When NHL.com came out with its recent list of the top 10 goalies in the league, it was really no mystery that three Americans made the cut. It was also no surprise when all three were selected to represent Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey.
One question remained: which of the supremely talented puck stoppers would get the nod? Based on what each has accomplished with their respective NHL clubs, Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop or Cory Schneider were all perfectly capable to patrol the crease when the puck dropped on Saturday.
But based on his body of work, which includes two Stanley Cup titles, a Conn Smythe Trophy and an Olympic silver medal, Quick was given the starting nod against Team Europe. While many thought it was a foregone conclusion that dated back prior to the team's training camp in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. head coach John Tortorella said it was anything but a slam dunk.
"I believe in the body of work from all three goalies,” Tortorella told ESPN's Joe McDonald. “It’s a really hard decision. I think Jonathan has just done a little bit better than the other guys, so he’ll be our No. 1 guy to start the tournament.”
Several days later, as he reiterated his decision, Tortorella added, "It eats at me that I have to tell two guys who are really good goalies that they can't play."
While Tortorella has remained tight-lipped about his lineup heading into Tuesday's do-or-die game against Canada, the smart money has Quick sticking between the pipes.
As usual, the Milford, Conn., native took the news in stride. Never one to get rattled, on or off the ice, Quick brushed aside questions as effortlessly as he would a harmless dump in.
"I just want to help the team win,” he said. “That's all it is. You only play three games so we have to make the most of it as a team and try to win every one of them."
That didn't happen as Team USA dropped a tough game in the opener. Despite only seeing 17 shots, Quick surrendered three goals, none of which could be labeled as his fault. Two were the result of defensive lapses that led to odd-man rushes, including a 2-on-0, and the third goal was just a skillful deflection that he had no chance of stopping.
It's also a credit to both Bishop and Schneider, two outstanding goaltenders in their own rite, that they threw their total support behind their teammate.
"This tournament is bigger than any of the three of us. It's a team thing," said Bishop, who served as the backup in the tournament opener. "We all know that the guy next to us is capable of doing the job. Obviously it's up to Torts to make the decision and we'll fully support each other no matter who it is."
That's the nature of a short tournament, where coaches tend to play a hunch in the opener and stick with it if things are going well, or make a call to the hockey's version of the bullpen if he feels that a shake up is in order.
Quick knows how it feels to be on the other side of the bench. He served as the third goalie in 2010, watching Ryan Miller become a household name as he led the U.S. to a silver medal in Vancouver.
Four years later, it was Quick who saw the lion's share of the action in Sochi, Russia, starting five games and posting a 2.17 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
When you factor in that there are actually five American goaltenders competing at the World Cup of Hockey, with John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck representing Team North America, this really is the golden age of U.S. goaltenders.
A lot of the credit goes to the goalie pipeline through the college hockey system, which produced all three members of Team USA's net-minding corps.
"The development in college is great because you don't play as many games and you can work on your game in practice more," said Bishop, who played three seasons at the University of Maine before making the jump to the pros.
"I don't know if there's any correlation, but you definitely see a lot of college goalies coming out and making it into the NHL."
From his perspective, Schneider thinks the shift starts even earlier as a passion for the position is developed at the grassroots level as more quality coaches help youngsters master the art of the save.
"I just think there's great interest and great coaching at the younger levels. Where I'm at in Boston there are a half a dozen great goalie coaches," said the Boston College standout from Marblehead, Mass.
"But I also think the college hockey system has done a great job of turning goalies out. Maybe it's just the extra couple of years that you get of experience and maturity and growth before you turn pro."
The good news is that innovative new programs designed to improve the quality and quantity of homegrown goalies should keep that pipeline flowing well into the future.
But for now, Team USA has to grapple with a precarious position it has put itself in. But while their margin of error is razor-thin, the good news is that the Americans’ last line of defense doesn't need a lot to keep their team's tournament hopes alive.
Tag(s): 2016 World Cup