Sochi 2014: NHL season will impact USA's decisions in goal

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Six goaltenders have a shot at representing the USA in Sochi, and the NHL season will have a big impact on who gets the three spots available.

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Six goaltenders are here at USA Hockey's National Team Orientation Camp this week, and only three of those guys will ultimately make the U.S. Olympic team and head to Sochi in February. How will Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff narrow that field?

If the head coach is to be believed, how these guys play over the first half of the NHL season -- not necessarily their careers to date -- will play the biggest role in who pulls on a red, white and blue sweater.

"This is a position that, maybe more than the other positions, how you're playing in the next few months is going to be a big factor," Bylsma said.  "We've talked about it a little bit already. I think you can talk about the tough decision of who's going to be the starting goaltender. You can talk about maybe even a tougher decision of who are the three goalies out of the six that are here that are going to represent the United States."

Ryan Miller, of course, backstopped the Americans to within a bounce of the gold medal in 2010. Jonathan Quick was a backup on that team, while Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider, Craig Anderson and John Gibson would all be newcomers to the Olympic experience.

Gibson has a ton of international experience with the USA crest on his chest, winning World Junior gold this past winter and World Championship bronze earlier in the summer. But he's just barely 20 years old with zero NHL experience under his belt, and his invite feels more like an investment in the future of USA Hockey rather than a look at 2014.

That narrows the field to five, and while you could make a case for just about any combination of those five men ultimately representing the U.S., it seems Schneider has the toughest hill to climb.

"I've only played about 100 games at the NHL level," Schneider said, "and I'm not sure how it's going to shake out the start of the year in Jersey, the game schedule. I may not get 30 games by Christmas. I may only get 10 or 15 or 20 or whatever it may be. I just need to make sure I play really well in the games I do get. Beyond that, it's kind of out of my control."

Miller can lean on his 2010 experience and the resume he built during those Games, but his NHL performance has been less impressive over the last three seasons, and he's not assuming that carrying the team to silver in Vancouver will earn him a spot in Sochi.

"I'm a different player than I was three-and-a-half, four years ago," Miller said. "I don't think we can drag too much from 2010 into this aside from the good feeling about the team we have and the players we have. Those games are done, they're in the past."

All of these guys were invited to camp for a reason. Quick has Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt, Miller has his 2010 performance and a strong body of work in Buffalo, Gibson the international success, and impressive NHL work for Schneider, Howard and Anderson.

But those accolades got them to Arlington. They won't carry them to Sochi.

"You have to believe that if you're playing well to start the year at the right time, they're gonna want the guys who are playing very well," Schneider said. "Again, goaltending can be a fickle thing where you're great one day and not so well the next, so you just have to try and be consistent and good more often than not."

That's the way it should be, and the U.S. coaching staff shouldn't be handing out favors to Miller just because of his past, or Quick just because he's won a Stanley Cup. If Schneider and Anderson are playing out of their minds in November and December, they should probably make the team, and if Miller is playing sub-.900 puck, he should probably take two weeks in February to relax.

As Miller proved in 2010, a two-week Olympic tournament can be swung by the performance of a hot goaltender. The United States is arguably the deepest nation in goal as they weigh their six options here, and they need to do their best to take the goalie with the most catch-fire potential to Sochi with them.

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