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A United States hockey gold wouldn’t qualify as a miracle in Sochi

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2014

ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- It has been 34 years since the United States men's hockey team captivated the country with its Miracle on Ice.

But with the 2014 Winter Olympics just weeks away now in the Russian resort town of Sochi, it is clear there wouldn't be anything miraculous about a gold medal this time around. The United States hasn't won the tournament since that stunning victory in 1980, but the men who put this year's roster together believe the country's talent pool is deeper than its ever been. That has changed the perception of USA hockey around the world.

"As we head to Sochi I really feel that we have the chance to win," said Team USA general manager David Poile on Wednesday after the Winter Classic game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium. "I think we expect to win. I think for the first time other countries are regarding the U.S. as one of the favorites in the Olympics."

Poile and his brain trust, however, saw some obvious changes that needed to be made to the roster. Team USA came within a goal of winning gold in Vancouver in 2010 only to lose on a Sidney Crosby overtime winner. It also reached the final in Salt Lake City in 2002. But when the Olympics have moved outside of North America, and its smaller ice rinks, American players have struggled to adapt to the larger ice surfaces, where elite skating ability is a must.

And so decisions were made with that in mind. No longer do Team USA officials strictly choose who they believe are its best players. Sometimes that works. The United States has won silver twice since 2002 and won the 1996 World Cup, an event that has since been discontinued. Other times it leads to disjointed squads. In the six Olympics held since 1984 where it didn't win silver, Team USA placed fourth once and sixth or worse five times.

This time Poile and his staff left out players who may be more talented, but didn't necessarily fit his puzzle. Defensemen Jack Johnson (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Erik Johnson (Colorado Avalanche), two stalwarts of the USA Hockey development program, were cut. Both men were on Team USA in Vancouver and are in the primes of their careers at age 26 and 25 respectively.

Instead, five defensemen age 24 or younger made the team, including Caps defenseman John Carlson, 23. Winger Bobby Ryan (Ottawa Senators) has 17 goals already this NHL season and played for Team USA in 2010. At age 26, he won't be going to Sochi, either. That would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

"The quantity and especially the quality of [American] players is so much higher than it's ever been before," Poile said. "And it's sort of the good news/bad news, if you will. The bad news is these are top, top players that have done fabulous for their hockey careers, fabulous for the U.S. and other opportunities. And we've made decisions to go in other directions. And it was hard."

In goal, Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay) ranks third in the NHL in save percentage and yet won't be on the team at all. Poile went with Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings), Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings) and Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres). Quick has won a Stanley Cup, Howard is in his fifth year as a starter for perennial contender Detroit and yet Miller, laboring night after night for a bad Buffalo team, is the likely No. 1. It's possible no country has better depth in goal than Team USA.

Poile also emphasized finding players who have built-in chemistry. On display at the Winter Classic were Toronto linemates James van Riemsdyk, who scored a goal in the Maples Leafs' 3-2 shootout victory, and Phil Kessel. They will likely be together on a line in Sochi, too.

Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik made the team as well. Those veterans have killed penalties together for Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who is also Team USA's coach in Sochi.

"[It's about] getting better as far as knowing where the other guy is going to be and just little plays you can make out there just by having that feeling that the guy might be there," van Riemsdyk said. "I think that's a good thing for us going over there. In tournaments like this, the quicker you can build chemistry on a team obviously bodes well for your setup. It's going to be huge."

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