Slovakia was supposed to be a challenging opening game for the United States men’s hockey team, but it didn’t look that way. Team USA ran up the score, eventually beating the Slovaks by a 7-1 margin that suggested less of a match between equals and more that Slovakia belongs with Austria, Slovenia and all the other minnows in the Olympic pond.
As the Slovaks have a fairly decent international track record (they were actually seeded above the U.S. in this tournament by the International Ice Hockey Federation), optimism is the order of the day for the American side. If the U.S. can crush Slovakia to this degree on the big ice, what is to stop them from taking gold?
The answer to that question is twofold. First, the Slovaks made some significant unforced errors with a roster that left them with no margin for slip-ups. Second, even in a landslide win, the U.S. showed some important weaknesses.
Let’s start with the Slovaks. Head coach Vladimir Vujtek was given a roster with a few serious NHL stars, some competent professionals from top leagues and then a few players with decidedly underwhelming Olympic resumes. With a heavily unbalanced roster, one would have imagined he’d ride his stars and shelter his less impressive players, perhaps double-shifting a workhorse like Zdeno Chara.
What he did instead defies explanation. The following chart lays out shift totals, time on ice and plus/minus for Slovakia’s defence:
|Team Slovakia's Defence: Usage and Performance|
Zdeno Chara had 20 shifts. Rene Vydareny had 17. One of those players is one of the best defenceman in the world; the other one returned to Europe after four seasons of middling play in the AHL.
Particularly telling is the plus/minus. When playing against Slovakia’s top four on defence (Chara, Sekera, Meszaros and Baranka, a quartet with 2,072 total NHL games played), the United States finished even in goal differential. When playing against Slovakia’s bottom four (Marincin, Jurcina, Starosta, Vydareny; only Jurcina has more than 25 NHL games), the Americans ran up a plus-seven rating.
On one hand, that’s good in the sense that Team USA should be lighting up mediocre defencemen. On the other hand, most of the teams that the U.S. has to beat to win gold don’t have defencemen of that calibre, and if they do, they are more likely to shelter them.
"We weren't good in our [defensive] zone. It was just too easy I felt," Slovakian forward Tomas Tartar said in an NHL.com report by Dan Rosen. "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."
A quick scan of the IIHF game sheet shows a similar situation up front. The Americans exploited Slovakia’s weak bottom six, a group that was given tons of ice time by Vujtek, who must have been humming the theme to "Rawhide" while running his bench (Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’…). That’s fine against a Slovakian team too obtuse to ride its stars, but it will not work against Canada, Sweden or Russia.
Even against an out-coached Slovakian team, the American side showed some weaknesses, though. The following chart shows the on-ice scoring chance numbers for Team USA’s forwards and reveals the weak points in a very strong attack in Thursday's games:
|Team USA: On-ice scoring chances for forwards|
|LW||SC +/-||C||SC +/-||RW||SC +/-|
|James van Riemsdyk||+8/-4||Joe Pavelski||+6/-4||Phil Kessel||+9/-4|
|Dustin Brown||+3/-5||Ryan Kesler||+4/-5||Patrick Kane||+5/-5|
|Zach Parise||+2/-0||David Backes||+2/-0||Ryan Callahan||+1/-0|
|Max Pacioretty||+6/-2||Paul Stastny||+8/-2||T.J. Oshie||+6/-2|
The Americans leaned hard on offence from their fourth line, which is almost certainly a result of Stastny and Co. facing Slovakia’s depth for much of the game. They were excellent, but will be tested more in a match against a stronger team or a more astute coach.
The results for the top nine forwards were more mixed. The Kessel line did a nice job of driving offence but allowed chances the other way, too; by eye, they seemed to be playing tougher opponents, so that’s probably OK. The Kesler line was a train wreck, out-chanced by the Slovaks even in a huge win, while the Backes line was clearly in a shutdown role and will likely stay in it for the rest of the Olympics.
What about the defence?
|Team USA: On-ice scoring chances for defencemen|
|Left Defence||SC +/-||Right Defence||SC +/-|
|Ryan Suter||+7/-3||Paul Martin||+6/-3|
|Ryan McDonagh||+7/-4||Kevin Shattenkirk||+4/-6|
|Cam Fowler||+4/-2||John Carlson||+6/-3|
That’s actually a very good showing for the blue line. The top pair of Ryan Suter and Paul Martin didn’t look great on Slovakia’s lone goal, but had a strong game overall. The only real concern here is Shattenkirk, who posted lousy on-ice numbers and seemed to be clearly outplayed by Carlson. It may be a one-off or it may be a sign that Shattenkirk (who generally does not face top competition in St. Louis) might be better suited to a third-pair role in favour of Carlson (who has faced top players for years).
The bottom line? An American victory over Slovakia is going to calm nerves about the team’s adjustment to the big ice, and the way the Stastny line in particular crushed sub-par opposition is decidedly encouraging. But Team USA was able to win only by exploiting weaknesses that real medal contenders don’t have, and their players’ work against Slovakia’s top talent indicates that this team may well need to be better to beat a team like Canada, Sweden or Russia.
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