SOCHI, Russia — Canada has an unequaled group of centers. Sweden, though depleted up front by injuries, has fine goaltending. Finland boasts an unshakable team ethic that clicks in whenever its players reunite. And Russia, blessed with enormous skill, bears the equally large burden of living up to a glorious history that may never be duplicated.
What Team USA will bring to the Olympic hockey tournament when it faces Slovakia at Shayba Arena on Thursday is more difficult to summarize.
Outstanding goaltending? No question, with the Kings’ Jonathan Quick designated to start the opener, an exclamation point on his return from a groin strain that sidelined him from Nov. 12 until Jan. 4. Explosive scoring? The prospect of watching Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel zip around the wider international rink is tantalizing. Solid defense? Ryan Suter has few equals under fire.
It will all matter, but center Ryan Kesler offered the best assessment of Team USA’s defining strengths. “How fast we play,” he said, “and the in-your-face hockey that we’re going to play.”
Speed and diligence at both ends were key factors when team executives chose this group, valuing those qualities above the proven scoring of Bobby Ryan, among others. Thirteen players return from the squad that lost to Canada in the 2010 gold-medal game at Vancouver, but many will play different roles.
Quick is the prime example, boosted by his 2012 Stanley Cup title and Conn Smythe Trophy. He was the third goalie at Vancouver — he dressed as the backup for one game — but beat out 2010 silver medalist Ryan Miller of Buffalo to start on Thursday.
“We’ve got three great goalies on this team,” said Quick, who was informed before the team practiced Wednesday that he would start. “Every one of us wants to play and wants to give this team a chance to win. I’m fortunate for the opportunity and you just try to make the most of it.”
Quick also credited his Kings teammates for making him look good.
“There’s a lot of hard work put into it. I think the biggest thing is being able to play with the guys back in L.A.,” he said. “The guys that I play with, this says a lot about them. When you play with great players they put you in a position and give you opportunities like this. So you’re thankful for that.”
One of those teammates, winger Dustin Brown, said he hopes Team USA will give Quick more support than the low-scoring Kings usually provide.
“Hopefully we don’t need to see the Quickie we see in L.A. sometimes, where he has to make those unbelievable saves,” Brown said. “But when you have a goaltender like that, that’s a big part of it.”
Coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t say if he will stay with Quick or switch to Miller later; Canada’s Mike Babcock said he will start Montreal’s Carey Price against Norway and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo in Canada’s second game, against Austria.
“I think we’re dealing with a position of strength when it comes to the goaltender and true goaltender decision,” Bylsma said. “We’ve said in the past body of work and big games, and Jonathan’s won a championship with his team, won a Stanley Cup. Certainly Ryan this year has played very well for his team, as well.”
Bylsma, who planned to do extensive video analysis of Slovakia on Wednesday night, cautioned against reading much into the lines and defense pairs he deployed Wednesday. But it’s likely Brown, Kesler and Kane will stay together, as will Zach Parise, David Backes and Ryan Callahan, and Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie.
Suter is likely to be paired with Paul Martin, and Kevin Shattenkirk with Ryan McDonagh. The other pairs Wednesday were the Ducks’ Cam Fowler with John Carlson and veteran Brooks Orpik with Justin Faulk.
“Up front it’s just about being hard to play against, I think,” Brown said. “We have skill but guys like Zach and David Backes, they’re really hard to play against. It’s the energy level.”
The U.S. men haven’t won a hockey medal outside of North America since the 1972 team won silver in Sapporo, Japan. A high enough in-your-face quotient could help change that.