With no NHL players participating in the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1994, there is a bit of mystery surrounding the tournament as it begins on Valentine’s Day. But there are a couple things most agree upon.
The United States would have had a much better chance for a medal if the best of the best were in PyeongChang, but as it stands a medal is not out of the question. The Americans are firmly among the top half of the 12 teams involved.
Slovenia, the Americans' first opponent in the round-robin preliminary round, enters with much lower expectations. A part of Yugoslavia until 1991, Slovenia did not qualify for an Olympic ice hockey tournament until 2014 but finished a respectable seventh in Sochi.
United States vs. Slovenia
Faceoff: Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7:10 a.m. ET
TV Channel: NBCSN
Three Things to Watch
1. You’ll recognize some names
While the NHL decided to sit this Olympics out, you will still recognize some of the players, at least on the U.S. side. Captain Brian Gionta is the most accomplished American, with 15 NHL seasons and a Stanley Cup on his resume. He is also the only former Olympian and led the 2006 Winter Games in scoring when the U.S. was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Defenseman James Wisniewski has played in more than 500 NHL games and has led Team USA to success before as a member of the team that gave the U.S. its first-ever gold medal at the World Junior Championships in 2004. In all, 15 players on Team USA have NHL experience. As for Slovenia, Jan Mursak played 46 games for the Detroit Red Wings from 2010-13, scoring two goals in his NHL career.
2. Team USA's young guns
While the U.S. decided to go with a mostly experienced squad, four skaters currently playing college hockey made the team: F Troy Terry (currently playing for defending NCAA champ Denver), F Jordan Greenway (Boston University), D Will Borgen (St. Cloud State) and F Ryan Donato (Harvard). All four have significant international experience, but Terry is probably the most recognizable name as he was the hero who scored the shootout-winning goal in the gold medal game at last year’s World Junior Championships. All four are expected to become NHL regulars eventually.
3. How fast will the Americans mesh?
Before the NHL started sending players to the Olympics, the members of Team USA were selected the previous summer and would play a full schedule of more than 50 games against other national teams, college teams and pro teams to get ready for the Winter Games. The members of the current American team have been scattered across the globe and just found out on Jan. 1 that they were on the team. They have not played a single exhibition game together. In that regard, the U.S. caught a break facing Slovenia first as opposed to the Russians, whom the Americans will face on Saturday.
There is always a chance for an upset early in the Olympics, especially when one team has more experience playing together as is the case here with Slovenia. But the U.S. likely has enough talent to open with a win.