Young U.S. hockey team could have growing pains

The U.S. men’s hockey team at the Vancouver Olympics is younger than the group that finished 10th at Turin, Italy, four years ago and Coach Ron Wilson is older -- and, he insists, wiser -- than when he led the room-trashing 1998 team to sixth place at Nagano, Japan.

That much we know about Team USA, which will open the tournament Tuesday at noon against Switzerland at Canada Hockey Place.

It’s more difficult to predict how a team that has only three players with Olympic experience will react in this caldron of pressure with Russia sending an offensive powerhouse, Sweden defending its title with its trademark skill and smoothness, Finland boasting world-class goaltenders and all of hockey-obsessed Canada demanding a gold medal to feed its national pride.

The personality of this U.S. team, as molded by General Manager Brian Burke and an advisory panel that included Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi, is unclear. The stars of a previous generation have faded and there’s no Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Richter or Bill Guerin here. This group’s stars are still ascending and their limit hasn’t been tested.


“We went with a young team and we’ve been criticized just about every place I go,” Burke said. “Sometimes when you’re young you don’t know any better than to go all out, so we’re pretty confident with our group.”

Its first test should be moderate. Switzerland has only a few NHL players but among them is Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller, and Wilson knows what a hot goalie can do after seeing the Czech Republic’s Dominik Hasek stone the U.S. and Canada before beating Russia in a shootout for the gold medal in 1998.

Team USA’s second game, against Norway on Thursday, figures to be far easier.

“Those games we’ll be actually, to be honest with you, more worried about ourselves and how we prepare and execute,” Wilson said.

Without transcendent stars up front, Burke and his brain trust built around goaltending, grit and defense. The first part should be fine in the hands of Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.16) and save percentage (.930). The Kings’ Jonathan Quick and Boston’s Tim Thomas will alternate as his backup.

“I think in years past teams that switch up their goalies are rarely successful teams. The team that goes with one goalie is. You ride the hot guy,” Wilson said. “And I don’t think there’s one person in this room that would say Ryan hasn’t been the best goalie overall in the league this year up to this point.”

The defense will be mobile but could have holes. Ryan Whitney of the Ducks, a late injury replacement, has a -6 plus/minus rating this season. Jack Johnson of the Kings is -12. There’s no real physical presence, as Chris Pronger will provide for Canada.

Wilson said that in communicating with players before the Games he identified the checking line, power-play unit and shutdown defense pair. In practice Monday, his lines were Zach Parise-Paul Stastny-Patrick Kane; Ryan Malone-Joe Pavelski-Phil Kessel; Jamie Langenbrunner-Ryan Kesler-Dustin Brown; and Bobby Ryan-David Backes-Ryan Callahan. The defense pairs were Jack Johnson-Brooks Orpik, Brian Rafalski-Ryan Suter and Erik Johnson-Tim Gleason.

With only one pre-Olympic practice, building chemistry quickly is an essential task.

“I think we’ve got a great mix of guys that can play different roles, that are here to do specific roles, which is going to make coming together that much easier,” Langenbrunner said.

Burke has been telling anyone who will listen -- and those who are tired of hearing it -- that the U.S. is an underdog and that Canada faces pressure that is “glacial and unremitting and unrelenting. . . . The pressure started building on Canada the day Vancouver got the bid.”

Team Canada’s executive director, Steve Yzerman, has said Russia is the favorite. No one might want to predict supremacy now, but the team that’s left standing Feb. 28 will have earned it.