Through the preliminary round at the 2014 Winter Olympics, the United States men’s hockey team has turned heads with 3 solid victories. An impressive win over Slovakia in their first game was the beginning of a run that has them holding the #2 seed in Sochi. They will face off against Czech Republic, an underrated team that held off that same Slovakia team early Tuesday, winning 5-3. With an undefeated record being necessary for USA hockey to win the gold medal and the country buzzing about their play, the road to the top of the podium has some gigantic steps with the way the bracket is set up.
First, we’ll start with the good news. The United States has already faced and handled the home team in Russia and won’t have to play them unless both make it to the gold medal game. This is important since any team that runs into the Russians have to deal with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and a cast of fans hungry for gold.
But here is the bad news. If the USA men’s hockey takes care of business against the Czechs, which they should, it will almost undoubtedly set up the game that everyone wants to see, USA vs. Canada. Team Canada duels Latvia on Wednesday and that game is nothing more than a tune-up game for the Canadians. That semifinal game between USA and Canada renews the rivalry from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and what happened there doesn’t need to be restated.
Similar to those 2010 Olympics, the United States faces another uphill battle if they want to upset the Canadians. USA may not be comprised of the elite talent that Canada has, but that wasn’t what the selection committee was looking for. The USA men’s hockey team is built with players who know their role. The likes of Ryan Callahan and Dustin Brown are just as important to this squad as Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel because of their willingness to pressure on the forecheck and create havoc for the opposition’s defensemen. These role players are going to be the key if the United States is going to beat Canada en route to the gold medal game.
The most important part of Team USA moving forward is goaltender Johnathan Quick. His style is not the way you might teach a young goalie to play the position, but he finds a way to stop the puck. He’ll be counted on moving forward to be the best goalie tournament and it will take a herculean effort from him if the US gets to the gold medal game. It will be similar to Ryan Miller’s importance in 2010 when he shouldered the load throughout the tournament.
With a great preliminary round now in the rear view mirror, the most exciting portion of the tournament now waits ahead. Single eliminations situations are very rare in hockey and almost impossible to predict. USA is firing on all cylinders despite the lack of the same star power of Canada or Russia. They aren’t built like any other team in this tournament. Against the more powerful teams moving forward, defense and goaltending have to be stellar and they can’t get into the high paced games their opponents are going to want to play.
USA hockey’s first gold medal in 34 years would be important for the sport in the states and the player’s would be heroes on home soil. They have the pieces to get it done, it just all comes down to performing on the world’s biggest stage.