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Ranking U.S. Olympic goalie candidates

1/4/2012

There were moments during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, that backup Team USA goalie Jonathan Quick would watch Ryan Miller shine on the international stage and imagine being out there. It's impossible not to. He was one of three American goalies on the roster, joining Miller and Tim Thomas, and so close to the action.

"Obviously that crosses your mind that you'd love to be out there; you wish you could be out there playing in that situation," Quick said during a Tuesday afternoon phone conversation. "Just kind of experiencing it, watching the game firsthand and being there was a great experience."

Two years ago, following the Winter Classic in Boston, the Olympic rosters were announced, and the American goalie situation was clear-cut. It was Miller's job, with Thomas providing the steady veteran presence behind him and Quick brought in to gain experience.

Now, things aren't so clear. If this were an Olympic year, the competition would be much more intense for the Team USA starting goalie job, and the options for Brian Burke and the other American general managers would be much deeper. Jimmy Howard leads the league in wins and it's not close. Miller has taken a step back from his Olympic-year dominance, while Thomas has regained his Vezina Trophy form.

"I could argue for five guys I think right now -- Quick, Thomas, Howard, [Cory Schneider] and Miller," said USA Hockey's Jim Johannson, who will have a strong say in who ultimately gets the job if NHL players compete in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. "It's a position of strength."

Here's how I'd rank the candidates if the Games were played this year:

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins (Davison, Mich.) -- If there was another gold medal game against Team Canada tonight, there's not a goalie in the world more qualified to get the start than Thomas. Johannson agrees. "I'd have to take Tim Thomas," he said. "The run he's been on and the team and the way he's played -- you'd have to say him."

He'd immediately give the Americans an edge over any goalie Canada chose -- Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury -- anyone. He's coming off Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies from last season, and suddenly it's not hard to imagine him repeating both. It would be an incredible accomplishment.

"Something that sticks out when anybody watches him play is his compete level. He never gives up," Quick said. "The mentality he takes into a game: 'Nobody is going to score on me today.' A lot of nights, nobody does."

Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings (Milford, Conn.) -- Quick was named the NHL's third star last week by helping guide the Kings back to the top of the Pacific Division, including impressive performances against the Chicago Blackhawks (38-save shutout) and Vancouver Canucks. He's now 17-10-6 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

He might be the backup if the Olympics were held this week but could be positioning himself to be the starting goalie in 2014. By then Thomas will be 39 years old. The decision to put Quick on the roster for Vancouver over Craig Anderson could end up being a very smart one for Burke and the USA Hockey brain trust. Gaining that experience will pay off in Sochi.

"I saw something that not too many people get to experience. You try to take in every moment," Quick said. "Even though I didn't get to play in it -- the gold medal game -- to be there and experience the tension between the two teams and the fans and everything -- I've never been a part of a game like that. It was pretty special."

Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings (Syracuse, N.Y.) -- This is where the decision gets really tough. If you're bringing three goalies to the Olympics, it's hard not to bring in Miller after his performance in Vancouver. He has experience and has already proven he can excel on the world's biggest stage.

But there's no doubt Howard is outplaying Miller this season. Howard deserves the spot. He leads the league in wins, which can be a misleading stat, but there's nothing misleading about his 1.99 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He's found a new gear this season. "It's going out there every single day, working hard and the games are fun," Howard said.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres (East Lansing, Mich.) -- His numbers from the 2010 games alone make this a tough decision. In six Olympic starts, he went 5-1 with a .946 save percentage and 1.35 goals-against average. He was the tournament's best goalie. But this season he's battled injuries to go 10-10-2 with a .900 save percentage and 3.05 goals-against average.

There's no doubt he'll be in the starting goalie conversation in two years, but right now he wouldn't make the cut. "It messes with your rhythm a little bit when you're dealing with injuries," Quick said. "There's not a question whether or not he's an elite goaltender in this league."

Cory Schneider, Canucks (Marblehead, Mass.) -- Quick and Schneider have been competing head to head since their days of playing prep school hockey at Andover (Schneider) and Avon (Quick). Quick said he fully expects that competition to continue when battling for a spot on the Olympic team. "He's definitely throwing his hat in the ring," Quick said. "On most teams, he'd be a starting goaltender. As soon as he gets the opportunity to be the starter, I know he'll do well."

Schneider continues to push Luongo for playing time in Vancouver and there wouldn't be a more compelling Olympic showdown than Luongo versus Schneider with a medal on the line. In 17 games this season, Schneider is 8-5-0 with a .931 save percentage and 2.15 goals-against average.

Notes

• Darryl Sutter arrived in Los Angeles with a reputation for being tough on players and somebody who would raise the level of intensity with the Kings. So far, the thing Quick said has impressed him most about his new coach is his level of compete. "He's a competitor. I like the mentality he brings," Quick said. "He doesn't feel like he needs to match lines ... at the end of the day, you have to be better than that guy across from you, even if it's the fourth line versus the first line." Quick called the coaching change a wake-up call for the players, and they've certainly responded.

• With Jaromir Jagr out for the next three-to-five games, the player to watch in Philadelphia is James van Riemsdyk. During the Winter Classic, he spent time on the top line after Jagr went down and, according to Philly.com, becomes the favorite to pick up Jagr's minutes. "I think I have good chemistry with [Claude Giroux], and [Scott Hartnell] is obviously a great player, too," van Riemsdyk told Sam Carchidi. "You don't even have to think when you're playing with these guys. I just get open and [Giroux] is unbelievable at finding guys."

Montreal Canadiens interim coach Randy Cunneyworth might have discovered the best way to keep the job in Montreal. He's learning French.

According to the Montreal Gazette, Cunneyworth said learning the language will be a focus for him moving forward. "Rest assured that it's something I'd love to continue to learn and work at," he told Montreal reporters. "You can't help but work at it when you're with a lot of French-speaking people in the organization. You hear people talking, you pick up on things they're saying because you know what it's relating to."