It’s not exactly been a good news kind of season for U.S. goalies with Olympic dreams.
Craig Anderson played himself out of a Sochi roster spot. Jimmy Howard and Cory Schneider were inconsistent. Jonathan Quick was injured. Ryan Miller … well, he was awesome, but pretty much had to be hockey's Atlas with the shouldering of the Buffalo Sabres he did in the first three months of the season.
But now, a month away from the start of the Sochi tournament, the good news arrives: Quick and Miller are playing lights-out, dominant goaltending.
Since returning from his groin injury, Quick is 3-1-1 with a .942 save percentage. He pitched a 28-save shutout against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night, in a 1-0 Los Angeles Kings’ victory.
In his last five games, Miller is 3-1-1 with a .948 save percentage. Bring it back to 10 games, and Miller has a .950 save percentage. (And a save of the year candidate to boot.)
It’s an American dream (you know, like Dusty Rhodes) to have the top two goalies playing torridly as the Olympics arrive. But there’s only one crease, and someone’s going to own it. So who should start for the U.S. when it matters most?
The Case For Ryan Miller
The case for Miller is incredibly tough to deny.
His Olympic experience, backstopping the Americans to silver in the 2010 Vancouver Games (a.k.a. regulation gold) is unparalleled among his peers. He’s been through this. He knows the pressures and the preparations. He’s got the confidence of his teammates.
He didn’t have the confidence of management, thought, back in August 2013, when he was fourth on the depth chart behind Quick, Anderson and Howard. But then he did exactly what he did back in 2009: He stated his case on the ice, brilliantly, putting together a Vezina-worthy season on what’s been the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
He’s a student of the game, looking to break down tape of games on international ice surfaces to get a sense of the angles in Sochi. He also joked he’d sneak into the Buffalo training facility to play on their large ice sheet. OK, maybe it wasn’t a joke ...
Enough with the Quick talk. And it has nothing to do with his injury - it has everything to do with the fact that Ryan Miller has the best combination of experience, cool under pressure, and current rate of play. Among starting goaltenders with more than 20 games played, Miller has the fifth best save percentage. The fifth best total save percentage, on a team that's not only the worst in the NHL, they're gunning for the worst offensive season in NHL history.
Overall there isn’t a case to be made against Miller. But is there one to be made for Quick?
The Case For Jonathan Quick
Here’s the challenge for Quick, as spelled out by Kevin Woodley of INGOAL Magazine and former NHL netminder Marty Biron:
All three U.S. goalies – Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick are the other two – are considered more aggressive, while failed candidates Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop play a more contained, controlled game predominantly within their crease. But Miller is more aggressive in terms of mentality, challenging in one-on-one situations and not being afraid to mix in a poke check, and not necessarily in terms of his initial positioning, and Howard has backed off since Nicklas Lidstrom retired. Quick is by far the most aggressive positionally.
“He might be the one that would struggle with it most,” Biron said despite picking Quick as his No.1. “If he can adjust well, he will be good, but if he starts getting lost out there, it could be swimming in a big pool.”
Yet despite that, Biron said Quick would be his choice. And reading Scott Burnside’s fly-on-the-wall piece for ESPN.com, it’s clear the Team USA braintrust see Quick as the starter throughout the process.
It would seem to fly in the face of logic: Quick struggled with puck-handling, and that’s a necessity for a goalie on international ice. (Perhaps the U.S. feels a mobile defense corps can cover that.) He plays outside his crease with frequency, while the goalies that fare best on international ice are typically the ones who play at a 3/4s depth in their net, like Miller does.
But the U.S. braintrust is confident on a few things about Quick.
“That’s one of the reasons – probably the biggest reason – he is where he is: He’s unflappable,” said Kings GM Dean Lombardi last summer. “If something goes wrong, he forgets about it. He’s got a short term memory. If you look at any great player in any sport, they forget about it, rather than have it snowball. He’s shown that from day one, early in his career.”
He was criticized for middling stats at the start of the season, but his goalie coach Bill Ranford said there wasn’t some Olympian weight on his mind.
“Jonathan Quick, before his injury, was giving us a chance to win every night,” said Ranford last month. “We weren’t playing well as a team, and he happened to be the goalie playing. The Olympics hasn’t played on anybody’s mind.”
They look back at the run Quick had in 2012 and wonder what happens if he replicates it in Sochi: 16-4-0, a .946 save percentage and a 1.41 GAA, posting three shutouts.
Miller is, no question, a steadier presence between the pipes. Quick is a wild card: If he’s on, he could win this thing on his own. If he’s off, he’ll miss by a country mile due to his aggressive style.
Which is, oddly, evidence in his favor as the Sochi starter: If Quick falters, there’s an Olympic silver medalist on the bench to supplant him. If Miller falters, the U.S. is turning to two unknown commodities in an Olympic tournament. Starting Quick is, in a roundabout way, the safer play.
It wouldn’t surprise us in the least to see Quick open the tournament as the starter, with Miller getting action in prelims as well. But when the elimination rounds begin … Miller’s earned his shot at redemption, but Quick has been the guy groomed for this moment over the last four years. For better or worse, we imagine the USA Hockey goes to Quick – and hopefully doesn’t go quickly because of it.