Sporting an iconic mask featuring a modern Uncle Sam holding the Olympic torch on one side and an attitudinal eagle on the other, Ryan Miller put together one of the best six-game stretches in American goaltending history in 2010. Despite an overtime defeat resigning the US to a silver medal finish, Miller's .946 save percentage and 1.35 GAA set a remarkable bar for future American goalies to match. Now four years older Miller once again figures to be in the mix for one of the three goaltending spots, but if reports are to be believed USA Hockey general manager David Poile is making a large mistake by leaving the NHL's current best American goalie at home.
First reported by Detroit Free Press' Helene St. James on Twitter, the goalies that appear headed to Sochi for the red, white, and blue will be Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, and Detroit's Jimmy Howard. While much of the discussion in the early portion of the season centered around the battle between Howard and New Jersey's Cory Schneider for the third spot, both have been out-performed by Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop. Not only tops among US-born goalies, to this point in the season only two other starters have put up better numbers than the first year backstop for the Lightning.
Not only physically standing head and shoulders above the other American goalies at an imposing 6'7", Bishop has had a first half of the season that enters him in the discussion for the Vezina. Among starters he currently ranks third with a .935 save percentage while facing the 14th most shots in the league (832), is tied for second in GAA with a 2.19 mark in 29 games, and has the best winning percentage (20 wins) at 69.0%. Perhaps most impressive he has allowed more than two goals only five times this season. Ducks fans will surely remember his valiant 41 save performance at Honda Center on 11/22:
Full highlights from NHL.com
Perhaps his performance at the 2013 IIHF World Championships spooked the USA brass, as Bishop went 3-2 with a 2.83 GAA and .876 save percentage and ceded the crease to Ducks prospect John Gibson for the elimination stage. The only other international experience he has is a single period of relief action in 2010, having never merited a World Junior Championships selection during his three seasons at University of Maine. But even with the dearth of experience on the international stage, there are enough questions surrounding the other American goalies to merit a selection of Bishop.
Howard has been out of action since December 10th with a strained medial collateral ligament in left knee, and missed games earlier this year due to a hand injury. Even without the dings this season has been a down one by his standard, with only a .910 save percentage and a 2.65 GAA. Perhaps it's the increased workload that's caused issue, as since Niklas Lidstrom retired following the '11-'12 season Howard has seen his workload increase from 26.2 shots against per game in '11-'12 to 26.8 in '12-'13 to 29.1 this season. However Bishop sees an average of 28.7 shots per game with the Lightning this year, and has quite simply been better.
To pick Howard based on a playoff history that is mostly earned in knocking out offensively challenged Phoenix Coyote squads before dropping in the second round to better San Jose and Chicago teams seems hardly a definitive track record. The only series Howard has defeated a team that finished more than 5 points better than Detroit was last year in defeating the Ducks. When you consider that the US will likely need a goalie that can steal a game, Howard's current form and track record leads no reason to believe that he can consistently offer that. Bishop has been much more consistent this season, and with wins in nine of the 12 games making over 30 saves (four wins making over 35) has shown game-stealing proclivity.
Miller deserves his spot as an elder statesman that can provide a calming influence from having been through the rigors of the Olympics before, and still remaining an upper echelon NHL netminder. Despite Quick having missed significant time with a groin injury this season, his consistent game-stealing form exhibited in the Kings 2012 Stanley Cup run as well as last season's trip to the Western Conference Finals make him a much more solid proposition. Having been the third goalie in Vancouver, the combination of that experience and championship level NHL playoff track record earn him his spot as well as the inside track for the starting position.
When it comes down to it, there is more for the US to gain by bringing a healthy horse of a goalie in Bishop than the injured and recently poor performing Howard. On the international ice surface, having a percentage-playing goalie whose mammoth size fills up the net combined with experience in a system built on speedy attack provides the US much more tactical freedom. The US will come in expected to be in the running for a medal, and leaving the best current performing US-born goalie with natural advantages no system can provide seems a needless handicap.
While it may be years before another American netminder puts up a performance on par with Miller's sparkling show in Vancouver, there are plenty of questions about the two 'tenders currently tabbed to join him in Sochi. One of them has a championship pedigree, but the other simply doesn't measure up to Ben Bishop in '13-'14.