Perfect start for Team USA
No signs of nerves or anxiousness for Americans in a 7-1 rout of Slovakia
SOCHI, Russia -- If U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma had written down a list of things he hoped in his wildest dreams might take place during his team's first Olympic game against Slovakia, let's put it this way: He'd be fresh out of check marks.
Balanced scoring? Check.
Youthful defense showing no jitters? Check.
Solid goaltending? Check.
Dominating work in the faceoff circle? Check.
Up-tempo pace that kept the Slovaks on their heels from the get-go? Check.
A six-goal second period en route to a 7-1 thrashing to start the tournament? Check.
Or should that be CHECK?
OK, maybe not even in Bylsma's wildest dreams did he imagine his squad would pour half a dozen pucks past the Slovaks in a little more than a 14-minute span in the second period.
"There's always a lot of nerves and anxiousness to start these tournaments," U.S. captain Zach Parise said. "I think for us to come out most importantly with a win but a pretty convincing win, it makes you feel good."
What with Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky missing the tournament with injuries, the Slovaks figured to be a lesser team than the one that threw a mighty scare into Canada in the semifinals and then lost in the bronze-medal game four years ago in Vancouver.
But this much lesser? Never.
Now, you can quibble over whether a game like this says as much about the decline of Slovak hockey as it does about American prowess, but what you can't quibble with was the workmanlike effort by the U.S. that delivered the blowout.
In building this team, GM David Poile and his selection committee wanted this team's identity to be a blend of high hockey IQ, speed and toughness. All of those elements were in full bloom Thursday afternoon.
Having taken a 1-0 lead into the second period on a blast by Washington defenseman John Carlson, the Americans gave up a quick goal to Tomas Tatar of the Detroit Red Wings just 24 seconds into the middle frame.
It was a snap shot that netminder Jonathan Quick probably should have corralled.
But instead of setting, the U.S. squad never missed a beat, especially given that the Slovakian goal could have thrown off a group of very young, inexperienced (at least Olympic-wise) blueliners.
Just 1:06 after that, it was Paul Stastny with the first of two, and the die was cast.
"A lot of guys just played with a lot of confidence," Parise said. "Guys, like you mentioned, the guys that it was their first time, they played with a lot of poise, a lot of patience with the puck. Made great plays all over the ice. It just didn't feel like they were playing with too many nerves. It was really good."
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was one of those young players experiencing their first Olympic moments for Team USA, but he was solid, logging 19:14 in ice time and picking up an assist on Stastny's second goal.
"We had a lot information thrown at us the last couple of days but I think we trusted our instincts a lot and it allowed us to play a pretty good system in the big ice," the St. Louis Blues defender said. "There were a couple of things we can clean up, I think but it was a great start to the tournament.
"I think the best part about today is that everyone kind of had a hand in it. You like to see that to start off. A lot of different guys clicking."
And of all the impressive elements to this U.S. win, it was that element -- the ability to strike from anywhere in the lineup -- that should be most rewarding to Bylsma and the coaching staff.
The coach confessed that before the game they talked about the fact that their fourth line of Stastny, Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie had a chance to be their most dangerous unit, and they responded exactly that way, combining for two goals and three assists.
"Every time they went over the boards they made something happen," Bylsma said.
The scoring line Thursday featured six goal scorers and 11 Americans with at least a point.
"Obviously, when we play a top team they want to try and shut down guys like Kane and Kessel, but that just opens up opportunities for other guys as well. Hopefully we can use that depth to our advantage."
The Slovaks, meanwhile, were red-faced that they'd fallen in such spectacular fashion, even if they are missing some big names to injury.
"I have to give respect for sure," Tatar said. "Team USA is one of the strongest teams in the tournament for sure. I would say we can play really good; we have a good team and we have to sort out our things.
"I was really surprised. The first period was really tight, then we tied the game, and all of a sudden it was like guys started to be scared to play and nobody wanted the puck. We weren't good in our D zone. It was just too easy, I felt. It wasn't like they scored nice goals, for a long time in our zone, circling on us. It was out of nowhere 3-on-2s, drop passes and shots. I felt it was easy for them to score goals like this."
With the Russians pulling away late in their tournament-opening game against Slovenia a few hundred yards away in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the Americans' convincing win sets up a fascinating showdown with the Olympic hosts Saturday afternoon.
The winner will almost certainly earn the top spot in their grouping and put themselves in a much stronger position heading into elimination play next week.
"We had to take care of this so I haven't thought tons about it, but we know that this is their home country, they've been getting a lot of attention, they've got a lot of firepower, and there will be no need for motivation on their side," said center David Backes. "We'll need to match that."