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Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Miller, Thomas give USA 1-2 punch

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame each started at least a game in goal for Team USA at the 2006 Olympics -- a situation that, if you've never followed a hockey team before, isn't a good thing.

It means the team didn't know who its go-to guy was and, well, that leads to a predictable result. In this case, a seventh-place finish in Torino, thanks to one measly victory.

Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas, an NHL All-Star and reigning Vezina Trophy winner, will be one of Team USA's go-to goalies.

Four years later, the Americans head to Vancouver with a 1 and 1A combo -- established star netminder Ryan Miller and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas.

As Adam Sandler famously sang in his "Hanukkah Song" ... "Not too shabby."

All of which certainly doesn't give Team USA an edge. Not with Henrik Lundqvist manning the pipes for defending Olympic champion Sweden, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo in goal for Canada, Evgeni Nabokov and Nikolai Khabibulin for Russia, Jonas Hiller for Switzerland, Tomas Vokoun for the Czechs, Niklas Backstrom, Miikka Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne and 48 other goalies in Finland ... well, you get the picture.

International hockey is stocked with quality goaltending, so the Americans are simply putting themselves on equal footing this time around with the excellent Thomas/Miller duo. From this vantage point, it's the best netminding the U.S. will have since Mike Richter's heyday.

Team USA coach Ron Wilson said not to count out impressive youngster Jonathan Quick, or the injured and rehabbing DiPietro. But let's be realistic: It's going to be the Thomas/Miller show in Vancouver, in more than ways than one. For a team that -- on paper, at least -- appears to have less natural scoring ability than the Canadas and Russias and Swedens of the world, Miller and Thomas will be heavily leaned on come February.

''The goaltending position is very important in the Olympics because it's short term and it's one-game, head-to-head elimination," Thomas said Tuesday after Day 2 of the U.S. Olympic camp. "A goalie can make a huge difference. In a seven-game series, a goalie can still make a difference, but it's more team-dependent. But in one game, a goalie can make or break the game for you.''

Hard to argue with that. The Czechs rode Dominik Hasek to gold in 1998, Brodeur was splendid in 2002 as Canada won its first Olympic gold in 50 years and Lundqvist was sensational in Torino.

The question for American hockey fans is whether they want Miller or Thomas in goal for the biggest game of the tournament. Both goalies badly want that chance, but don't go looking for controversy here; they admire each other.

"Tim's a great guy," said Miller. "If it works out that we're both playing together, I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I think we both have good attitudes and both have laid-back personalities. I don't think that takes away from our competitive nature. I think our approach is one where we really want to help the team and encourage the team aspect. If he's playing, I want him to win; if I'm playing, I hope he's pulling for the same things."

Who's starting in Vancouver? Don't ask Thomas. That's way too far down the road for him.

"When I found out I was nominated for the Vezina, I never really thought about winning it -- seriously," said Thomas. "I wouldn't let myself believe I was winning it until it was actually announced. And I think it's the same as it will be with the Olympics. It'd be a dream come true, but there's still four months.

"You have to stay injury-free. There's still a couple of hands of fate that have to fall into place, so the best thing to do is not to think about it too much, break it down into little bites, just worry about playing your regular-season games.''

For Miller, the Olympic experience is four years past due. In retrospect, he should have been part of the 2006 team, but we cut then-GM Don Waddell some slack on that one since the Sabres star was injured when the roster had to be selected. Still, by the time the tournament rolled around a few months later, it was clear to most that Miller was among the best (if not the best) U.S. goalies in the NHL, and it stung that he was only part of the taxi squad (he never made it to Italy).

"Other people got more angry about it than I did," Miller said Tuesday. "I didn't take it as a slight, I took it as a business decision. I can separate business from personal. It was a situation where I was injured, really proving myself for the first time as an NHL goalie; I had 10 games in and I got hurt.

"Even though I had a good season prior in the AHL, that wasn't what they were looking for. At the time, the goalies that went had more NHL time and they were healthy. From a general manager's viewpoint, that's the safe play.

"Maybe it provided me with a bit of motivation, but I'd like to think I can motivate myself beyond other people's opinions of me."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.