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After coming 'one goal away' in 2010, U.S. sets expectation at gold

The Canadian Press
USA goalie Ryan Miller (39) makes a save in the first period of the men's gold medal ice hockey game against Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Feb.28, 2010. Any dreams of Olympic gold for the U.S. men's hockey team start in goal, where Miller and Jonathan Quick will compete to start. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Matt Slocum
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USA goalie Ryan Miller (39) makes a save in the first period of the men's gold medal ice hockey game against Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Feb.28, 2010. Any dreams of Olympic gold for the U.S. men's hockey team start in goal, where Miller and Jonathan Quick will compete to start. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Matt Slocum

SOCHI, Russia - David Poile hasn't been going around bragging about the United States winning a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Instead, he has said time and again that the U.S. was "one goal away from winning a gold medal." Putting it that way crystallizes the expectation for Sochi that has filtered down to coach Dan Bylsma and his players.

"Our goal is to go over there and win gold this time around," Bylsma said.

No longer does this U.S. team rely on Cinderella status, and 34 years after the country's last Olympic gold medal, no "Miracle" will be needed to win. Along with the defending-champion Canadians and host Russians, the Americans are expected to win a medal in Sochi after getting so close four years ago.

"We've got guys that have played in very big situations, a lot of pressure situations, hostile environments," Poile said on a recent conference call. "When the lights are the brightest, these guys have excelled. We're excited about our opportunity and our chances in Sochi."

Any dreams of gold start in goal, where Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick will compete to start. Even if he has decided on his starter for the Feb. 13 opener against Slovakia, Bylsma isn't telling.

Miller's experience from 2010 could give him an edge.

"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."

Of course almost without taking a breath Bylsma praised Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy-winner as playoff MVP. Debate is sure to rage from Los Angeles to Buffalo to Sochi, but the U.S. almost can't go wrong with either goaltender.

While that's a major strength, the blue-line represents something of an unknown. Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin are known commodities, but the U.S. will also count on the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler to play roles.

"We have some leadership on the back end, we have some experience, we have guys that have been there before," Bylsma said. "But we also have added some younger players. But I go back to being a team we think is going to be real sound defensively and real good defensively. With the young guys and the old guys we think we have that with that group."

Third goalie Jimmy Howard used the words "talented" and "young" to describe the defensive corps.

"A lot of mobility back there, they're good at moving the puck," Howard said last month in Philadelphia. "All of them got really good shots back there, that get them through, too. I think they're going to do a good job for us, I really do."

Poile and the rest of the management team let no detail go unnoticed when putting the team together, especially with an emphasis on competing on the wider international-sized ice surface. Skating and intelligence, Bylsma said, are at a premium in a tournament like this.

That's why forwards like Blake Wheeler and Max Pacioretty are here over the likes of Bobby Ryan and Kyle Okposo, who have shown more evidence of being prolific goal-scorers.

Drawing on the experience of 2010, centre David Backes believes this group can also rely on scoring-by-committee.

"We saw guys score timely goals, Zach (Parise) had a pretty timely goal in the gold-medal game, different guys stepping up all the time," Backes said. "When you look at the depth of scoring potential through that lineup ... scoring the goals shouldn't be any issue."

But when Poile — who will not make the initial trip to Sochi after being struck in the face by a puck — talks about being "one goal away," it's worth wondering where that goal will come from.

"I don't know if we can pinpoint where one goal's going to come from, where we get that extra spark," Backes said. "But it's going to be a learning process of getting chemistry, getting cohesion throughout the lineup."

Developing that over the course of two weeks is one thing captain Zach Parise is focused on. The goal is to peak when it matters most — in the medal round — not during three group-play games that only determine seeding.

"In these short tournaments is you've got to get better every game," Parise said. "Less and less mistakes as the tournament goes on."

Given the coin-flip nature of one-game elimination events like the Olympics, it's about getting in the right position to limit unpredictability in unpredictable situations. Part of that is having a team prepared for the big ice.

"There's a lot of guys that can just flat-out fly," Howard said. "I think that was smart by management's job by building a team that can really skate."

This team can skate, and there's clearly more talent on this team than the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" group that was made up of a bunch of college players. U.S.A. Hockey has come a long way from that point, meaning expectations are higher, as well.

"I think in '80 we opened the eyes and opened the doors. I think today's players have knocked it down," said Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 team. "We've had a lot of American Hall of Fame players since 1980. That's because of where the game has gone and where these players have taken it to."

The strides in four years are even noticeable. Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel are scoring in their primes, James van Riemsdyk looks like a 30-goal player in the NHL and Dustin Brown has captained a team to a Stanley Cup.

Parise, who scored the goal that forced overtime in the gold-medal game against Canada in Vancouver, came up just short against Brown in the Cup final in 2012 and is hungry to win one of hockey's ultimate prizes.

"I've been either fortunate or unfortunate enough to lose in both finals, and neither of them feel very good," he said. "I would take either at this point."

First up is Sochi, where Parise hopes the lessons of 2010 make the U.S. legitimate gold-medal contenders.

"We kind of went into Vancouver not knowing what to expect. You're kind of just wide-eyed, and we went in excited and just played hard," he said. "I guess that strategy kind of worked for us. We found ourselves a tough team to play against, that played for each other. I don't think we really knew what we were capable of accomplishing. ...

"The thought in our minds that we had then opportunity to win a gold was pretty special. Hopefully this time around we'll get ourselves another chance, another opportunity to play in that game and give it our best shot."

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