Capitals defenseman John Carlson has spent the past month compartmentalizing his hockey career.
For weeks his focus was on helping the Caps stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. But once the final horn sounded in Saturday's 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils at Verizon Center, Carlson could finally look toward Sochi and the Winter Olympics, where he will play for Team USA.
As Carlson chatted with the media following Saturday's game, his black Team USA bag was crammed with gear and equipment, ready for a flight to Newark early Sunday morning and then the long trip to Russia.
"[Seeing the bag packed] is not as cool as getting picked. I've gotta carry it," Carlson cracked as he looked over at the hockey bag sitting in front of his locker emblazoned with the Team USA logo. "Definitely nervous. Anyone would be lying. But I'm excited. It's still hockey. I'm looking forward to it."
As are his teammates. Team USA is not a rag-tag bunch of misfits like the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad that captured the country's imagination by stunning the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and eventually winning the gold medal.
Hockey in this country has come too far since then. The United States is a regular contender at the under-20 World Juniors tournament, earned the silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002 on home ice and took Canada to overtime in Vancouver in 2010 before again settling for silver in a heartbreaking loss.
This year's edition, coached by Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh Penguins) looks well rounded with a couple of excellent options in goal (Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick). Most odds makers have Canada, Sweden and Russia as the favorites, but no one considers the United States a long shot. And 13 American players return from that runner-up squad, which adapted a hard-nosed style of play that helped it overcome a relative lack of high-end scoring talent, at least compared to its loaded rivals.
"And that is largely how our identity will be this time around as well, how we're going to approach the games, how we're going to play as a team and a unit," Bylsma said. "We think we're a hard team to play against. We think we're a team that's got a blue collar mentality."
Team USA opens with a game on Thursday against Slovakia, plays Russia on Saturday and Slovenia on Sunday. All 12 teams go into at least the qualification round with the top four earning a bye directly into the quarterfinals. The semifinals are on Feb. 21 with the bronze medal game on Feb. 22 and the gold medal game on Feb. 23.
With such a short turnaround, chemistry is a huge bonus. It's part of why Bylsma, according to media reports from Sochi on Monday, had forwards James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel, linemates with the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing together during practice. There just isn't enough time to prepare for a high-pressure tournament where teams will have a handful of practices to pull together. Team USA plans to rely on that experience from Vancouver even if it doesn't guarantee them a smooth transition.
"I know it was four years ago, but I think we established a pretty good identity," said Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, Team USA's captain. "We saw the way that we need to play to be successful given the way our team is made up."
The play of Miller or Quick, the two men most likely to start in goal, is crucial. Miller was brilliant in Vancouver in 2010. Bylsma has yet to name his No. 1 goalie. Meanwhile, they have a group of young defensemen in front of them, including Carlson, 23.
Five defensemen are age 24 or younger. How they adapt to the bigger international ice will go a long way towards determining how the United States fares, too. But Carlson has plenty of international experience already. His overtime goal in the 2010 World Juniors tournament won the Americans the gold medal that year.
"We've got a great skating team," Carlson said. "I think we've got great guys with good work ethic. That shows a lot about our country. And that's what will be the key to our success."
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