Dan Bylsma laughed off the question of which goaltender would start the first game of the Olympics for the United States.
“That’s not a question I’m ready to answer right now,” the U.S. hockey coach said Friday. “Whether I know it or not, you’re not going to find out today.”
Plenty of people are guessing between Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick, and their respective resumes make it a difficult choice. But it’s not like the U.S. is alone in not having a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender going into Sochi.
Among the top eight countries, only Sweden in Henrik Lundqvist, the Czech Republic in Ondrej Pavelec, Slovakia in Jaroslav Halak and Switzerland in Jonas Hiller know who’s the man in net. Carey Price seemingly has an edge for Canada over Roberto Luongo, and the same goes for Tuukka Rask over Antti Niemi for Finland, but nothing’s guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Russia must choose between Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov at some point by the time pool play is over. Perhaps there doesn’t need to be any anointing of a starter.
Bylsma said “philosophically I’m not that type of guy” who needs to pick one goaltender and stick with him. That’s a good thing given that in Miller and Quick the U.S. has a couple of reliable options ahead of third goalie Jimmy Howard, who doesn’t waste much time worrying about who’s going to start.
“No sense in racking my brain on that one,” Howard said. “I think all three of us are very talented goalies. But Ryan was the MVP of the (2010 Olympic) tournament, he’s got a Vezina, Quickie’s got a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe. It’s hard to compete with that right now.”
Realistically, it’s a two-horse race between Miller, the longtime Buffalo Sabres goalie who was stellar in almost getting the U.S. the gold medal four years ago, and Quick, who is in the conversation based on what he did in the 2012 playoffs for the Los Angeles Kings.
Bylsma undersold it being a “tough choice,” though in handicapping the situation Miller has to be the front-runner based on his Vancouver experience.
“I’ve had reports from the tournament that he was the best player for Team U.S.A. and in the tournament,” Bylsma said. “He was that good and he stepped into the goal and clearly was a big part of the team’s success, right up to the end, right up till the golden goal in overtime there.”
Quick was the third goalie on the 2010 silver-medal-winning U.S. team, two years before he broke out and led the Kings on their Cup run. That made him a lock for this roster and a candidate to start.
Then there’s this season, which has been kinder to Miller than Quick, despite the Sabres being the worst team in the NHL. Quick missed a month because of a groin injury before returning in early January.
“The way (Miller has) has been playing all year with a team that hasn’t won a lot of hockey games, he’s been their best player and he’s been very, very good,” Bylsma said. “Jonathan Quick has come back from his injury around the first of the year and played his best hockey of the year.”
It’s a good problem for the U.S. to have. Finland is in a similar situation, choosing between a Stanley Cup finalist at the top of his game in Rask and 2010-champion Niemi. That’s ahead of Kari Lehtonen, who could be considered elite in his own right.
“We got three goalies who can go in there and play a game, so I’m not worried about our goalies at all,” Finnish defenceman Kimmo Timonen said.
Canada, on the other hand, has reason to worry because Price hasn’t done this before and because Luongo for a stretch since Vancouver wasn’t even the No. 1 goalie on his own team. Mike Smith is the obvious No. 3.
At Olympic orientation camp in August, coach Mike Babcock predicted the decision would be made for Canada by the time the Games start.
“One of these goalies will be real good,” Babcock said. “One of these goalies will be hot going in that everyone will know who’s playing goal for Canada.”
It’s not a slam dunk, though Price has to be considered the favourite. Like Quick, Luongo dealt with injury problems this season and only recently returned, while Price has been a bright spot for the Montreal Canadiens amid inconsistency.
“He matured as a young man, and he became a leader with our club,” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. “We’re all excited to have Carey Price, the way that he progressed through his career.”
Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Switzerland don’t have much to debate. According to Czech winger Milan Michalek, that’s a benefit for Pavelec.
“I think it’s good for him that he knows and he can get ready, prepare,” Michalek said. “He’s doing really good right now, so hopefully he can keep it up.”
Lundqvist helped Sweden win the gold medal in Turin in 2006, while Slovakia’s Halak and Switzerland’s Hiller are each on playoff-bound NHL teams. Halak showed during a 2010 playoff run with Montreal that he can put together gold-medal-calibre play for a couple of weeks.
Halak gives Slovakia the belief it can contend in this tournament, as does Hiller for Switzerland as he follows a successful line of goaltenders that stretches back to Martin Gerber and David Aebischer.
“Swiss hockey has been privileged in the past, I don’t know, 10 years to have so many good goalies,” Swiss defenceman Mark Streit said. “Without a good goalie you’re not going to win hockey games at that stage.”