The showcase game of the Olympic preliminary round goes this evening in Sochi, as the United States meets the host Russians at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Here are three things to watch, besides the hostile crowd.
1. Jonathan Quick: Will make his second consecutive start for the U.S. after allowing just one goal in Thursday’s 7-1 win over Slovakia. With another solid outing, the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner should get the nod once the win-or-go-home games begin. But what if he isn’t so solid? Ryan Miller, the Americans’ best player in the 2010 Games, is waiting in the wings, and his NHL numbers this season are actually better than Quick’s. The U.S. plays its last game of the preliminary round tomorrow versus Slovenia. Head coach Dan Bylsma might be planning to start Miller in that one anyway, if only to avoid Quick playing three games in four nights. But — and this is pure speculation — if Quick has a rough outing versus the Russians, Miller could be auditioning for the starting job versus the Slovenians.
2. Top-end talent versus depth: The Russians have the edge in the former, with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Semin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov comprising their top six forwards. However, the Americans have the edge in the latter, at least based on what they displayed versus Slovakia. Bylsma was particularly complimentary of his fourth line, made up of Paul Stastny, T.J. Oshie and Max Pacioretty, and that trio could even see some time against the top Russians.
3. The officiating. The referees will be American Brad Meier and Swede Marcus Vinnerborg. If they call it tight, Russia’s loaded power play — which went 1-for-3 versus Slovenia — could be a big factor. Nothing against all the talented scorers on the Americans, but “blue-collar” teams who prides themselves on being “tough to play against” — Bylsma’s words — don’t typically want tightly officiated games.