Johnston: Team USA has goalie talent galore

Ryan Miller allowed the "golden goal" in the men's hockey gold-medal game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. (AP/Mark Humphrey)

ARLINGTON, Va. – It’s easy to overlook the other side of the story.

The image of Sidney Crosby scoring the golden goal at Canada’s golden Games is so seared into the consciousness of the nation that the view from the American bench is rarely even considered in the home of hockey.

But then you arrive at the U.S. men’s Olympic camp three years after the fact and hear Ryan Miller declare that the Vancouver 2010 Games lacked a “fairytale ending” and you’re reminded that there was plenty of heartache amidst all of the delirium that spread from Vancouver to St. John’s that February day.

“I think everybody in that room knew we could win and it just didn’t work out,” Miller said Monday, delving deep into a subject he rarely discusses publicly.

“It’s very disappointing — it still is to this day. (Winning silver) is a source of pride and at the same time … it’s definitely bittersweet. It’s a great two weeks, it was a lot of fun to play hockey at such a high level and in such a great place where they respect hockey, but at the same time it wasn’t the fairytale ending.

“So you kind of just trudge on and hope for your next opportunity.”

That, more than anything, summed up the mood of the Americans as they began formal preparations for the Sochi Olympics about a 15-minute drive from the White House.

Miller provided the bedrock foundation for an underdog team in Vancouver and now finds himself in a battle with Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson just to be included on a roster that will carry considerably higher expectations this coming February.

“This is wide open,” Miller said. “This is a situation where certainly your body of work is what got you in this position — invited (here) — but how you’re playing is going to be the big factor (in who makes the team). It was last time.

“I’m just going to go about my business. I want to make the team and I want to be the guy who is there stopping pucks in Sochi. I want to start, I want to play and that’s the approach I’m going to take.”

There should be no confusion among any of the 48 Olympic hopefuls who made the trip to Washington this week about what it will take.

General manager David Poile addressed the group on Sunday night and made it clear that performance over the first three months of the season will play the biggest role in determining who gets to wear the red, white and blue.

So as impressive as Miller’s MVP showing was in Vancouver, or Quick’s march to the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy was in 2012, or Anderson’s .941 save percentage was last season, there is plenty of work still to be done.

Poile believes that the country boasts “way more depth and way more quality” than it did even four years ago and narrowing the list down to three goaltenders promises to be arguably the toughest task for him and the rest of USA Hockey’s management group.

“What you did in October, November and December — we can’t look past that,” Poile explained. “I guess the most obvious position for that is the goaltending. If a goaltender is not playing very well that doesn’t support a selection.  We’ve got to make the right decision on every name.

“If we screw up on one guy, that could be the difference between us winning or not winning.”

Heading into the season, it almost seems like the Americans can’t go wrong no matter who they end up selecting. The country’s depth at the position is an embarrassment of riches and stands in contrast to the uncertainty in the Canada crease.

While the key positions up front and on the blue-line already seem fairly set – there are 14 skaters from Vancouver at the orientation camp — it’s hard to look past the fierce competition brewing behind them.

“Goalie is a whole different world,” winger Patrick Kane said. “You could take six goalies over, play one in each game and you’re comfortable with whoever is in net. I’m happy I don’t have to make that decision.”

In the eyes of most, Quick appears to have the early edge on the No. 1 job. He was sublime in the Kings championship run a little over a year ago and seems like a natural successor to the position after serving as the third man in Vancouver.

By contrast, Miller has failed to reach the heights of 2010, when he also claimed the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender.

Howard has been receiving a lot of support behind closed doors, according to coach Dan Bylsma, and it would be no surprise to see Schneider reach his massive potential now that he’s been freed from the never-ending drama in Vancouver.

It would also be unwise to overlook Anderson, who likely would have challenged for the Vezina during the lockout-shortened campaign had he not missed several weeks with an ankle injury.

In the run-up to the Vancouver Olympics, no goalie on the planet was performing better than Miller and his solid form carried right through two pressure-packed weeks of competition. The only shot he’d like to have back is the perfect one Crosby fired between his legs to give Canada a 3-2 overtime win in the gold-medal final.

“It’s not something I want to just beat myself up about,” Miller said. “I played the tournament aggressively, I saw an opportunity where the puck came into his skates on a pass and I thought he was going to change his angle. And he didn’t. I made a decision that I anticipated something was going to happen and it didn’t happen and I made a mistake.

“It is what it is. It went in the net and no one feels worse than I did.”

No wonder the 33-year-old so badly wants another shot to step between the pipes and make a new Olympic memory.

The only problem is that it’s far from a guarantee on this American team.

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