UNITED STATES vs. SLOVAKIA
When: Thursday, 4:30 a.m. PT (NBCSN, TSN) - FULL SOCHI SCHEDULE
Where: Shayba Arena
What's at stake: This is the opening game for both teams in Group A and each would like to set a tone right out of the gate. For Slovakia it is an opportunity to prove its appearance in the bronze-medal game four years ago was not a fluke. For the Americans it is a chance to show the big ice will not be a storyline as the games take place on the wider ice surface favored in Europe.
United States: Four years ago Jonathan Quick was the third goaltender for the United States in Vancouver. Since then Quick has won a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy and played in back-to-back Western Conference Finals for the Los Angeles Kings. And when the U.S. comes out for its opening game at 2014 Sochi Olympics, Quick will be leading the way.
American coach Dan Bylsma told Quick at practice Wednesday that the goaltender will make the start against Slovakia.
"It was pretty casual," Quick said. "We were on the ice stretching and he just came over and said it. We have three great goalies on this team and everyone wants to start. I'm just fortunate for the opportunity and want to make the best of it."
The Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller, the MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament and the starting goaltender in Vancouver, will be the backup and could start Friday against Russia. Bylsma insisted his decision to start Quick is for the Slovakia game only.
"It was the coach's decision," Miller said. "Obviously I want to play and compete and do my part. Right now I will just back up Jon. He's a great goalie and he is going to do great for us. We'll see where it goes from here and I'll just be ready to play."
Slovakia: Losing top-line forward Marian Gaborik (Columbus Blue Jackets) and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (New York Islanders), who likely would have quarterbacked their top power-play unit, will make a difficult path to a medal even tougher for Slovakia. But Slovakia wasn't considered much of a medal contender four years ago and the team got all the way to the bronze-medal game.
Along the way they beat Russia in group play and Sweden in the quarterfinals. And taking down a few more giants of international hockey is something the team is focused on.
"I don't think we will ever be among the favorites," captain Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins told the IIHF website. "We won't go into the World Championships or into any kind of tournaments as a favorite. But we do have potential and when we play as a team, as we have shown before, we can be a very strong team. But honestly, to predict who will win or even who will be the toughest team to beat is hard."
Replacing Gaborik is forward Branko Radivojevic, a 1999 third-round pick (No. 93) of the Colorado Avalanche who played six seasons in the League with the Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers and Minnesota Wild and currently plays in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Taking Visnovsky's spot is Tomas Starosta, who plays in the KHL and will be taking part in his first Olympics.
What's next: Group A play continues for both teams Saturday. The United States faces Russia in a game that could decide the top spot in the group, which provides for a better position in the quarterfinal round. Slovakia plays Slovenia, which is taking part in its first Olympic hockey tournament. Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings is the team's only NHL representative.
Photo via (Julie Jacobson, AP / AP)