Like any professional hockey player, Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller is used to hearing the Canadian national anthem played before most NHL games. But, like every member of the United States men's hockey team who played at the last Olympics, Miller hasn't entirely gotten over hearing "O Canada" after the gold-medal game.
That was in Vancouver in 2010, when Miller — the undisputed star of the tournament — helped lead Team USA to the brink of victory but saw Team Canada star Sidney Crosby's shot go between his legs in sudden-death overtime, giving the home country the gold medal.
"It definitely stings," recalls the East Lansing, Michigan, native, who won MVP honors in the Olympic tournament to go along with his silver medal. "I feel it was a mistake on my part at the end of the game, so you have to pick up and move forward and hope the next time to have a chance to right that wrong."
That chance has finally come as the U.S. joins 11 other countries competing in Sochi, Russia, and hoping to skate off with the 2014 Winter Olympics men's hockey gold. Miller returns, along with fellow NHL stars Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, on a solid 25-man roster. They'll compete against the world's best, including defending champ Canada, home team Russia, 2013 world champions Sweden, and stalwarts Finland and Slovakia. And, unlike in Vancouver, where the U.S. team was regarded as the surprising upstart, the 2014 team heads to Sochi considered among the frontrunners.
"I don't think it's fair calling the U.S. underdogs anymore — we raised the standards a little bit, and the expectations, and I think it's good for us," says Parise, whose goal with
25 seconds left in the Vancouver gold-medal game forced overtime. "It's a compliment: It means we've got a good team, and there are a lot of good teams capable of winning."
When asked to pick a favorite, NBC play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick admits his crystal ball is foggy. "You have to be a magician to have everything go just the right way for you. That's what makes it very difficult to handicap," he says. He likes Team USA's chances but believes the great distance to Sochi won't help, especially considering that the two U.S. golds — in Squaw Valley, California (1960), and the famed "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, New York (1980) — came on U.S. soil.
The Americans will fly to Sochi and have just one practice before beginning their schedule of play against Slovakia on Feb. 13. Miller understands the necessary mental commitment and knows what to expect. "The excitement of competing and representing your country evolves into a confidence [once] you're winning some hockey games, and you feel if you can keep it rolling, you have a chance for something pretty amazing to happen," he says. "They selected all of us for a reason."
The U.S. roster is indeed formidable. "Patrick Kane has had the hottest scoring hand this year," Emrick says of the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup MVP. "He and Phil Kessel [of the Toronto Maple Leafs] are probably the two greatest magicians in terms of raw skill and stick handling on the team. Dustin Brown [of the Los Angeles Kings] is a hammer guy, a big hitter; David Backes [of the St. Louis Blues] is just a big, bull-in-a-china-shop center."
On the defensive side, Emrick points toward Brooks Orpik: "I would make sure to have my head up so I could see him. He always leads the [Pittsburgh] Penguins in hits and always plays very aggressively, like he did in Vancouver." And, of course, there's 2010 hero Miller, who currently ranks fifth in the NHL in both saves and saves percentage. "Miller has played remarkably this year and earned the spot, despite playing for the team with the poorest record in the whole league," Emrick says.
Miller will have to wait until the knockout round for a potential rematch with the offense-minded Canadians. "They have tremendous riches up front, unlike the United States," Emrick says, "but I think the U.S. goaltending is stronger." Still, he adds, "Canada up the middle may look deep until you start looking at the names for Russia. You have Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, and Vladimir Tarasenko is a tremendous young guy. They've got pretty good riches."
Home ice might not be much of an advantage for the Russians: The U.S. and Canada are the only home teams to have previously won gold. And while Team USA has never won at a foreign Olympics, it does have an impressive history at the Games. Since hockey was added to the Olympic program in 1920, the U.S. has scored eight silvers to go along with its two golds. Says Parise: "Every U.S. kid has seen the  Miracle, I would assume, but it's more than 30 years later, and I think we'd love to have another moment like that for the United States."
It may not even take a miracle.
By Robert Edelstein
For more on the 2014 Winter Olympics, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Jan. 30!