By Allan Muir
THE GAME: USA vs. Slovakia in the Group A opener; 7:30 eastern on NBCSN in the U.S. and CBC in Canada. We'll be live-blogging the game here at 7:30 AM eastern.
Upset potential: After a stunning silver medal win in Vancouver, the Americans won't catch anyone by surprise in Sochi...but the Slovakians just might. A team that's trotting out Branko Radivojevic and Tomas Kopecky on its second line clearly can't match the depth of Team USA, but this team comes in with an emotional edge. The death of 2010 leading scorer Pavol Demitra in a 2011 plane crash continues to resonate with this group and they'll be looking to honor him with their performance. Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara are a handful on a regular day. With thoughts of Demitra in their hearts, they could be miraculous.
Quick gets the draw: A goalie controversy already? Dan Bylsma's decision to start Jonathan Quick ahead of Ryan Miller surprised some observers, and for good reason. Quick lost eight of his final 10 starts ahead of the Olympic break, allowing 23 goals on just 226 shots for a miserable .898 save percentage. But Bylsma placed his faith in the Los Angeles stopper on the basis of past accomplishments. “He won a championship with his team in the past and established himself as an elite goaltender,” the coach said. “Given the year, with Jonathan being injured, he's played real well since that time period, and has some good numbers, a goals-against [average] a shade above two in that time period.” Fair enough. If he gets in a zone, Quick has the ability to win this tournament on his own. Ryan Miller is still expected to get his turn between the pipes, but whether it comes in Team USA's next game against Russia or in the gimme against Slovenia will depend on Quick's performance against Slovakia.
Playing for his job: While his St. Louis Blues are regarded as one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup, there's a growing sense that though Jaroslav Halak has been generally good this season (2.26 GAA, .915 save percentage), they need an upgrade at the position. This tournament is his chance to prove that he has what it takes to backstop the Blues all the way.
Puzzling: With more depth on hand than any team since the 1996 World Cup squad, Bylsma and his coaching staff are still in the mix-and-match stage, hoping to create some kind of quick chemistry ahead of the medal round. It looks like they're set with Joe Pavelski between James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel, but they're still experimenting with the other units. For now, they seem comfortable with a trio of pairings—Patrick Kane/Ryan Kesler, David Backes/Zach Parise and Paul Stastny/T.J. Oshie — with spare forwards trying to find a comfortable fit. Expect juggling to be par for the course in this one.
Who to watch for Slovakia: Tomas Tatar has thrived in Detroit since being given a chance to showcase his speed and a nose for the net. He won't get the protected minutes he plays with the Wings here, though. Tatar is expected to line up alongside Hossa and Michal Handzus on the top line, and the pressure will be on to produce.
Who to watch for the U.S.A:
If the Americans have a weakness, it's the absence of a true No. 1 center. Kesler will be asked to fill that role in Sochi. He has the size and the defensive acumen to match up against other top pivots, but it'll be his ability to create and finish offensive chances that will define his success in the role. Kesler's been one of the few Canucks
making much happen of late, tallying three goals and nine points in his past 11 games, so he just might be the right man for the job.