By Bob Kravitz
USA TODAY Sports
SOCHI, RUSSIA — It is hockey's most elemental truism: In a short series like the playoffs or the Olympics, it's all about goaltending, just like it's all about quarterbacking in the National Football League.
Which is why U.S. men's hockey coach Dan Bylsma needs to make the right decision and turn to veteran and former Olympic hero Ryan Miller, and not Jonathan Quick, as his primary goaltender in these Olympics.
Now, both figure to play in the preliminary round, which begins for the U.S. Thursday when it plays Slovakia. But when the tournament reaches critical mass later next week, Bylsma needs to turn to Miller, who will attempt to reprise his role from the silver-medal run in Vancouver.
"Do you think your performance in Vancouver will carry some currency in terms of your playing time here?'' Miller was asked Monday after a brief practice designed to ease the team's jet-lag issues.
"You know, I'm not sure,'' Miller, an East Lansing native and former Michigan State goalie, said. "You'll have to talk to the coaching staff. I tried to play my way on (to the Olympic team) and I feel like I definitely had a good start to the season and continue to show I can play at a high level.''
So, we asked the coach.
He broke into a sardonic grin.
"We know who we're going with,'' said Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins' coach. "But we haven't told the guys (Miller or Quick) just yet. We'll make that announcement before our first game.''
Make it Miller.
With Miller, a coach knows what he's getting, a steely-eyed competitor, a consistent and comforting presence in net. He's been in this arena before, playing so well in Vancouver he was named the tournament MVP.
With Quick, there's the wild-card factor. He can be the guy who won the Conn Smythe Trophy two years ago and back-stopped the Los Angeles Kings to the conference finals last year, or he could be the shaky goaltender who struggled through the early portion of this season. Quick, basically, could steal this series just as easily as he could throw it away.
For now, Bylsma is going to play it coy.
He won't even commit to playing both goalies in the preliminary round.
"I'm not going to tell you,'' he said, still smiling.
Truth is, there are no bad choices here, even if Miller seems to be the better, safer option. Since January, Miller has a 2.65 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage, playing for a moribund Buffalo Sabres team. Quick, who plays for goal-starved but stingy Los Angeles, has had a 1.87 GAA and .922 save percentage during the same stretch.
But there are reasons to prefer Miller here:
He's got the international experience.
Miller was utterly brilliant in leading the Americans to the gold-medal game in Vancouver, even if he gave up a bad-angled game winner in overtime to Sidney Crosby. Quick has limited international experience.
The larger international ice surface.
Everybody talks about how the bigger rink will impact the forwards and defensemen, but it impacts goaltenders as well. It changes all the angles and the geometry of the art.
"Spatially, everything changes,'' Miller said. "But it can be a bit of an optical illusion, so that's something I'll be working on in practice the next couple of days.''
Miller is not a great puck-handler, but he's better than Quick, and that's going to be at a premium in the international game. In the NHL, there's a trapezoid which limits the goalies' ability to wander and play the puck. There's no trapezoid in the international game, putting more pressure on the goaltender to move the puck.
"You have to be a lot more active and ready to move,'' Miller said. "You can't just rely on your guy to come back every time. I'm just going to be ready to play it and try not to do anything too crazy.''
The Americans' defensive inexperience.
Whoever plays in the U.S. net will see plenty of vulcanized rubber, and Miller is more used to the heavy load than is Quick. Miller plays behind the worst team in the league; Quick plays behind one of the most defensive-minded teams in the league.
In the international game, the stay-at-home goaltender is best suited to handle the style of game. Miller is more of a stay-at-home goaltender who does his work at the edge of the crease or in the crease. Quick is more aggressive and is more likely to wander.
Bylsma can thank me later.
"In our situation we've had one goalie (Miller) play well all year and we've had two (Quick and Detroit's Jimmy Howard) deal with injuries and come back here in the last month and play really well. You might have some ideas in the summertime, but you let it play out. All of them have played really well. Ryan's done well with a team that's really struggling and Jonathan's got a track record and has come back well from his (groin) injury.''
It's all about goaltending.
Make it Miller.
Bob Kravitz writes for the Indianapolis Star.