Since the end of the 2010 Olympics, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy, finished runner-up for a Vezina and won 131 games, including 29 in the postseason. The Milford, Conn., native is athletic and creative, calm and seemingly at his best when the pressure is greatest. At 27, he's entering the prime of his career.
Meanwhile, Ryan Miller, the 33-year-old starter for the silver-medal-winning U.S. squad in Vancouver, has been laboring in net for Buffalo, with a so-so 90-77-20 record and 2.55 goals-against average since the Games. This year has been especially brutal for Miller, who has gone 8--17 with a GAA (2.83) that ranks 31st in the league. The fiery, outspoken East Lansing, Mich., native often attracts more attention for his comments about opponents ("Gutless. Piece of s---," he called Bruins winger Milan Lucic in 2011) and teammates ("He needs to just grow up," Miller said about Patrick Kaleta last spring) than for his play.
So, as Team USA prepares to announce its Olympic roster at the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, it's obvious who should start between the pipes in Sochi: It's still Miller's time.
Quick has been sidelined with a groin injury since Nov. 12. He is expected back on the ice before the end of the year, and he'll have just over a month to regain his form. But even before he got hurt, Quick was far from flawless. This season his .905 save percentage ranks 34th in the league—and that's with him playing behind Los Angeles's skilled and stout defense, led by rising stars Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov.
Miller, on the other hand, works in relative solitude in Buffalo, the lone redeeming factor on the NHL's worst team. A leaky Sabres defense leaves Miller facing a league-high 35.8 shots per game, nearly 12 more than Quick sees. And with a .922 save percentage, Miller looks as sharp and focused as he did in 2010, when he followed his strong Olympics with a Vezina Trophy win.
There is something about the Olympics that brings out the best in Miller. Quick, who was Team USA's third goalie in Vancouver, concedes that Miller's MVP performance there "was the best two weeks I've seen a goalie play in my lifetime." For his Twitter avatar, Miller is pictured wearing a U.S. jersey, not Sabres gear—coincidental perhaps, but appropriate given the last few years in Buffalo.
Three lackluster seasons came to a head last spring, as trade rumors swirled daily and Miller wondered aloud about his future in Buffalo. He talked before this season about the motivation that comes in an Olympic year, the importance of starting fresh and his desire to earn the starter's job for Team USA again. On top of all that, Miller is a free agent at season's end, giving him one more incentive to show what he can do. What bigger stage is there than the Olympic Games?
If Miller should falter, a healthy Quick would make an ideal backup, with his big-game experience. The team's third goalie will come from a deep and talented pool that includes Detroit's Jimmy Howard and New Jersey's Cory Schneider. But the U.S. management team should strongly consider 27-year-old Ben Bishop, who is enjoying a career year in Tampa. The 6'7", 214-pound Denver native may not have the experience or hype, but he would give Team USA the option of a different look in net—that is, big. His size would complement Miller's technical skill and Quick's athleticism quite well, giving the U.S. a most impressive last line of defense in Sochi.
But make no mistake, the first in that line has got to be Miller.
There is something about the Olympics that brings out the best in Miller, who once again deserves the starting nod.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES