Maybe you’ve heard, but Ryan Miller will not get the first start for Team USA in Sochi. Jonathan Quick will go against Slovakia in the first round robin game and it would appear that many a fan is up in arms over the decision.
There shouldn’t be too much cause for concern that Miller either a, won’t wind up being the go-to guy for the US; or b, won’t see any ice at all during the Olympics. While Quick is getting the nod against Slovakia that doesn’t rule Miller out of either of the following round robin games, nor does it mean that he isn’t in line to see significant time in the tournament.
What is known is that Quick was the prohibitive favorite to not only make the US team but carry the squad based on the USA Hockey meetings that began this summer. This much was spelled out clearly in the behind-the-scenes coverage granted to Kevin Allen and Scott Burnside. Based on the coverage, Quick’s hold on the number one spot, in the eyes of the USA Hockey management team, maintained throughout the year and even through his injury. However, Miller’s play not only elevated him to the forefront of the goaltending conversations, but from fourth to second in the eyes of the decision makers.
Since Quick entered the year with what appears to be a large lead over his fellow countrymen, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re expecting to get him a game and an early one in the tournament. He certainly deserves a start and having him go against a team like Slovakia is a good choice for Bylsma. The Slovaks have an impressive roster and should make some noise in the tournament. However, you’d also expect that they’re still out matched by the US which will allow Quick to play against a formidable opponent with what should amount to strong support from the team in front of him.
What worries me about Quick is how he will adjust to the big ice. He’s an aggressive goaltender who gets out of his paint to challenge shooters. That can get you into trouble on the wide ice as there’s more space to cover on cross-ice passes. The altered angles and bigger zones will cause all goaltenders to adjust their games and for a goalie who relies on his athleticism and aggressive play like Quick, I’m not overly confident in how he’ll handle the bigger surface. That isn’t to say that Miller is a better choice, but it’s something I’ve been curious about regarding Quick and how he’d fare on the bigger surface.
As it stands today, there’s no official word on who the American starter will be against the Russians on Saturday. It could very well be Quick if he’s impressive against the Slovaks. It’s equally likely that Miller gets to prove his mettle against the host Russians as Bylsma tries to determine who his goalie for the elimination round will be.
The Americans are at a slight disadvantage in that they’re not only facing their two toughest tests of the preliminary round first, but their pool is perhaps the toughest of the three. Mike Babcock has the luxury of taking a long look at both of his goalies as Canada’s pool is not only much easier by comparison to Group A, but their toughest test doesn’t come until game three.
Bylsma is in a tough spot because he doesn’t have the luxury of juggling his goalies as two strong outings to start the tournament will be vital to finding a spot in the top-four (something I don’t think is all that important as I’ll explain later). While I think the opportunity to split the games is there, I can see where picking one guy and running with him could be the best course of action. And, should that decision give Bylsma a former Olympic MVP as his ace in the hole, I fully understand the logic.
I don’t know if it’s a safe assumption to say that the goaltenders would spilt the first two games, but I could certainly see why Blysma would roll the two out against the two toughest teams they’ll see prior to the elimination round. I’m not going to be surprised in the least if Miller is named the starter against Russia. If Bylsma is taking a similar approach to that of Mike Babcock it would explain everything clearly. Allowing each to play will allow the staff to identify which one is in a better position to succeed over the rest of the tournament.
The trump card here is if Quick is phenomenal against Slovakia. If he earns a second start on Saturday, things could get dicey for Miller as the tired narrative of a hot goalie in a short tournament will certainly be on everyone’s mind when it comes to who should be playing the important games.
In a slightly unrelated thought I also expect Jimmy Howard to serve as backup for at least one game (probably Slovenia) just as Quick did in 2010.
One other thought I had was that if the Americans wind up outside the top-four after the qualifying round without a definitive choice in net, they wouldn’t be up a creek in having to play that one extra elimination game. With the way the qualification round will likely play out, grabbing fourth place will be a challenge – as the Finns are likely to benefit in a similar manner as the Canadians will – and the fifth and sixth place teams will not face stiff competition in the first elimination round. Given that the US would likely see the Austrians or Latvians in that round, the game would serve as one final tune up for the goaltenders and team as a whole.
Although playing an additional game in a short tournament isn’t ideal, having that one additional warm up (if you will) could go a long way in helping the team to gel and the coaching staff to fully evaluate what they have.
That being said, if Bylsma wasn’t sure who his guy was going to be, he could hypothetically spilt the opening four games if need be to determine which goaltender was on his game. That’s a real longshot and I expect that Bylsma already knows exactly what he wants to do.