Young D not bowing to the pressure


SOCHI, Russia -- Take a look around the Olympic hockey tournament and even the strongest, deepest teams have areas of concern.

For the Russians, it's the defense. For the Canadians, it's the goaltending. For the Swedes, it's their overall health.

Whether those areas of concern become some sort of fatal flaw along the way or an obstacle that is overcome and becomes a positive is part of the intrigue of the competition.

For Team USA, the great unknown heading into this tournament is along the blue line, where only two players -- Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik -- played in 2010, when the U.S. was edged in overtime in the gold-medal game by Sidney Crosby and the Canadians.

Not only has there been significant turnover in personnel, the American blue line is marked by its youthfulness.

This isn't a case like it was for Drew Doughty, who, back in 2010, was the lone fresh-faced youngster on a Canadian team flush with veteran defenders such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The young Americans are many and they will shoulder a significant burden of responsibility in this tournament, which for the U.S. opens Thursday with a game against Slovakia.

"I don't consider it a burden," said Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler, 22. "I think of it as just a great opportunity. I think that we wouldn't be here if the coaching staff and the [U.S. selection] committee didn't feel like we belonged here."

It's possible Fowler will partner up with John Carlson, 24, while Ryan McDonagh, also 24, who has blossomed into a top-flight defender with the New York Rangers, could play with Kevin Shattenkirk, 25. Paul Martin, 32, joins Suter, 29, and Orpik, 33, to round out the D corps.

"I think the biggest thing for us is just trusting our skills," Fowler said. "Although we are young, we have a lot to learn from these older guys. But I think we belong ... here and we just want to go out there and play our style of game and show what we can do."

He's right, of course. In building this team, GM David Poile -- who remains in Nashville recovering from surgery after being hit in the face with a puck in Minneapolis last week -- and the rest of the selection committee wanted a skilled, mobile group of defenders that can get the puck quickly and safely to the highly skilled, gritty forward corps that is as deep as any team save Canada in the tournament.

The fact the players best suited for that role happened to be youthful didn't deter the U.S. officials or the coaching staff. In fact, players such as Fowler, Justin Faulk and Carlson were so impressive with their respective teams that there was in the end no way to justify leaving them off the U.S. roster, even if it meant leaving behind 2010 veterans Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson.

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