SOCHI, Russia – I’ll admit, the decision came as a surprise. Heading into these Olympics, I had believed that U.S. men’s hockey coach Dan Bylsma would split his goalies in the first two games, and that he would use Ryan Miller in net against the Russians in Game Two.
So much for that theory. Bylsma announced Friday afternoon that he was sticking with the Kings’ Jonathan Quick for today’s hotly anticipated preliminary match against host Russia. Quick backstopped the Americans in their 7-1 rout of Slovakia in Thursday’s opener.
Bylsma simply likes Quick more; that’s pretty clear now. During the team selection process, it was evident that the U.S. hockey leadership had Quick as their No. 1 goalie. The issue was complicated when Quick hurt his groin in November, but he’s healthy now, and he’s the guy.
“Jonathan will be starting in net tomorrow,” Bylsma said in the practice rink at Bolshoy Ice Dome. “He played real well in Game One. I thought there was a period of inactivity in that game, and he had to stay sharp, stay focused, and it was followed by two really big saves he had to make. I thought he played really well in the game.”
Bylsma acknowledged Miller’s great play in Vancouver, and his experience at this level. But he said Miller is his backup for the time being.
Miller handled the news with equanimity after practice, telling reporters, “I’m on this team for a reason.”
If the reason is to serve as a strong insurance policy in the event of a Quick meltdown, so be it. There’s plenty of precedent for Olympic coaches switching goalies on the fly and getting rewarded for it.
Pat Quinn went with Curtis Joseph to begin the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. When Joseph wobbled, he went to Martin Brodeur, who led the Canadians to the gold medal. In Vancouver, Mike Babcock switched from Brodeur to Roberto Luongo, who beat Miller for gold.
It’s hard to argue with Quick, who is capable of stealing a tournament if he’s hot. He proved that in 2012, when he carried the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup with one of the most remarkable, sustained clutch goaltending performances in recent hockey history.
“Jonathan Quick is a goalie who’s guided his team to a Stanley Cup and was a huge factor, and a guy who in the past 12 games, the last month, has a goals-against just a shade over two and a .918 save percentage,” Bylsma said. “Those are great numbers. He’s a great goalie. He was for us in Game One, and he’s going to need to be in Game Two.”
Those are all valid points. But I still feel Miller is the better man for the job right now. Quick has a Cup on his resume. I imagine that means a lot more to veteran hockey men than a goalie having a sizzling two-week run to silver at an Olympics, as Miller had four years ago in Vancouver.
But Miller has been the superior NHL goalie this season, perhaps the best in the league considering his dubious support on the Sabres.
Miller is 14-22-3 with a 2.74 goals-against average. But he has a .923 save percentage, generally the best measure of goalie performance. Quick is 16-13-2 with a 2.18 GAA, but a save percentage of only .911.
Miller had a 9-4-3 record and .940 save percentage from Dec. 10 to the end of January. Anyone who has watched the Sabres this season can appreciate how well Miller performed during that stretch. It’s a wonder he was still standing when the calendar turned to February. He gave up 10 goals on 61 shots in his two February games before the Olympic break.
Perhaps those two games – one of them against Bylsma’s Penguins – worked against Miller. Then again, Quick lost four straight games shortly before the Olympic break, letting in three goals on seven shots and getting pulled against, yes, the Pens.
Of course, the debate isn’t so much about which goalie has been better in the NHL this season, but who gives the U.S. a better chance to win an Olympic gold. My assumption all along was that Bylsma would want to quickly discover whether Miller still had the magic of 2010.
Four years is a long time. We’ve found that out time and again during the first week in Sochi. The magic didn’t carry over for Shaun White, for Bode Miller, for Shani Davis. You can’t bottle the brilliance of a previous Games and pop it open at your convenience.
Still, Miller has been often sensational this season. He was fairly ordinary in the intervening three years. But if something in him rises to the challenge of an Olympic year and takes his game to a transcendent level, Bylsma would be foolish not to use him.
Miller will probably play at some point – maybe as soon as Sunday’s game against Slovenia. Once we get to the elimination portion of the tournament, Bylsma could be more inclined to use Miller in a critical situation.
But if Bylsma commits to Quick as his No. 1 goalie, what will it take for him to change? If Quick is simply good, not great, will that be enough? What if Quick plays just well enough to keep the job, but not well enough to lift the Americans to a gold medal?
People will always wonder if, given the chance, Miller would have played at the same astonishing level as in 2010. Trust me, if it turns out that way, Bylsma will have some explaining to do.
Some local places to watch U.S. men’s Olympic hockey over breakfast
Some local restaurants will be welcoming fans of the U.S. men’s hockey team, who take the ice at 7:30 this morning Buffalo time.
Coles: 1104 Elmwood Ave., at 7:30 a.m., serving breakfast and, oh yeah, drinks.
Mes Que: 1420 Hertel Ave., will show the hockey games instead of soccer today and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Plus serving food and all sorts of beverages.
Ambrosia: 451 Elmwood Ave., “rocking Olympic hockey every day” starting at 7 a.m., serving breakfast, of course.
Acropolis: 708 Elmwood Ave., will open early at 7:30 a.m. for the game. Kitchen opens 8 a.m.
Thirsty Buffalo: 555 Elmwood Ave., will open by 7:30 a.m., with eggs and French toast.
Gecko’s: 1464 Hertel Ave., will open at 7 a.m. today.
Bar Bill: 185 Main St., East Aurora, will be open at 8 a.m., as usual, serving food.
– Andrew Z. Galarneau