Miller, Keith Ready for Olympic Hockey
Feb. 11, 2010
East Lansing, Mich. - On Friday afternoon in Vancouver, the opening ceremonies for the XXI Olympic Winter Games will be held - but Michigan State's Ryan Miller and Duncan Keith will be like many of us - watching on television.
Miller, a goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres, will be getting in his prep work for a Saturday evening game against San Jose. Keith will be doing the same, as he and his Chicago Blackhawks teammates will be taking on the Atlanta Thrashers Saturday night in Chicago.
However; the pair might be getting in some packing. After all, come Sunday, they are Vancouver-bound. Due to the compressed NHL schedule, league clubs have had fewer off-days and play league games right up until the start of the Games, then the NHL schedule takes a two-week break while several players are representing their home countries in Vancouver. That means that Miller and Keith will play for their NHL clubs on Saturday and then head to Vancouver on Sunday with Olympic competition beginning on Tuesday. Perhaps that will be a welcome reprise, with three whole days off between games, unlike the one their current NHL schedules afford them.
This will be the first Games for both Miller and Keith, who played together one year at Michigan State (2001-02). Miller, who has been named the starting goaltender for Team USA, has established himself among the league's best at his position, as he boasts a 2.15 GAA (ranked third) and an NHL-best .931 save percentage and has the Sabres in first place in the Northeast Division. Keith and the Blackhawks also lead their division, with a 14-point cushion over second-place Nashville. Keith is having a career year, ranked second among all NHL defensemen in points (51), goals (11), and assists (40) and is third in plus/minus (+23).
Team Canada's executive director Steve Yzerman announced the Canadian hockey roster publicly on Dec. 30, but the players were notified individually by members of the team's management staff. Kevin Lowe, the President of Hockey Operations for the Edmonton Oilers, is the one who notified Keith of his selection.
"My whole family was pretty excited in getting the news," Keith told ESPN Chicago. "When your name is listed there, you realize all the great players that are Canadian hockey players. To be one of the guys lucky enough or fortunate enough to make the team, I definitely feel honored to be a part of it, and we'll do everything we can to make it a success."
The U.S. roster was announced on a larger stage - right after the NHL's Winter Classic game in Boston on New Year's Day. After the outdoor game between the Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, the unveiling of Team USA happened live in front of the Fenway Park crowd (and a national television audience). Miller, like Keith, got the call earlier in the day.
"(Associate GM of Team USA and Nashville Predators GM) David Poile called me the day they announced it, early in the afternoon," Miller recalls. "We had a game that night, and he just said `congratulations.' I was really happy to hear that. The speculation was obviously out there for a while, and I didn't think they would leave me off the team. It was nice to hear a confirmation, though."
The breakneck pace of the NHL schedule will continue for the duo after they arrive in Vancouver. For instance, Team USA has its first practice on Sunday afternoon, followed by team and individual pictures, a press conference, and another practice session on Monday.
Then on Tuesday ... it's Game On. Or, more like it ... Games On.
Team USA kicks off the men's hockey action in Vancouver on Tuesday, Feb. 16 with a noon (local) game against Switzerland, and that opening game is followed by a tilt between Canada and Norway. Round-robin play continues through Sunday, capped with a U.S.-Canada showdown as group play concludes. The medal round starts on Wednesday, with the Gold Medal Game played on Sunday, Feb. 28 at noon in Vancouver.
The Canadians are always a prohibitive favorite to medal and with the Games in their home country, the expectations on Team Canada will be high. No more pressure could be on an individual athlete; however, than rests on the shoulders of Miller, considered to be the lynchpin of the American's medal hopes. USA Hockey long depended on a core of players like Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, and Bill Guerin. With that core aging, the U.S. contingent has a younger look, with several players in the 21-23 age bracket (Pat Kane, Erik Johnson, and Phil Kessel) as well as veteran Olympians like Chris Drury, Brian Rafalski and Jamie Langenbrunner. The key, according to many analysts; however, is Miller.
Technically, this is Miller's first games. Many thought he should have made the team that competed in Torino in 2006, but with a thumb injury suffered earlier in that NHL season, Team USA officials went with Rick DiPietro, but Miller was named to the Taxi Squad. When the U.S. finished out of medal contention, many second-guessers voiced opinions that Miller should have been on the team, giving the 1-4-1 U.S. team some more steady crease play than the trio of Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame.
Four years later, Miller is a hot property. He has now played in more than 300 NHL games, backstopped the Sabres to deep playoff runs (2006 and 2007), a President's Trophy, and is turning in the best numbers of his NHL career. The conversation has turned at times this season to whether Miller is the current best goaltender in the NHL, if not the world, and with the Games upon us, he will have his opportunity to make his case. He prefers to not talk the talk, but instead, walk the walk.
"A lot of times, [the media] just wants to build a story around something that you have to build into a job," Miller says. "I'm going about my business and just trying to be as focused as I can be, handle my thing and just really ignore that kind of talk."
What he is focused on; however, is the task ahead of him the next two weeks. "We have to come together as a team in a short amount of time. There is no grace period," hypothesizes the netminder. "You have to go in and be good right away. Our focus has be coming together and playing tight systematically. From the sound of it, it sounds like (head coach Ron) Wilson and (General Manager) Brian Burke want to have an up-tempo game. They want puck control, and we have to be all over it. And if we don't, if there's hesitation, we're going to be up against some teams that are really going to make you pay for that kind of a game. It's definitely going all out from the time we get there."
This year's Gold Medal Game will happen just hours before the closing ceremonies of the XXI Olympic Winter Games. While the pair and their NHL compatriots will miss the opening ceremonies, Spartan fans hope to see both Miller and Keith on television as the Games to a close - hopefully, each with medals around their necks.
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