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Less-experienced Americans open play against Latvia @NHLdotcom

In 2002, the United States put together perhaps its most experienced squad of NHL players and left Salt Lake City with the silver medal.

The team features players with far less experience on the Olympic level this time around, but expectations are greater.

The Americans' quest for their first Olympic gold since 1980 gets underway Wednesday when they meet Latvia at the Palasport Olimpico.

Twelve of the 23 Americans on the team will be making their Olympic debut, but among the names who will not be in Turin are Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, Scott Young and Brian Leetch. That group combined for 13 goals and 11 assists in 2002, but the U.S. lost in the gold-medal game to Canada.

Eight players on this team are in their 20's, and the average age is just over 31 years old.

"These aren't first-year players in the National Hockey League," general manager Don Waddell said in a December conference call after the team was announced. "We have quite a few guys that have lots of experience in the NHL, but they have just come into their own here recently and deserve to be a part of this team."

Coach Peter Laviolette, also making his Olympic debut, said the decision was made to go with the best players available regardless of age or experience.

"I think everybody should feel a little bit of pressure. I mean, we're going over there with a purpose, and with that comes expectations that ... you try to live up to," said Laviolette, who has led the Carolina Hurricanes to an Eastern Conference-leading 82 points this season.

"Regardless of whether they were younger players or older players, we took the guys that we thought were playing the best in the National Hockey League at that time."

Two returning Olympians are Dallas teammates Mike Modano and Bill Guerin. Modano had six assists and Guerin scored four goals at the Salt Lake Games.

Another set of teammates to watch are New Jersey's Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Gionta leads the Devils this season with 33 goals - 17 on the power play - and 56 points, while Gomez has a team-high 34 assists and is second with 54 points.

The biggest question for the United States will be in goal, where Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders, Philadelphia's Robert Esche and Tampa Bay's John Grahame are all Olympic rookies.

Grahame, a backup goalie on the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup team, was not expected to be selected. Many thought Buffalo's Ryan Miller would be picked, but he was sidelined earlier this season with a broken thumb that had not healed when the Olympic team was announced.

Grahame, though, has been one of the NHL's best goaltenders over the last six weeks, going 7-2-0 with four shutouts since Jan. 3.

Grahame arrived Monday in Turin after a blizzard shut down airports throughout the Northeast and said he would be ready if selected to start.

"I haven't gotten a lot of sleep in the last 24 hours, but if we were ready to play - I'd be ready," he said. "It's a switch, it happens in the playoffs. When that puck drops there is something right there. You may not have as much juice as you normally would, but you'd definitely be focused and ready to go."

Latvia returns to the Olympics after a ninth-place finish in its debut at Salt Lake.

Starting goaltender Arturs Irbe is no stranger to hockey fans in North America after recording 218 wins in a 14-year NHL career with San Jose, Dallas, Vancouver and Carolina. He led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals in 2001-02.

Two NHL defensemen also will represent Latvia.

Anaheim's Sandis Ozolinsh has not played since Nov. 27 because of a knee injury, and also voluntarily entered a substance abuse program on Dec. 29. The 33-year-old had four assists in a 6-6 tie with Slovakia during the Salt Lake Games.

Colorado's Karlis Skrastins is the other recognizable name for Latvia. He has three goals, including two short-handed, in 59 games with the Avalanche this season.

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