Evolution of Team USA

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SOCHI, Russia -- At this point four years ago, we still didn't know all that much about the U.S. hockey team.

We knew they had won three straight, including an emotional win over host Canada to win its group in the preliminary round.

But we could still hear the echoes of then GM Brian Burke's mantra that this was a team no one gave a chance to win a medal, a lunch-bucket squad whose chances of advancing beyond the do-or-die quarterfinals against Switzerland weren't assured.

And so maybe we didn't believe, even if that belief was already deeply ingrained within that U.S. lineup.

But here we are four years later and the U.S. has another bye to the quarterfinals, another three-game sweep of the preliminary round, including a gritty shootout win over host Russia that earned instant classic status.

Belief? Oh, people believe in this team all right. In fact, there is widespread consensus that of all eight teams left, the Americans are at the top of the heap in terms of their preparedness, in terms of their identity, in terms of what they appear to be capable of achieving in the final days of this tournament.

Former NHLer and veteran analyst Glenn Healy checked off the achievements of the U.S. group over the past four years: Stanley Cups, individual awards, playoff experience.

"They didn't go into a coma for four years," Healy told ESPN.com Tuesday.

From former playoff MVP Jonathan Quick in goal, to the young skilled defense, to the battle-tested forward contingent, Healy has been impressed with their evolution over the past four years and, of course, their play in the preliminary round in Sochi.

"They're four years older; four years deeper," he said. "They're an improved group."

Does it make any difference that the expectations are diametrically opposed to where they were four years ago?

Certainly in talking to players after Team USA's practice Tuesday, there is little evidence they are taking anything for granted heading into a day that in some ways is the hardest day in the tournament, a day that leaves the losers with nothing but a hollow feeling with those medal hopes extinguished.

Center Ryan Kesler, who looks to line up with Patrick Kane and Zach Parise on Wednesday, found it difficult to draw any comparisons between the experience of four years ago and what lies ahead this week.

"It's tough to compare. Four years is a long time," Kesler said. "That's a long time ago. Played a lot of games in between. Right now speaking on this team, I think we're confident but we know we've still got a lot of work to do. The real test begins tomorrow. It's win or go home. We'll focus on that game and not worry about anything else."

Several of the American players even had difficulty recalling their quarterfinal opponent four years ago (it was Switzerland, which the U.S. beat 2-0), another indication perhaps of the team's inward focus.

"If I had a perfect memory, I may be able to make that comparison for you," David Backes said with a smile.

He does think the U.S. victory over Russia has put them in a good place heading into Wednesday's quarterfinal.

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