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Miller the linchpin for inexperienced Americans

by Shawn P. Roarke
If Team USA General Manager Brian Burke has said it once, he said it 1,000 times. Now repeat after me: "Not a penny is going to be bet on this team in Vegas. We know that. We know we are underdogs."
There's no doubt that Burke is hoping to take the pressure of his young, mostly untested team while waging psychological warfare against the host Canadians and the co-favorite Russians with his nobody-believes-in-us routine. But just because the Americans are admitted underdogs, doesn't mean they don't have a chance.
Coach Ron Wilson has won big on the international stage before, leading another overlooked Team USA to a championship. Anybody remember the 1996 World Cup of Hockey? The 2010 American Olympic team is nowhere near as talented as its predecessor from 14 seasons ago, but does possess the dominant goalie -- Buffalo's Ryan Miller playing the role of Mike Richter -- to pull off a few upsets in a short, no-room-for-error tournament like the Olympics.

Ryan Miller is the biggest reason why the Buffalo Sabres sit in first place in the Northeast Division. In fact, the Sabres are built much like this Team USA -- a solid foundation complemented by a collection of players in the proper roles, buttressed by superior goaltending.
Miller also resided among the NHL leaders in wins, shutouts, goals-against average and save percentage.

Simply put, Miller is the game-breaker, at the peak of his career, the Americans need if they want to prove the naysayers wrong that won't be tabbing this team for medal contention. Plus, Miller is motivated after an injury left him on the outside looking in at Torino. Then, Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame, could do little to save the Americans from an embarrassing eighth-place finish.

Injuries have left the Americans scrambling on the blue line. Both Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek were forced to withdraw less than two weeks before the tournament. Martin, Team USA's best puck-moving defenseman, will be sorely missed by a team that will likely scuffle to score. Komisarek's big body and physical bent will be missed against teams like Canada and Sweden, both of whom feature a raft of power forwards.

As a result, a ton of pressure will be placed on Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski. He does his job well, but has been most comfortable in the shadows, playing behind Scott Niedermayer in New Jersey and Nick Lidstrom in Detroit. But here, Rafalski will have to be 2010's version of Brian Leetch, circa 1996, carrying play in both the defensive and offensive zones.
How young are the Americans on the blue line? Well, after the 36-year-old Rafalski, Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik is the graybeard at all of 29. Jack Johnson of Los Angeles is only 23 and Erik Johnson in St. Louis is just 21. Nashville's Ryan Suter is a mere 25, while injury replacements Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason are 26 and 27, respectively. There will be some serious growing up taking place in Vancouver for the Americans.

The Americans do have some game-breakers up front with Chicago's Patrick Kane and New Jersey's Zach Parise jumping immediately to mind. But unlike the aforementioned Russians or Canadians, Team USA does not possess the talent to field three dangerous scoring lines.
No, this is a team in the truest sense that Burke has given to Wilson. For the Americans, the 2010 Olympic story will be about how the 13 forwards on the roster fit together.
Wilson has a few scorers aside from Parise and Kane, both of whom have already topped the 20-goal mark. Youngster Bobby Ryan already has 25 goals this season in Anaheim and Toronto's Phil Kessel has topped the 40-goal mark in his career, although he is struggling this season.
Wilson also has a fleet of two-way forwards to call upon, headlined by Jamie Langenbrunner, who will be counted on to steer the young players on this team in the right direction, Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan. There are power forwards in Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone and Dustin Brown of the Kings. Ryan Kesler will provide some high-octane energy playing in front of the home crowd. Callahan and Kesler are power-play maestros and Drury and San Jose's Joe Pavelski know their way around a penalty kill.
Star gazing

Ryan Miller will be the Team USA story in Vancouver. He has earned the No. 1 job, beating out Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of Boston. Miller is on his way to his fifth-straight 30-win season and has proven he is a big-game goalie with runs into the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the two seasons the Sabres have made the playoffs during his tenure. He will have to be at his very best to hide the noticeable shortcomings of what is, honestly, a team in transition.

Striking it rich

Team USA GearWhile Miller will be the focal point; it is Wilson who will be on the hot seat. Not only will he have to find a way to keep a very young and inexperienced team from becoming overwhelmed by the Olympic stage, he will have to figure out -- and quickly -- how to put the pieces he has been given together in a way that makes the Americans both effective and a pain in the butt to play against. If he can do that, the Americans can easily find themselves in the semifinals at the very least.
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