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Friday, February 17, 2006
Games get tougher for Americans with Slovakia up next

Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- Don't tell U.S. hockey players that the soft part of the schedule is over.

Their Olympic experience, so far, has been anything but easy. After two games against teams considered to be the least formidable in Group B, the Americans sit in second place with three points (1-0-1).

"There are so many great teams here that if you take a period off or a half a period off, you're going to lose the game," St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk said Friday.

That nearly happened in the opener Wednesday against Latvia.

The Americans didn't quite have their game legs and were fortunate to escape with a tie, even though they played with a full complement of NHL players while Latvia fielded just a few.

With a full day between their late-night games, the U.S. -- which didn't practice Friday -- bounced back well with a dominating 4-1 victory over outclassed Kazakhstan. But next up is Slovakia (2-0), the only team with a perfect record in the six-team group.

"I don't think it's a surprise to anybody," Dallas' Bill Guerin said. "They have some of the premier players in the league. They might be one of the smaller countries, but they're as good as anybody."

The 12 U.S. players who met the media Friday on their day off didn't want to put down their first two opponents, yet they know they are now stepping up in class and likely won't get a breather the rest of the way. After Slovakia, the Americans will play Sweden and Russia, who both split their opening two games.

Rick DiPietro had to make only 11 saves against Kazakhstan. Should he return to the net on Saturday, as expected, he will surely see a lot more action. And these shots won't be coming off the sticks of unknown players.

No, this time he will be looking at the likes of Los Angeles' Pavol Demitra and young Minnesota Wild star Marian Gaborik.

"They've got a great team," U.S. coach Peter Laviolette said. "They've got good goaltending, they've got big defensemen, but their forwards are dynamic.

"We need offense, but defensively we'd better check well and be aggressive on the puck and not give them a lot of time and space to make plays."

Slovakia opened the tournament with a somewhat surprising 5-3 victory over Russia and followed it up by beating Latvia in a tight contest, despite being outshot 28-25 by the tournament upstarts.

The Slovakians have already scored 11 goals, with Demitra, Gaborik and Atlanta's Marian Hossa all netting two each.

"We're definitely going to have to pick up our play," said Guerin, who gave the U.S. the lead just 1:34 into Thursday's win. "Slovakia is going to be a much different team than Kazakhstan. Mentally we have to know that and get out there and give a better effort."

It can't stop there, either. With another win, the U.S. should be in excellent position to finish in the top four of the group and advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals.

Laviolette wouldn't reveal who his goalie would be against Slovakia, but DiPietro of the New York Islanders showed supreme confidence despite little activity in his Olympic debut. That could be enough to earn him a second straight start over John Grahame of Tampa Bay and Philadelphia's Robert Esche, who hasn't played yet.

Whoever does get in goal will likely do so without Brian Rafalski in front. Laviolette said the New Jersey defenseman is day to day with what is believed to be a rib injury. It has forced him to miss the tournament's first two games.

"We obviously haven't replaced him," Laviolette said, "so we're hoping at some point that he will be available to us."