January 11, 2018 / 10:17 PM / 5 months ago

Olympics-U.S. still eye ice hockey gold without NHLers

Jan 11 (Reuters) - The U.S. men's ice hockey team competing at next month's Winter Olympics will feature a new mix of players given the absence of NHL players but the group's expectations remain exactly the same.

After five Winter Games featuring National Hockey League players, the North American league announced last year that it would not participate in the Feb. 9-25 Pyeongchang Olympics.

As a result, the United States will be pinning their gold medal hopes on a group that includes former NHLers along with players from Europe, college and the U.S. minor leagues.

"We put ourselves in a good spot with our roster," U.S. head coach Tony Granato said during a conference call on Thursday to announce goaltenders David Leggio and Brandon Maxwell as the final two members of the 25-player roster.

"We are expecting ourselves to play well and compete for a medal," he added.

"And like any other U.S. team that plays in any tournament in today's age we expect to compete for a gold medal."

The U.S. carried similar lofty goals into the 2014 Sochi Olympics with the firm belief they were on the same level as the other world hockey powers like Canada and Sweden.

But in Russia the American team disappointed, losing 5-0 to Finland in the bronze medal game, and went home empty-handed after winning silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The team competing next month, when they hope to end a 38-year American gold drought, is being billed as a fast, puck-moving and tenacious team.

Leading them will be 38-year-old captain Brian Gionta, who won a Stanley Cup in 2003 with the NHL's New Jersey Devils and has represented the United States in international competition on six previous occasions.

"We have a great coaching staff, great support staff that's going to take care of us over there and we have a great bunch of guys who are extra motivated and guys that are realizing their dreams come true," Gionta said.

"I love the hunger of our team. I like our team makeup and I am really looking forward to go over there with this bunch of guys."

Team USA will begin play in the Olympic Games on Feb. 14 against Slovenia in preliminary-round action. (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)

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