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Miller challenging Quick as USA's goalie

Ryan Miller, right, has played his way into contention for Team USA's No. 1 goalie gig. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ryan Miller sat on a couch in the lobby of the USA Hockey team hotel during their August orientation camp in Washington, D.C. Behind him, most of his American teammates were working on a bank of computers, doing some sort of Olympic-related data entry.

It was a camp that skewed young by design. USA Hockey wanted to give emerging Americans like John Gibson, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba the experience of spending time with the very best hockey players in the country.

It also made Miller feel a bit old.

"I think I'm the oldest guy in this room," Miller joked at the time, and certainly he was one of the few with more gray in his hair than the last Olympic orientation camp in Chicago.

At that point, you couldn't help wondering whether this might be his last Olympic-related event with Team USA. He was 33 years old, and even the most optimistic projections had him second or third on the U.S. goalie depth chart. The reality is that, at that moment, he might have been closer to fourth or fifth.

"I've read some of the articles, how he's going to be the odd man out," said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier, a couple of weeks later in early September. "This is an important part of his career for him. Where he is age-wise. Where he is contractually. Where he is with the Olympics. All those things will cause him to ramp it up a bit."

Regier's preseason conclusion?
 "I think Ryan's going to get people's attention in a very positive way," he said.

There's been so much focus on the trade possibilities and the massive rebuild going on around the Sabres that Miller's on-ice performance has almost been lost. As it turns out, Regier was exactly right. He has regained people's attention.

Entering the season, Jonathan Quick was a lock to be the starting goalie for Team USA. The rest of the goalies were playing for spots two and three.

Sitting on that couch in August, Miller held on to the belief that the goalie race was far from over. In fact, that was the starting point.

"That's the question I got earlier, 'What do you think about the competition for the goaltending position?' I said I thought it was wide open," Miller said that afternoon. "I don't know how people are going to take that or what they're going to say."

He wasn't talking about spots two and three. He was talking about the man who will start Game 1 in Sochi.

"It's wide open," he repeated.

People forget, but Tim Thomas was penciled in to be the starter for Team USA in 2010 when camp opened. He was coming off a 2008-09 season in which he led the league in save percentage at .933 and goals-against average at 2.10.

Miller believed then, and he believed now, that the goalie playing the best in the weeks leading up to the Olympics would get the nod.

Right now, if David Poile or Dan Bylsma reached out to the coach who led the Americans to the silver medal in Vancouver, the advice they'd get would be to put Miller to the top of the list.

"If you were to take what you've watched, based on this year and guys stopping the puck, he would be the No. 1 goalie as far as I'm concerned," said Ron Wilson, during a phone conversation at the end of last week. "Jonathan Quick hasn't played as well as Millsy has at this point. That's not saying Jonathan Quick won't. I think he's a phenomenal goalie, but I think they shouldn't be too quick to make up their minds on who the starter is."

What has impressed Wilson is that Miller has performed at an elite level through trying times in Buffalo. It's a bad team, yet his focus is razor-sharp. He's battling every game, and then, in what has to be a completely frustrating situation, he's handling losing with maturity and professionalism.

In the past, Miller might have voiced concerns publicly, but so far, he's quietly soldiering on.

"The best part about Ryan is he's keeping his temper in check. He's a temperamental, emotional guy. That's what makes him really good," Wilson said. "He knows one of his weak spots is his emotional outbursts. When it happens, he looks like whiner ... by whining, and [while] sometimes it's legitimate, it's certainly no way to lead a young team. He's done a great job."

During conversations at camp, Miller made it clear that he would be happy to be a part of this 2014 Olympic American team in any form. He'd start games; he'd sit in the stands -- whatever Bylsma and the coaching staff needed.

The last thing Team USA would need during a short, competitive tournament would be the No. 3 goalie causing distractions. Miller has proved that he can be the player who quietly does his job.

In Buffalo, Miller has been one of the best goalies in the league, despite winning just one game. He's done it without the support of great teammates around him. He's at a disadvantage playing on the worst team in the league, compared to his American counterparts who are playing on playoff-caliber teams in Detroit, Los Angeles and Ottawa.

Yet there's just one American goalie with a higher save percentage through Monday's games, as seen in the box at right.

Of those guys, there's only one who led an Olympic team on an amazing run in a hostile environment. Miller's Olympic experience doesn't necessarily mean he starts at the top of the list, but it can't be discounted either.

He pointed out that the Americans play the Russians in Sochi immediately in the tournament. All things being equal, Bylsma might prefer giving the nod to someone who has played in a similar situation.

When Team USA beat Canada in the opening round in Vancouver, it was because Miller outplayed Martin Brodeur on the other end of the ice.

Without a doubt, Quick has played in more big games since then, and has proved that his game raises when there's more on the line. That's why it's not too alarming that his save percentage is sub-.900 in October. He's shown he's at his best when the games are of the highest pressure.

But you want your goalie playing well heading into this tournament, not turning it on when the tournament begins. And in Wilson's opinion, the best plan would be to lock in the starter right before the Olympics and try to stick with that plan.

"You have to go in with it already set," Wilson said.

There's still plenty of time to do that. The mistake would be setting it too soon, something so many of us were willing to do with Quick as the starter before the season began.

Wilson's advice? Let this work itself out over the next couple of months.

"They have to let this play out right through January," he said. "They're going to have to wait right until the end of January and see how they're playing. How they play in the big games. That really matters."