Olympic Hockey: Team USA Faces Goaltending Question

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Jonathan Quick

Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (32) defends the goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the first period at Staples Center. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As they did in Vancouver four years ago, the Americans were expected to find their strength for the 2014 Winter Olympics in net. With the Team USA roster due out on Wednesday, GM David Poile and Head Coach Dan Bylsma are looking at a major question mark in the crease.

Jonathan Quick was a lock to start for the Yanks until injuring his groin on November 12, but he may now find himself on the bubble. According to the LA Times, Quick is nearing a return for the Kings. Assuming the 27-year-old is on pace to be available in February, he should still make the cut. However, uninspiring play prior to the injury might give another American puck-stopper a chance.

Quick’s .905 save-percentage is only the seventh best among American goalies in the NHL so far this season. Ranking one-spot further down that list is Ottawa’s Craig Anderson who was also a pre-season favorite for a Sochi ticket. The Sens tender announced his candidacy with a dominant 2013 season. His 1.69 goal-against average and .941 save-percentage were eye-popping, but it’s important to remember that Anderson was limited to just 24 starts by injuries and the lockout. In light of a larger sample-size, Anderson now looks like a backup option at best.

Early projections had Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and New Jersey’s Corey Schneider set to fight for the third roster spot. Both goalies have seen their numbers drop slightly from last season, meaning that both players continue to rest firmly on the bubble.

Originally viewed as the odd man out, 2010 Olympic MVP Ryan Miller is hoping to take advantage of his countrymen’s struggles. The Buffalo goalie helped his case exponentially on Sunday night when he stopped 49 Washington shots in a 2-1 shootout win. The victory was Miller’s fourth in his last five starts and it stretched his December save-percentage to a gaudy .948. After a trio of disappointing seasons on the shores of Lake Erie, Miller is playing his best hockey since he led Team USA to silver in Vancouver.

With history on his side and a hot a hand, Miller suddenly seems like a lock to travel to Russia and perhaps even to start. According to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, Miller, Howard and Quick have already been selected for the team though the announcement will not be made until Wednesday’s Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If that is the case, Howard will be able to celebrate his selection with a massive crowd of freezing outdoor fans much like Tim Thomas did at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day in 2010. Meanwhile, Miller would be the real winner in such a scenario as the probable starter.

Assuming Miller, Quick and Howard are Sochi-bound, we can already identify one major snub. This season’s most outstanding American netminder has been quietly plying his trade in Tampa Bay. Though short on experience relative to the likes of Miller and Quick, Ben Bishop has been a revelation for the surprising Bolts.

Undefeated in regulation since December 3, Bishop has carried the Lightning in Steven Stamkos‘ absence. He ranks near the top of the NHL with a .935 save-percentage and a 1.89 goals-against average, well ahead of all other American goalies in both categories. The 27-year-old Bishop has never played a post-season game and he failed to win much support in a USA sweater at the IIHF World Championships last spring. However, his play so far this season clearly merits inclusion.

The Americans’ choice in goal will likely be the difference between a medal and an embarrassing exit. If a goaltending implosion occurs, the trip from Russia back to Nashville will be a very long one for Predators and USA GM David Poile. Conventional wisdom suggests trusting proven clutch performers like Jonathan Quick. However, there are no risk free candidates this time around, meaning the upside of a player like Ben Bishop demands serious consideration.

Chris Blanchard is a Boston, MA native and a student at Davidson College. He began writing about hockey as a Boston Bruins featured columnist for Bleacher Report in the fall of 2012. He has been covering the NHL for XN Sports since May of 2013.
2 comments
Chris Blanchard
Chris Blanchard

I don't think it's a regional issue considering the decision was made by David Poile (who is the GM in Nashville - one of the few places more invisible than Tampa in the hockey world). The choice, which i agree is a bad one, is about experience. Bishop is being penalized for never being the starter on a playoff team (something he will do this year). Howard and Quick both earned their spots last spring in the Western Conference semifinals playing against each other, and Ryan Miller won his four years ago. I think that leaving Bishop off the team shows a misunderstanding of how goaltending works at the most fundamental level. No position in professional sports is more dependent confidence and momentum. There is little doubt in my mind that Bishop is more deserving than Jimmy Howard right now. Perhaps there is something to the fact that Howard is an obvious backup in that group. He won't put pressure on the starter like Bishop would. Maybe Dan Bylsma wants to give his starter the comfort of knowing that he will go wire to wire no matter what. A soft game from Miller or Quick in the group stage could have opened the door for Bishop to steal the show, which might cause doubt in the mind of the starter leading to such a poor start. Howard won't do that. Now I think it's time to keep an eye on Finland. With Rask or Niemi in net they have the best goaltending in the tourney.

Mark
Mark

Team USA must seriously be smoking something to NOT include bishop. He has double the wins of the 2nd place American Goalie. His SV% and GAA are in the top three of ALL goalies, and he is the kind of person you want representing your country. But, as always, the NHL always sees Florida teams as second rate, and not worth serious consideration for anything. The powers that be need to wake up and start realizing hockey goes farther south than Wahington.