After the United States dismantled Slovakia on Thursday like it was an automobile at a scrap yard, there's one certainty that has been established during the men's ice hockey tournament:
Team USA is better than anyone thought and should be considered the favorite to win gold.
When it told Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle their services were not required, many thought offense would be an issue for Team USA. Instead, the Americans used a six-goal second period to blow away Slovakia 7-1 and take command of Group A with a showdown against Russia looming Saturday.
This wasn't Austria or Latvia or some other hockey-weak country that the Americans torched—it was Slovakia, which features Jaroslav Halak, Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and nine other NHL players. This was expected to be a fierce contest to see who would contend with Russia to win Group A; however, it was more like that South Park episode in which the Detroit Red Wings demolish a peewee team.
It wasn't just a blowout either—Team USA also showed some resiliency when the game was still in doubt.
The Americans took a 1-0 lead into the second period but saw it erased on Tomas Tatar's goal 24 seconds into the period. It could have been a particularly demoralizing goal, as replays showed the play was offside and the goal should not have happened.
Before anyone could offer a cliche statement about momentum, Team USA unleashed a red, white and blue flood of offense that washed away Slovakia.
Ryan Kesler scored 1:02 later to make it 2-1. Paul Stastny scored his first of two goals 1:06 after that to make it 3-1. David Backes made it 4-1 and transformed into a bald eagle that soared through the Shayba Arena as fans admired his majestic power.
Fine. No one transformed into an eagle, but there's no proof Backes couldn't have done so if he so desired.
Team USA scored its six goals in 13:51 before throttling down in the third period, proving the Americans are as powerful as they are merciful.
The larger ice surface did not offer any difficulties for Team USA. It had little trouble breaking out of its end, which had a lot to do with the job the defense did against Slovakia's passive forecheck. It took the Americans about 20 minutes to adjust to the wider ice sheet.
"For the first time on the big ice for most of us, I thought we did pretty well," Stastny said, according to an Associated Press report at Boston.com. "Our strengths are our puck possession and our speed, and we were really able to use both of them."
The offense came from everywhere. All four lines contributed at least a goal, although Backes scored his goal just as a power play expired. The top two lines (James van Riemsdyk—Joe Pavelski—Phil Kessel and Dustin Brown—Ryan Kesler—Patrick Kane) controlled nearly every shift and combined for four goals and seven assists.
The fourth line of Max Pacioretty, Stastny and T.J. Oshie was only a fourth line in name and ice time, not in production. Stastny had two goals, Oshie had two assists and Pacioretty had one assist. They combined for seven shots on net.
There was also tremendous balance between the four forward lines. Not counting 13th forward Blake Wheeler, no forward had more ice time than Zach Parise (17:03) or less ice time than Pacioretty (11:30).
Team USA's defensemen were also great at both ends. John Carlson opened the scoring with a laser beam of freedom, one of 12 shots on goal registered from the back end.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick heroically avoided falling asleep during the contest, stopping 22 of 23 shots. He had to make some tough saves in the third period when Team USA appeared to spend more time humming "The Star-Spangled Banner" to themselves than backchecking and may have established himself as the No. 1 starter for the rest of the tournament.
An almost forgotten facet of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is Team USA was 5-0 in the tournament with a win against Canada in group play before losing in the gold-medal game 3-2 in overtime to the Canadians. Almost half of that U.S. team is back, and it spent Thursday trying to remind everyone that it is still a force on the international stage.
|2014 Sochi Olympics: Group A Standings|
Canada won't have the benefit of home ice in Sochi or the help of a Canadian-born referee to assist in the gold-medal-deciding goal this time. Their roster, especially the goaltending, is arguably weaker than it was four years ago while the U.S. team has clearly improved.
Canada will surely improve as the tournament progresses, but nothing about its 3-1 win against Norway on Thursday says it's the team to fear.
The Swedes and Russians were listed as stronger favorites than Team USA entering the tournament. But injuries to Henrik Sedin, Johan Franzen and now Henrik Zetterberg have diminished Sweden's gold chances. Russia couldn't get past the quarterfinals four years ago and their effort against Slovenia on Thursday makes it seem like not much has changed this time around.
The Americans have scoring threats throughout the lineup. They have defensemen who can skate, ignite breakouts and play physical when it's needed. They have perhaps the best goaltender in the world.
It's time to stop assuming Canada should always be the favorite at international competitions and start picturing what a gold medal will look like around the neck of Phil Kessel.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
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