Coaches like to say defense wins championships. And gold medals.
The United States men’s hockey team plays its Olympic opener Friday in Sochi against Slovakia, and will do it with a relatively young defensive corps. All eight defensemen are NHL players and experienced in international competition, but this is the first Olympics for most of them.
Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes is 21. Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks is 22, and John Carlson of the Washington Capitals and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers both 24.
Add in Kevin Shattenkirk, 25, of the St. Louis Blues and that’s a pretty green blue line for U.S. coach Dan Bylsma.
“We do have some young guys on the back end, but that’s something where we need to show it doesn’t matter how old we are,” Faulk said last week.
Shattenkirk said he’s excited about the opportunity and ready for the challenge.
“We’re really a young group in the back end but I think they expect a lot out of us,” Shattenkirk said in a recent interview. “We’re very mobile. I think we can add a lot of offense to the group and to the team. We move pucks well.
“I think that’s what they built the team on, having a back end that can get the pucks up to our forwards, which is a very dynamic group.”
Team USA was looking for defensemen with speed. It’s a larger rink in Sochi – 200 feet by 100 feet – and skating is a must.
“You look at our forward group and it’s all guys who can get up and down the ice, and I think it’s the same with the back end,” Faulk said. “I think we’ll be a fast team, quick, and be able to get it done with our legs.”
Media reports out of Sochi indicate Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins coach, had looked at different defensive pairings in practices. Faulk worked with Fowler one day, then Brooks Orpik of the Pens.
Bylsma said Wednesday that Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings would be the starting goaltender against Slovakia, a team that includes Canes defenseman Andrej Sekera.
Faulk and Fowler have similar hockey backgrounds. Both participated in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Both played for Team USA in IIHF World Junior championships, and later competed for the U.S. in the IIHF World Championship.
Carlson has become a fixture on the back end for the Caps the past four years. But, he said, that came after a golden moment competing for Team USA.
In the 2010 World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the U.S. and Canada were locked up in overtime in the gold-medal game. Carlson jumped into the rush and scored, giving the U.S. a 6-5 victory.
“It was great building block for my development as a player,” Carlson said. “It also was good timing with me being in the American (Hockey) League at the time. It spurred me on to (be) the player I am.”
Shattenkirk played college hockey at Boston University, winning a national championship. Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2007, he was in his rookie season with the Avs when he was dealt in February 2011 to the Blues.
Before college, Shattenkirk spent two years in the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. There are nine players in Sochi who went through the program, which provides training and competition for promising junior players, including defenseman Ryan Suter and forwards Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel.
What will the next two weeks be like for the U.S. group?
“A roller-coaster ride,” said former Canes defenseman Tim Gleason, a member of Team USA in 2010. “It’s quick, it’s fast.”
Gleason came back from Vancouver with a silver medal after the U.S. lost the overtime thriller to Canada in the gold-medal game. On that February day in 2010, Shattenkirk said he was on a bus with his Boston University teammates and keeping up with the progress of the game. Only his Canadian-born teammates were happy with the ending.
“If you asked me then, I would have said there’s no way I’d be on the Olympic team this year,” Shattenkirk said. “It was a dream of mine then. Now, it’s here. It’s time to take it and run.”
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip