- Scott Burnside, NHL
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SOCHI, Russia -- At this point four years ago, we still didn't know all that much about the U.S. hockey team.
We knew they had won three straight, including an emotional win over host Canada to win its group in the preliminary round.
But we could still hear the echoes of then GM Brian Burke's mantra that this was a team no one gave a chance to win a medal, a lunch-bucket squad whose chances of advancing beyond the do-or-die quarterfinals against Switzerland weren't assured.
And so maybe we didn't believe, even if that belief was already deeply ingrained within that U.S. lineup.
But here we are four years later and the U.S. has another bye to the quarterfinals, another three-game sweep of the preliminary round, including a gritty shootout win over host Russia that earned instant classic status.
Belief? Oh, people believe in this team all right. In fact, there is widespread consensus that of all eight teams left, the Americans are at the top of the heap in terms of their preparedness, in terms of their identity, in terms of what they appear to be capable of achieving in the final days of this tournament.
Former NHLer and veteran analyst Glenn Healy checked off the achievements of the U.S. group over the past four years: Stanley Cups, individual awards, playoff experience.
"They didn't go into a coma for four years," Healy told ESPN.com Tuesday.
From former playoff MVP Jonathan Quick in goal, to the young skilled defense, to the battle-tested forward contingent, Healy has been impressed with their evolution over the past four years and, of course, their play in the preliminary round in Sochi.
"They're four years older; four years deeper," he said. "They're an improved group."
Does it make any difference that the expectations are diametrically opposed to where they were four years ago?
Certainly in talking to players after Team USA's practice Tuesday, there is little evidence they are taking anything for granted heading into a day that in some ways is the hardest day in the tournament, a day that leaves the losers with nothing but a hollow feeling with those medal hopes extinguished.
Center Ryan Kesler, who looks to line up with Patrick Kane and Zach Parise on Wednesday, found it difficult to draw any comparisons between the experience of four years ago and what lies ahead this week.
"It's tough to compare. Four years is a long time," Kesler said. "That's a long time ago. Played a lot of games in between. Right now speaking on this team, I think we're confident but we know we've still got a lot of work to do. The real test begins tomorrow. It's win or go home. We'll focus on that game and not worry about anything else."
Several of the American players even had difficulty recalling their quarterfinal opponent four years ago (it was Switzerland, which the U.S. beat 2-0), another indication perhaps of the team's inward focus.
"If I had a perfect memory, I may be able to make that comparison for you," David Backes said with a smile.
He does think the U.S. victory over Russia has put them in a good place heading into Wednesday's quarterfinal.
"I think we've had a little more; we've had that tight game where we went into overtime, into a shootout, had our mettle tested a little bit in that game," Backes said. "Not to say that we didn't against Canada in Vancouver, but we won with the empty-netter there and never really trailed in that game. This was a test. We had to play a full 65 minutes, got the heart rate up in the shootout. Hopefully we're a better team because of that. And going into these games, we're going to have to play in that sort of environment. We're going to be prepared for it."
Head coach Dan Bylsma believes this team is at its best when it is using its size and speed to make life difficult for opponents. They just need to remember what it is that has made them so successful early in this tournament.
"I think you're trying to develop your team in a short period of time," Bylsma said Tuesday. "I don't know if it's real possible to say you've got a final product or this is where you wanted to be at, but we have those assets on our team.
"I think Ryan Callahan has been as hard to play against as any of our guys. David Backes is such a big guy down the middle and an abrasive guy. If you look back at the game against the Russians, look back at some of the replays, you see him going against some of their big players. That's when we're at our best. It's something we have to keep at and keep on, because that's when we're at our best with those guys being hard to play against."
Four years ago, we learned what the U.S. already knew -- that they were ready.
Wednesday we will find out if what we think we know about this team is in fact so.
When the U.S. begins its win-or-go-home march, we'll find out if the team is as good as advertised.