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Team USA gets upgrade in goal

Woodridge, Ill. -- Goaltending always has had iconic status in American hockey, especially in the five-ring Olympic circus.

The reason, perhaps, is that goal is the most important position on the ice, as Team USA coach Ron Wilson posits, although the suspicion also lingers that it is because goal is the simplest position for Americans, especially those who look in on hockey only sporadically, to comprehend: either the guy in the mask stops the puck or he doesn't. Spare us all the other stuff.

In any case red-and-white-and-blue netminders tend to be too effusively celebrated (gold medalists Jack McCartan in 1960 and Jim Craig in 1980, even Ray LeBlanc in 1992) or too severely criticized (Rick DiPietro in 2006), and almost divorced from the concept of the team.

In Vancouver next February, the Excited States of America will have a chance to attach itself to a new hero or villain. Or in this case, two: Tim Thomas, the Vezina Trophy-winner from the Boston Bruins, and Ryan Miller, the established star of the Buffalo Sabres.

That goaltending tandem doesn't necessarily put American hockey ahead of any other nation -- Canada, Russia, Finland and Sweden all have superb goalies -- but Thomas and Miller do get Team USA back at the adult's table. While DiPietro had swagger and an extraordinarily patriotic mask in Turin, he did not have the requisite consistency to back it up. In a country that viewed the game through a prism other than goaltending, DiPietro might have been remembered not as a goat but as just another piece on a middling team that, in fact, also started two other goalies, Robert Esche and John Grahame, during the tournament.

DiPietro was not terrible for a USA team that was bounced by the Finns in the quarterfinals; he merely played well enough to lose, failing to make many big saves. Thomas and Miller clearly are upgrades, especially in tournament play.

"A single-game tournament is different (than a playoff series)," Thomas said. "A hot goalie ... that can make the difference for you."

This will be the first Games for Thomas, the ultimate late bloomer, and Miller, a Hobey Baker-winner from Michigan State. If life hadn't intervened, both might have been part of Olympic teams long before.

Thomas, for example, looked at the long-term schedule and saw that the 1996 Winter Games would be played late in his college career. (More on this later.) If he played well in college, he figured it would be a springboard to a legitimate shot at making the team. Of course, there were no 1996 Olympics in the winter. After Albertville in 1992, the International Olympic Committee began staggering its summer and winter spectacles every two years.

The winter world next gathered in Lillehammer in 1994. Four years later in Nagano, NHL players joined the party. Thomas was out of the picture then, out of college and exiled in Finland at the beginning of a long odyssey that ultimately would make him the first Michigan high school player to make the NHL.

"(The changing calendar) sort of crushed my hopes, my plan growing up," Thomas said the USA Olympic hockey orientation camp, one of only three goalies, along with Miller and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, to have earned an invitation. "But I never gave up on it ... Playing in Finland, playing against guys who you saw play in the Olympics, I knew I could play at a really high level. You sorta had a measuring bar."

Thomas always had persevered. This week he recounted the story of a U.S. Olympic sports festival in 1993 in San Antonio when, as one of eight goalies, he allowed just one goal in four half-games for the gold-medal winning team. When he found his play wasn't worthy of a berth on the U.S. world junior team --"to make a long story short, I ended up breaking every stick in the backroom" --his coach at the tournament, Bill Beaney, consoled him and offered him a scholarship to Middlebury. Thomas told the coach he didn't think Middlebury could afford his sticks because he just had broken a dozen. (Given the tuition at Middlebury, an elite liberal arts school in Vermont, chances are it could.)

The day before Thomas was going to sign with Michigan Tech, Vermont discovered that its goalie had bolted for the Chicago Blackhawks. Beaney recommended Thomas to then Catamount coach Mike Gilligan. Thomas would have a scholarship and a chance to play, even if the school seemed remote to a Flint, MI, native who never had been east of Niagara Falls. "When I signed with Vermont," he said, "I had friends ask me 'What state is that in?'"

Miller also could have -- indeed probably should have -- been here before. He injured his thumb early in the 2005-06 NHL season, which shelved him at a time then USA general manager Don Waddell was making his selections. Miller was well on the way to recovery, but USA Hockey deemed it an unacceptable risk to take Miller -- a misjudgment devoid of a scintilla of optimism. Even if Miller still had lingering effects from the injury, he was a better bet than bringing Graham.

"The night the selections were announced, that was my first game back, against the Flyers," Miller said. "It was a little frustrating, but I understood. That was my first real NHL season, and I only had 10 games in before hurt my thumb. That's really not enough to base an Olympic berth on. Maybe if they had selected the team a month later ... When I came back I won 12 of 13. It was just timing. It didn't happen, but at least I was on the radar then, had a rest (during the Olympics) and (the Sabres) had a great playoff run."

Wilson suggested that he will probably alternate goaltenders in the round-robin games -- Team USA opens against Switzerland, which rode the sizzling Martin Gerber to a shocking shutout of Canada in Turin -- but will likely settle on one for the quarters and, perhaps, beyond. Quick might be the future of USA goaltending (and someone like Craig Anderson of Colorado might worm his way onto the team before it is announced around Dec. 31), but Miller and Thomas are the present.

The goalies will have to form some kind of partnership, not easy given the lack of time -- the USA might not even have one practice before its opening match -- and their proximity as competitors for Northeast Division rivals.

"I think I have to play well leading up to the Olympics," said Thomas, who has represented the U.S. in six world championships. "I don't take my spot for granted. The way I focus on competition, it's not me against other goalie. It's me vs. myself."

"I guess it will be based on how the (NHL) season is unfolding," Miller said. "If he's the guy, I want him winning games for the USA. During the season, I wish him well. I just want to beat him on the ice."

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