The Americans will take the ice in Sochi trying to prove that their run to the silver medal in Vancouver was not a fluke. In an effort to adapt to the bigger ice surface, the Americans have gone to a younger, more skilled defensive corps, but they'll return with a battle-tested forward unit and they still boast the best one-two goalie punch in the tournament.
Five things to watch
1. Let's start in goal, where Jonathan Quick's play early in the season, coupled with a long stint on the disabled list with a groin injury, looked like it might upset the Americans' goaltending plans. But Quick, the playoff MVP in 2012 and former Vezina Trophy runner-up, returned to action late in the calendar year and has been at his athletic best, even if his L.A. Kings are struggling to score in front of him. The interesting question for head coach Dan Bylsma will be how he handles his goaltenders with Ryan Miller in the mix and chomping at the bit to show he's still got the form that saw him win MVP honors in Vancouver, where he allowed eight goals in six games and played all but 12 minutes for Team USA. The U.S. plays Slovakia and then Russia before closing out the preliminary round with what should be an easy game versus Slovenia. Does Bylsma split the first two games between Miller and Quick, or does he simply name a starter and go from there as his predecessor Ron Wilson did with Miller in Vancouver? It's a nice choice to have, given that both Quick and Miller have proven they can deliver the goods on the big stage.
2. Are the kids on defense all right? We're about to find out. Veterans of the 2010 team, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson, were left off the '14 roster as a bevy of young, skilled defenders have risen to the fore for the U.S. Will the lack of experience on the blue line be an issue? Only Ryan Suter, the NHL's ice-time leader, and Brooks Orpik return from the '10 team, although Paul Martin would have been a lock to make that team had he not been sidelined with a broken forearm. He will provide veteran leadership and a calming element to the back end in Sochi. That said, there is going to be considerable pressure on players such as Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler, who emerged from the shadows to make this team, as did John Carlson. They were named to the team because of their ability to make smart plays in their own zone and move the puck quickly and smartly to the U.S. forwards. This group has the option and the skill level to join the play and help create odd-man rushes and scoring chances, but, of course, such play comes with more than a little risk. It's a lot to ask a group with no Olympic experience -- and frankly very little NHL playoff experience.