The United States men's hockey team entered the 2014 Winter Olympics looking to improve upon the silver medal that it won at the 2010 Vancouver Games. That effort got off to a fine start Thursday as Team USA throttled Slovakia 7-1 in its opening game of the tournament.
Although the game was tied 1-1 through 20 minutes and change, the U.S. was relentless in the second period. A six-goal outburst ensured that Slovakia never had a chance to mount a comeback.
In addition to the debut of Team USA's new-look roster constructed by Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, the United States' much-maligned uniforms saw their first game action as well, as seen in this photo courtesy of USA Hockey:
Team USA kicked the game off with some of its heart-and-soul players on the ice, including captain Zach Parise, as tweeted by USA Hockey Magazine:
Since only 22 of the 25 roster players can be dressed in any given game, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, New York Rangers center Derek Stepan and Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard were all healthy scratches, per Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada:
Team USA announces Faulk, Stepan and Howard will not dress vs Slovakia— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) February 13, 2014
The United States put plenty of pressure on Slovakia and St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, but it took more than 14 minutes to finally break the seal. First-time Olympian John Carlson of the Washington Capitals took a slick pass and blasted a slap shot over Halak's shoulder to give Team USA a 1-0 lead, captured by NBC Sports Network:
Team USA carried that lead into the first intermission, but things got dicey early in the second. Just 24 seconds in to the frame, Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar sniped American goalie Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings to knot things up.
The tally was not without controversy, however, as the puck came out over the blue line and Slovakia was clearly offside, reports CSN Washington:
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's squad was faced with its first instance of adversity, and it took all of one minute and two seconds for the Stars and Stripes to respond. Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler beat Halak off a silky pass from Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who set up shop and dissected the Slovak defense, per Corey Masisak of NHL.com:
Ryan Kesler answers a Tomas Tatar goal. One-timer from Patrick Kane. Kane did his taxes and got the oil changed on his car before the pass.— Cörey Masisak (@cmasisak22) February 13, 2014
Just over a minute later, Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny, whose father Peter is a Hockey Hall of Famer and native of Slovakia, made it 3-1 as the Slovaks' meltdown began, according to Greg Beacham of the Associated Press:
Paul Stastny makes it 3-1 Americans, potting a rebound of Pacioretty's shot. Slovaks coming totally unglued defensively.— Greg Beacham (@gregbeacham) February 13, 2014
Team USA made it 4-1 seven seconds after the expiration of a Slovak penalty. It wasn't a pretty goal by any means as the entire American forward line crashed the net, but it was effective with St. Louis Blues center David Backes ultimately willing the puck across the line.
Following that marker, Jerry Sullivan of The Buffalo News couldn't help but be impressed by the United States' demolition of a Slovak team that finished fourth in 2010:
Backes slams one home after a flurry in front to make it 4-1. An impressive showing by the U.S. This isn't Latvia they're smoking.— Jerry Sullivan (@TBNSully) February 13, 2014
Rather than taking its foot off the gas, Team USA continued to press forward. Stastny netted his second goal of the game to give the United States a four-score advantage. Bylsma appeared to strike gold with the line combination of Stastny, T.J. Oshie of the Blues and Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens as they made life miserable for the Slovak defense, per Ashley Chase of WJAC-TV in Johnstown, Penn.
After wilting under a deluge of American shots, Slovakian coach Vladimir Vujtek had no choice but to lift Halak in favor of the Canadiens' Peter Budaj. Halak was essentially at the mercy of the American attack and the poor defense being played in front of him, notes Greg Savage of Sportszone 92 on Sirius XM:
Bam, 5-1, Statsny pots another one. USA looking good here in the 2nd. Halak is chased, Budaj in now for Slovakia.— Greg Savage (@TheSavageTruth) February 13, 2014
The goalie change certainly didn't energize Slovakia. Just 50 seconds after taking the ice, Budaj was victimized by Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, who deflected a shot from NHL teammate James van Riemsdyk into the back of the net:
Team USA's second-period scoring binge still wasn't done, though, as Kings forward Dustin Brown put an exclamation point on things with the Americans' seventh goal of the game less than a minute later, per WGRZ-TV in Buffalo:
All told, the Americans put 16 shots on net in the second stanza with six of them tickling the twine. That tied an all-time U.S. record in international play for most goals in a period, having been done five times previously:
Perhaps the Americans were tapped out in terms of goal scoring after the second period. The team couldn't net another in the third but kept Slovakia off the board as well with a conservative and effective game plan.
By the time the closing horn sounded, Team USA had beaten Slovakia 7-1 and issued a major statement in Sochi that made it abundantly clear it is a threat to top the podium.
How will Team USA fare in the 2014 Winter Olympics men's hockey tournament?
Team USA entered Sochi as the No. 4 gold-medal contender from a betting odds perspective, according to Bovada, but its emphatic win over Slovakia may cause some to rethink that placement.
While the Slovaks are somewhat light on elite NHL talent compared to past years, the team played for the bronze medal in Vancouver and has had a great deal of success at the international level.
Halak is a solid goaltender who was made to look like an AHL player by the Americans, while Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa were essentially non-factors despite their importance at the NHL level.
The United States will take on Russia in its second Group A game Saturday, and there is little doubt that Team USA was more impressive in its opening win than the Russians were against a Slovenian squad that boasts just one NHL player.
Since the United States and Russia will be expected to win their third games against Slovenia and Slovakia, respectively, their upcoming clash will be huge in terms of seeding for the knockout round. The winner will essentially cement a bye into the quarterfinals, while the loser may be forced to play an extra game.
Quick allowed just one goal against Slovakia while making 22 saves, but it remains to be seen what Team USA will do in goal against Russia. Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller was the best player at the 2010 Olympics, so it is possible that Bylsma could turn to him.
Whatever the case, Bylsma feels as though having too many good goalies is a great problem to have, according to Shawn P. Roarke of NHL.com.
I think one of the strengths of our team is the goaltending. We are dealing from a point of strength ... I don't think I would just want one great goalie to make the decision easier. We left some very good goalies at home with the three we selected. I think it makes it a great decision because I think whether you go with Jimmy, Ryan or Jon, you are going to have a great goalie in net.
Russia's dynamic offense was on display at various point throughout its 5-2 opening win, but a couple of defensive breakdowns allowed Slovenia to score some goals.
The Americans have so much offensive depth that Russia cannot afford to make many mistakes. With that in mind, don't be surprised if Team USA pulls off another decisive win against the host country.
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