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Bylsma, Americans face vexing decision in goal

by Shawn P. Roarke

SOCHI -- United States coach Dan Bylsma knows of all the decisions he makes, none will be dissected as much as the one which determines who plays goal in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

In fact, the decision could define his legacy as coach of the U.S. team.

That, simply, is the lot of a coach. Bylsma understands that and accepts it. But he doesn't have to love it.

Coaches make hundreds of decisions about their teams on an almost daily basis, but outsiders fixate on the goalie decisions because, in the game today, no player has a bigger impact than a goalie on the top of his profession.

The Americans may know this better than anyone.

A red-hot Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres almost willed a young and inexperienced group of underdogs to the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Instead, they fell just short, losing to Canada on an overtime goal by arguably the best player on the planet, Sidney Crosby.

Miller is back now, four years older and four years wiser, staking his claim to again be the No. 1, pointing to the tournament MVP award from Vancouver as well as a 2013-14 season in the NHL which has featured a return to form after recent struggles.

Miller said the Vancouver performance doesn't play into how he feels about his candidacy to be the starter this time.

"I would hope I would be more experienced and have some knowledge to draw on, so I hope I am more involved as a person and a goaltender," he said after the Americans practiced Tuesday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome training rink. "Again, it is a quick tournament, anything can happen. I'm just trying to be focused and ready."

Normally, a résumé such as Miller's would be enough to guarantee the upper hand in a positional battle on most rosters. But the American team is loaded with goaltenders. Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings is the other candidate to start, by most accounts. He won the Stanley Cup in 2012 but has battled through an injury-plagued season.

Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings is expected to be the No. 3.

So Bylsma faces the toughest of decisions. He has not named his starting goalie for the game Thursday against Slovakia (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN). He hasn't even said if he will alternate goalies in the preliminary round or stay with one, the way American coach Ron Wilson did with Miller in 2010, playing him in every game.

"I think one of the strengths of our team is the goaltending," Bylsma said Tuesday, joking that other countries had reached out to see if the Americans were interested in trading one of their three. "We are dealing from a point of strength."

That strength, though, makes things complicated for Bylsma. If his best two players were defensemen, he could play them both, either together or on different pairs. If his best two players played the same forward position, they would play on the top two lines. Bylsma does not have such a luxury with his goalies. One will be left on the bench, unable to bring his superior talents to the fray.

Yet he accepts the fact he will have to decide.

"I don't think I would just want one great goalie to make the decision easier," Bylsma said. "We left some very good goalies at home with the three we selected. I think it makes it a great decision because I think whether you go with Jimmy, Ryan or Jon, you are going to have a great goalie in net."

Know this about Bylsma, he has studied his options.

He knows Canada has switched goalies midstream each of the past two times it has won gold. Martin Brodeur replaced Curtis Joseph in 2002. Eight years later, Roberto Luongo replaced Brodeur and beat Miller and the Americans.

Bylsma also knows the Czech Republic rode Dominik Hasek to gold in the 1998 Nagano Games, the first to feature NHL players. In 2006, Sweden used the brilliance of Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers to win gold.

"I've looked at those situations and I know that we are dealing with a position of strength with the goalies we have here," he said.

Bylsma also had to make a similar decision in the NHL with his Pittsburgh Penguins, pulling a struggling Marc-Andre Fleury in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and replacing him with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun.

How will Bylsma make what will be one of the biggest decisions of this Olympic hockey tournament?

"A lot of things go into the decision from past success to current play to injury, to where they are at right now," he said.

Will he be right?

Only time, and the performance of the American team, will tell that tale.

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