Picture courtesy of Ross Dettman for USA Hockey
In all honesty, nabbing gold in Vancouver is going to be one helluva task. It is a young team with a good core that will make some serious noise in Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics, but expecting two big upsets in the elimination rounds over the likes of Russia, Sweden, and Canada is like jumping off the top of Niagara Falls and expecting to survive. Sure, it has been done before, and anything is possible in a short tournament where a hot goaltender can singlehandedly lead a team victory. It just comes down to firepower and experience, and at this juncture where the old guard has been drastically turned over to transition towards the future, relying on that experience isn't going to be a possibility. Coupled with the lack of a premier backend that will be able to stop the class of forwards thrown their way, a reasonable expectation should be (and is, I think) that Team USA squeezes their way into the bronze medal game and manages to slug out a victory.
Then again, [Insert obligatory 1980 Miracle on Ice reference here].
Getting that far means Team USA wants to grab at least two wins in pool play, with today's tilt against Switzerland being a game that is definitely one that should be included in those plans. The Americans can't really afford to lose either today or Thursday, because doing so would result in a lower seed going into the quarterfinals where they wouldn't be blessed with a soft draw against one of the minnows early on.
Since we're talking about seedings, here is how the tournament is set up. Twelve teams are split into three groups, with each team looking to gain as many as possible. You get three points for a regulation win, two points for a win in overtime/shootout, one point for a loss in overtime/shootout, and zero points for a regulation loss. Sorry kids, no free points for showing up.
After pool play has been completed, all twelve teams enter the elimination rounds with the top four receiving a bye into the quarterfinals. Seeds are determined by the aforementioned standings points, with several tiebreakers in place for teams who earned the same amount. In order, they are goal differential, goals scored, and IIHF ranking. This puts a premium on not just winning games in regulation, but also showing no mercy in the third period of a 7-0 game. Norway-Canada, also being played today, could get quite ugly I think. When you see Mike Babcock double shifting Crosby with five minutes to go, don't paint him the villain with a heart made of coal. There's a diamond in there somewhere.
The Swiss have a pretty unremarkable roster in place, with Jonas Hiller and Mark Streit being their two stars. Streit's pretty underrated since he plays for the lowly Islanders, but he's definitely a notable addition to the team and would easily see top four minutes with the San Jose Sharks. Hiller, obviously, is a known commodity to Sharks fans, and while he doesn't have the likes of Pronger, Niedermayer, and Beauchemin in front of him like the 2009 playoffs, stealing games is something he is definitely capable of.
Problem is, the Swiss have very little on the front end and will likely struggle to score goals. All of their forwards play in the Swiss leagues, which means no NHL experience and therefore no real threat that this will turn into a 7-6 affair. Team USA will be able to open it up right from the get go because of this, an opportunity they won't be afforded on the 21st against Team Canada when Ron Wilson will likely be implementing his standard defensive shell; it should be pretty entertaining to see how the lines have shaped up in terms of chemistry in the offensive end, what with one day of practice before the Games.
Zach Parise (NJ) - Paul Stastny (COL) - Patrick Kane (CHI)
Dustin Brown (LAK) - Ryan Kesler (VAN) - Jamie Langenbrunner (NJ)
Phil Kessel (TOR) - Joe Pavelski (SJS) - Ryan Malone (TB)
Beyond that it's safe to assume Chris Drury (NYR) will center the fourth with Bobby Ryan (ANA) on the wing. David Backes (STL) and Ryan Callahan (NYR) fight for the final spot, and I'm guessing they go with Backes to provide the lineup a little more punch. Pun intended.
Brooks Orpik (PIT) will skate with Jack Johnson (LAK) on the backend. Beyond that I haven't seen anything indicating what the pairings will be. Ryan Miller (BUF) obviously in net, and he'll be the key if Team USA ends up playing for a medal. There's just not enough talent on the blueline to stand up against the Big Three on paper, although I do like the addition of Tim Gleason (CAR) on the roster.
The game kicks off at noon today on the USA Network. Be sure to read Ivano's entry on games including other San Jose Sharks.