By Andrew Imber
Goaltending is the one position that can really take over a game on its own. If your goalie doesn’t give up a goal, you can’t lose. On the other side, if you are constantly giving up weak goals, it is impossible to build any momentum, and games can get away from you quickly.
For a while, United States hockey has been associated with superior goaltending. This is especially true lately, where we’ve seen USA goaltenders steal the show at the 2010 Olympics and 2013 World Junior Championships. When you have a confident goaltender, it changes the entire complexion of the game.
With the potential leak that came out a couple of days ago about the United States goaltending selections, this isn’t so much of a projection anymore. Obviously, there is a chance that the report isn’t true, but it appears that the goalies have been selected.
It is hard to imagine that even as recently as last season, Ryan Miller was a bubble player for the Sochi squad. After he took over the 2010 Olympics and nearly led the United States to gold as the tournament’s best player, it seemed impossible to envision the 2014 team without his presence. But that became a possibility, as a declining Buffalo roster set the stage for a severe drop in play and numbers from the talented netminder. Perhaps the thought of the Olympics closing back in has helped Miller recover this year, and the Sabres goalie has played spectacularly, despite being under seige most nights. He is the most steady American goaltender and has the experience to be penciled in as the starter.
If Miller was on the bubble last year, Jonathan Quick was the run away projected starter. Despite only one really quality regular season, Quick starred in the 2012 Stanley Cup run for the Kings, and again in the 2013 playoffs. The guy shows up when it counts, and it looked as though he’d get another chance to try out his clutch game in Sochi. However, mediocre play and a bad groin injury have combined to put his chances in jeopardy. Still look for Quick to make the team and be ready to step in if Miller falters at all. But, it would take a lot at this point to see Quick head into Sochi as the number one.
Most people can agree on the top two goalies for the Stars and Stripes, but there is definitely no such consensus on the three spot. Though the third goalie may not even dress during the tournament, let alone see any action, it is still an honor to be chosen for the team and the debate rages on. If the leaked report is accurate, Jimmy Howard will be the third goalie for the United States. Howard, like Quick, has been nothing better than mediocre this season, following a year where he played extremely well. Howard has the talent to turn things around at any time, but it is slightly concerning that two-thirds of the United States projected goaltenders are struggling. This is especially true considering that the position has to be the great equalizer if they are to win the tournament.
Based on play this season, which the USA brass did say would be a factor in the decision process, it is a little surprising to see Ben Bishop not receive the call. Bishop has played in 29 games this season and has won 20 of them (despite Steven Stamkos’ injury), and sports incredible numbers (1.89 GAA, .935 SV%). When you consider that both Quick and Howard are barely treading water over the .900 SV% line, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for Bishop, again assuming the report is true. However, a couple of things obviously went against Bishop in the decision process. He had a shot last year during the World Championships and played poorly enough to be replaced by young John Gibson. Bishop also has a very short track record of success, and apparently both of those factors were too much for Bishop to overcome.
Another name that many people figured was in the mix was Cory Schneider. The Devils split starter has numbers somewhere between Bishop and Quick/Howard, but ultimately hasn’t gotten a chance to prove himself. Schneider still hasn’t played over 33 games in a season, and will barely eclipse that this year. Until he gets a chance to be a fulltime number one goaltender, which may come as soon as next year, Schneider will have to wait his turn to prove himself on the big stage for his country. Tim Thomas tried to play himself back into the mix with his return to the NHL, and has played pretty well at times for a below average Panthers team, but hasn’t done enough to make up for any ground he lost by taking a year off. Craig Anderson figured to be well in the mix, but his disasterous season has derailed any chances, though Ottawa should share the blame in that struggle. Still, Miller has shown that you can still succeed on a struggling team. The aforementioned John Gibson could have been a very interesting wild card choice, after proving himself on the international stage during the World Juniors and World Championships, but he’s still adjusting to life in the AHL and will have plenty of time to have his biggest shot in the future.
Don’t forget, the United States Men’s and Women’s Olympic Rosters will be announced at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. The Women’s team, featuring 18 skates and three goalies, will be named during the second intermission. The Men’s team, including 22 skaters and three goaltenders, will be announced immediately following the conclusion of the game.