With just 11 more sleeps until the Olympic hockey tournament begins in Vancouver, Team USA coach Ron Wilson is taking away any suspense or speculation as to which goalie he will lean on to lead his team.
In fact, not only is Wilson not hiding the fact he intends to start Ryan Miller in the Americans’ first game of the tournament against Switzerland Feb. 16, he is making it clear that, barring a goaltending disaster of cataclysmic proportions, he will ride the NHL’s best goaltender this season right through the Games.
That means defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas had better get used to having a vantage point from the bench and Jonathan Quick might want to develop a taste for arena popcorn and hot dogs.
“Oh yeah,” Wilson said when asked whether Miller is his No. 1 goalie. “I’m not afraid to say that.”
After saying Miller is his unequivocal choice as his team’s No. 1 goaltender, Wilson said it makes no sense in his mind to hand the reins to anyone else.
“I’m going in there with the mindset that I’m playing (the same) goalie every game,” Wilson said. “I don’t think the way the schedule is set that you can say, ‘We have to rest this guy,’ or ‘We have to be fair to the other guys.’ ”
It’s not that Wilson doesn’t trust Thomas, but anyone who has watched the NHL this year would acknowledge Miller deserves the No. 1 spot. After facing Switzerland and Norway in the first two games, the final round-robin game against Canada Feb. 21 potentially has enormous implications for the playoff round and Wilson wants his team to know what it’s getting in goal from the start.
“You play one guy in the first game and he plays a certain way and then the next game the other guy is completely different in the way he plays the game,” Wilson said. “So then you get to the third game against Canada and your guys are saying, ‘What’s he doing back there?’
“You want to build a familiarity between your defense and your goaltender because that’s really the only place we can build chemistry. The whole time we’re there we’re only going to practice three times, so for us to build any kind of chemistry, it’s going to have to be in games.”
Some might suggest Wilson is uniquely qualified to assess Miller based on his play against Wilson’s team this season. The Sabres are 5-0-0 against the Leafs despite being outshot in every game and by an average margin of 10 shots a game. Miller has played all five and has a .960 save percentage against the Leafs this season.
Thomas, meanwhile, has not played in any of the three games in which the Boston Bruins have faced the Leafs this season. The Bruins have chosen to play Tuukka Rask – a former Maple Leaf prospect – and he has won two and lost one against Toronto. In his only game against Toronto this season, Quick gave up three goals on 28 shots in a 5-3 Los Angeles Kings win.
Of course, Wilson is not basing his decision solely on what he has seen against his own team this season, but you’d have to think the way Miller has played is a factor. Miller has indeed earned his status as the No. 1 goalie and if Wilson sticks to his philosophy, Miller has also earned the right to retain that status until he proves he is incapable of handling the job.
In fact, Wilson said even a bad outing by Miller likely won’t change his mind.
“I don’t think I’d be willing to change even if (Miller) had a bad night,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen him play so well this year that when he has a bad game, he bounces right back.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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