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U.S. Men’s Olympic Team Goaltending on Solid Ground

02/06/2018, 10:45am EST
By John Tranchina

KHL shutout leader Zapolski having great year, but no starter yet named

The goaltending situation for the U.S. National Team at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, is in good shape with Ryan Zapolski, Brandon Maxwell and David Leggio.

Many are projecting Zapolski as the starter for Team USA when the U.S. quest for gold begins on Feb. 14 against Slovenia. As he sees it, the goalie that sees the crease the most will be the one who is playing the best in the tournament.

“I don’t know for sure,” Zapolski said, regarding his expected workload. “We’ll see when we get there, but probably whoever’s playing the best should get to play, in my opinion. I’m okay if it’s not me, we’re all there to win, but hopefully I’m playing the best and I get to play right away.”

Zapolski has been enjoying an outstanding season for Jokerit Helsinki in the Kontinental Hockey League, sporting a 23-10-4 record along with a stellar 1.69 goals-against average and .933 save percentage through 37 appearances. His nine shutouts lead the KHL, and he was the first goaltender named to the team on Jan. 1.

“I think it starts with his numbers, and Ryan’s numbers are fantastic on a very consistent basis,” said Team USA General Manager Jim Johannson before he unexpectedly passed away on Jan. 21. “Also, when you get to know him as a guy, he’s got a real calming demeanor to him. You see the competitiveness in him, but he’s also a guy that can bring confidence to a team and it makes a difference.”

This is Zapolski’s second year with Jokerit, and before that, the 31-year-old Erie, Pennsylvania, native played three seasons for Lukko Rauma in Finland’s Liiga.

Maxwell, 26, who plays for BK Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Extraliga, and Leggio, 33, with EHC Munchen in Germany’s top league (the DEL), are also competing for playing time between the  pipes for Team USA.

Maxwell, who played two years with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2007-09, is in his fifth season playing in the Czech Republic. Leggio, who is from the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, New York, is in his third year with Munchen, which he helped win the DEL championship in 2016. They also won the title last season with Leggio serving as the backup netminder.

All three netminders made appearances for Team USA at the Deutschland Cup in November and got to know each other and the coaching staff.

“We had all three of them at the Deutschland Cup and we’ve been tracking them all year, so we’ve watched lots of video, and they’ve all had really solid years,” said U.S. Head Coach Tony Granato. “Obviously, we only named one goalie a month ago when we named Zapolski, so he’s the guy that’s had the best year of the three. He’s been really solid all year playing in the KHL, but we’re excited at the depth, and they all have great records playing internationally. They’re used to playing on the big sheets, they’ve worn the USA sweater, they fit into what we’re looking for to represent our country and we’re very excited to have all three of those guys as part of our team.”

When Maxwell and Leggio were officially named to the squad on Jan. 11, Johannson touched upon just what makes each of them significant additions.

“They’re both very experienced in Europe and understand the game over there,” Johannson said at the time. “Specific to Brandon Maxwell, he’s an elite puck-handling goaltender and it’s something that definitely factored into our discussions. And we do have potential for three back-to-backs, depending on how the team does and where you fall in the tournament structure, and it potentially gives you another weapon on your breakout or alleviating the pressure on the defense, with his abilities with the puck.

“And in David Leggio, we got a guy that’s been, number one, a great teammate everywhere he’s been, but also a very steady, consistent performer. I think he’s a guy that has accepted whatever his role has been and every time he’s gotten the opportunity to play, he’s kept his teams in games. I think that led to our final decision, that these guys are both pros, they’re both very experienced on the European ice and they have the capabilities to keep your team in the game.”

At the Deutschland Cup, while the U.S. outshot each of its three opponents, the team came home without a win.

“It didn’t go great, but we were trying to take in a lot of information at one time and they were trying to implement a lot of things that we want to do better in the Olympics,” Zapolski said. “I don’t think we needed to win those games. It would have been nice, but we were trying to learn more about each other, and bringing everybody together for those few days will help us eventually in the [Olympic] tournament. It’s such a short tournament that you have to come together as quick as possible, and now we know each other, most of us that are going to be there, so I feel like it’s going to help us.”

With the Olympic tournament rapidly approaching, the goaltenders are gearing up for what will undoubtedly be a memorable experience.

“It’s really exciting, obviously, and I’m really humbled by the opportunity that I’ve gotten here,” Zapolski said. “It’s an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I’m just looking forward to getting there and having an opportunity to win gold.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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2018 U.S. Men's Olympic Schedule

Date Opponent Round Result Venue
Wed., Feb. 14 Slovenia Preliminary OTL, 2-3 Kwandong Hockey Centre
Fri., Feb. 16 Slovakia Preliminary W, 2-1 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Sat., Feb. 17 Olympic Athletes From Russia Preliminary L, 0-4 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Tues., Feb. 20 Slovakia Qualification W, 5-1 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Wed., Feb 21 Czech Republic Quarterfinals SOL, 2-3 Gangneung Hockey Centre

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