we’ll give ourselves another chance to play in that game.”