Goalie Olympic hopes hinge on Game 7

Wednesday's Game 7 will have Olympic implications for Corey Crawford, left, and Jimmy Howard. Getty Images

When it comes to making the biggest decisions about the most important position in constructing an Olympic hockey roster, the guys doing the picking think just like we do.

All things being equal, it often comes down to this: "If you have one game to play, who do you want in the net and why?" said USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson.

You want someone who has proved he can win the big games, someone who makes the big save at the biggest moment to seize opportunity when the stress level is at its highest. Kind of like Kings goalie Jonathan Quick did Tuesday night in stopping 25 shots to end the Sharks' season.

In winning the Stanley Cup last spring and following it up with an impressive playoff run this postseason, Quick has solidified his status as the favorite to start in goal for Team USA in Sochi at the 2014 Winter Olympics (assuming NHL players are allowed to compete).

But there's plenty of debate to be had over the other two American goalies. And Team Canada? That race is wide-open. Carey Price was likely the favorite until he struggled this season. Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith, Martin Brodeur, Cam Ward, James Reimer, Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford are among those in the mix for Canada. Needless to say, Canada is looking for someone to emerge as the best candidate out of that group.

Which brings us to Wednesday's Game 7 in Chicago. Both Jimmy Howard and Crawford have had strong performances in these playoffs, but a huge game Wednesday could become their signature moment -- or the first of many if the run continues.

On Wednesday, Howard and Crawford can send home an archrival while at the same time open the eyes of those assembling Olympic rosters.

Because those decision-makers are definitely watching.

"There's a body of work with these guys," Johannson said. "There's how they fit in and the factor of being a clutch performer is heightened in the net. In the end, you have to have a huge comfort level with the player."

It just so happens that one of Team Canada's influencers is behind the bench for Detroit. Mike Babcock probably will be the coach of the Canadian Olympic team, and he's getting a good look at one of his potential goalies in trying to find ways to beat Crawford right now.

Crawford was outstanding in Chicago's first-round series against the Wild, stopping 132 of 139 shots from Minnesota, good for a .950 save percentage. He has been solid against Detroit, registering a .924 save percentage in the conference semifinals.

Crawford's season nearly ended on an ugly note when Joakim Andersson's knuckler somehow got past him in Game 6, but he shook off the goal and kept the Blackhawks in the game the rest of the way.

With so many names in the mix for Canada, Crawford has an opportunity right now to show he can thrive in a pressure-filled Game 7 and keep the Blackhawks' season alive. If he can lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup this spring, it will be a huge statement that he can handle the pressure of huge expectations -- like Chicago has right now, and like Canada will have in 2014.

"He's been good for us all year," said teammate Brent Seabrook. "You talk about [Olympics], it's a tough gig to get into. He definitely could be in the running. His coming-out party was against Vancouver a couple years ago. We were down 3-0, and he was huge. He was a big reason we got back into it. He plays hard at the right times and makes the big stops."

As for Howard, he's battling Cory Schneider, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson for the two spots behind Quick, assuming the Kings' goaltender is a lock.

Howard has been asked to do more this season than Crawford and has responded well. When the Red Wings struggled to start the season, lacking an early-season identity, he kept them in games. When they needed to win every game down the stretch to make the playoffs, Howard made it happen. And in the playoffs, he has consistently been one of the Red Wings' best players.

Howard's five regular-season shutouts were tied for the league lead, and thus far in the playoffs he has duplicated his regular-season save percentage of .923.

Howard's Olympic stock is on the rise, according to Johannson.

"He had a very strong season," he said. "There's a lot of guys making cases for themselves. Jimmy is one of those guys."

Team USA is already very familiar with Howard. He came up through the U.S. National Team Development Program, he has played in the World Junior Championships and last year he played seven games for the U.S. at the World Championships. It was there where Johannson got a close look at how much Howard has matured as a professional athlete from his days as a teenager.

"His fitness level is as high as I've seen it," Johannson said. "He's got a real high work ethic in both practice and how he prepares for a game. To me, being around him when he was a younger player, those are two significant changes in his game. That's led to consistency."

Consistency puts you in the Olympic discussion. Collecting Game 7 wins puts you on the roster.

Impact of World Championships

Team USA won the bronze medal at the IIHF World Championships this spring, and it was another opportunity for players outside the playoffs to make their Olympic case.

Colorado center Paul Stastny might have made the strongest argument. Stastny was an Olympian with the silver-medal team in Vancouver, but his play since in Colorado hasn't exactly turned heads.

He needed a statement and made it at the World Championships, piling up 15 points in 10 games for Team USA.

"He had a great offensive tournament," Johannson said. "But it was also the way he played. He played well in all aspects of the game. Penalty kill. Producing during both 5-on-5 and on the power play. Those things stood out."

It'll be interesting to see what the Americans do with center Alex Galchenyuk, whose shootout performance won them the bronze. There just aren't many high-end, skilled centers in the mix for Team USA, which opens the door for Galchenyuk. But like the playoffs, the Olympics are a man's tournament, and it might be a stretch to find space for someone who will turn just 20 years old in February.

Galchenyuk had three points in five playoff games for Montreal this spring, averaging 13 minutes of ice time per game for coach Michel Therrien. Like many of the youngest players without an established body of work, it may come down to how Galchenyuk plays at the start of next season.

"You have to look at all these young players," Johannson said. "You have to look at them eight months down the road. What's he going to be in December at that stage in development?"