It may come as a surprise to some, but the last time the United States' men's hockey team faced off against Slovakia at the Olympics, the unheralded Slovaks emerged as the victors. The Americans held the balance of play, outshooting Slovakia 29-21, but Peter Budaj outdueled Rick DiPietro in net in the 2-1 Slovak win.
What will happen when the two meet on Day 6 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics? With both teams fighting to distinguish themselves in a difficult group that also includes the Russians, this contest is an extremely important game for both teams. Read on for viewing information, starting lineups and the outcome we predict in this contest.
Statistics courtesy of Elite Prospects.com and current through Feb. 11 unless otherwise noted.
The game starts Thursday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time and will be both streamed and broadcast live in the United States and Canada. In the United States, viewers can watch live on NBCSN, while in Canada, CBC will carry the contest live.
How will Jonathan Quick play?
Thanks to IIHF scheduling, the Americans start the tournament off with a difficult game, which means that the goalie identified as the team's starter over the course of the tournament is likely to play on Thursday. Jonathan Quick has been chosen for the start over Ryan Miller—something I have argued is a mistake—but with two strong goalies, he's only going to keep playing if he plays well, so he needs a good showing.
Can Slovakia run with the big boys?
The Slovaks have proven themselves capable of surprising performances in previous tournaments. In 2010, Canada beat them in the semifinals by only a single goal, and if things had gone the other way, the United States would have faced Slovakia for the gold medal. Starting the tournament off with a win over the Americans would go a long way toward assuring Slovakia of a berth in the quarterfinals, while a hard-fought loss would show once again that the team can challenge anyone.
How will the Americans look on the big ice?
This first game will set the tone for Team USA, with a loss starting the team off behind the eight ball in a very difficult group and a win showing a quick adaptation to playing in Sochi.
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma hinted the keys to success for his team, per Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
There are certain things about the international game, the big ice, that are different. We have to take that into consideration. We want to move quickly, but we have to be more careful with the puck. We have to play a more patient game, not miss on long stretch passes and that sort of thing because of the width of the rink.
- James van Riemsdyk—Joe Pavelski—Phil Kessel
- Dustin Brown—Ryan Kesler—Patrick Kane
- Zach Parise—David Backes—Ryan Callahan
- Max Pacioretty—Paul Stastny—T.J. Oshie
- Derek Stepan, Blake Wheeler
- Ryan Suter—Kevin Shattenkirk
- Ryan McDonagh—John Carlson
- Brooks Orpik—Paul Martin
- Cam Fowler, Justin Faulk
- Jonathan Quick
- Ryan Miller
- Jimmy Howard
- Tomas Tatar—Michal Handzus—Marian Hossa
- Tomas Jurco—Tomas Kopecky—Branko Radivojevic
- Michel Miklik—Tomas Surovy—Milan Bartovic
- Marcel Hossa—Tomas Marcinko—Richard Panik
- Tomas Zaborsky, Peter Olvecky
- Zdeno Chara—Andrej Sekera
- Ivan Baranka—Andrej Meszaros
- Martin Marincin—Milan Jurcina
- Rene Vydareny, Tomas Starosta
- Jaroslav Halak
- Peter Budaj
- Jan Laco
Zdeno Chara, Slovakia
The American forward lines are significantly more potent than Slovakia's, which means that huge responsibilities are going to fall to Chara. He may end up playing half the game and end up being tasked with shutting down two of the United States' four lines.
Marian Hossa, Slovakia
The loss of a fellow Marian, Gaborik, to injury leaves the Slovaks short on game-breaking forwards. The loss of Gaborik means that much more of the offence is going to have to come from Hossa.
Kevin Shattenkirk, United States
The Americans have a very competent pair of top left-side defenders in Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh, but the right side of the depth chart is more open to question. Shattenkirk (and to a lesser extent John Carlson) needs to show early that he can handle top-line minutes.
Jonathan Quick has forged a reputation as one of the world's clutch goaltenders thanks to a pair of brilliant postseason runs over the last two NHL campaigns, one of which won him the Conn Smythe Trophy as Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup. Those playoff numbers eclipse a mostly pedestrian regular-season record (2011-12 excepted) and form the primary argument for his ascension to the top job for the United States.
The fellow likely to be in net for Slovakia is no slouch, either. Jaroslav Halak is not as well-regarded as Quick or Ryan Miller, but his career save percentage (.917) is better than that of either Miller or Quick (.915 and .914, respectively). Halak also proved his mettle at the 2010 Olympics, and with a career NHL playoff save percentage of .923, he has been quite strong in postseason play, too.
Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara are stars that every team in the tournament would welcome with open arms, but after that duo, Slovakia's roster, especially up front, lacks high-end players. Since those two can't play the entire game, it stands to reason that if the Americans' depth players can provide a little bit of scoring punch, Team USA should come away with the win.
Head coach Dan Bylsma has been somewhat surprising by splitting up top offensive wingers Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and Zach Parise on three different lines, but it should give the United States a diversified attack, and even that fourth line can do some damage.
The rest of Slovakia's roster isn't exactly chopped liver, but most of their games are going to depend on three players: Marian Hossa up front, Zdeno Chara on defence and Jaroslav Halak in net.
Hossa will provide key offensive moments in tough matchups at even strength and play a pivotal role in the success or failure of the power play. Chara will shut down the best players the opposition can muster and play tons of minutes for Slovakia. Halak will have to outplay the other team's goalie on most nights for Slovakia to have a shot at winning.
All three likely need to be dominant forces against the United States.
This is far from a guaranteed win for the United States, particularly given that the adjustment to conditions in Sochi is likely to be much smaller for the Slovaks, who grew up playing on European ice surfaces and have many players and coaches who still play the game overseas.
Still, the United States should have the edge here based on talent.
Predicted score: United States 3 - Slovakia 2 (overtime).
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