Saturday’s Olympic hockey game between Russia and the United States was an instant classic, a match that not only equaled the considerable buildup to the game but managed to surpass it. It would have been a worthy gold-medal contest—and will certainly stand as the finest contest of the group round in these Olympics.
It was, however, not a gold-medal contest. That means that for all the brilliance displayed on both sides of the ice, this preliminary battle is as much an opportunity for the two teams to learn about themselves and attempt to improve before the elimination games start.
Russia provided a strong test for Team USA. It revealed some truly championship-level strengths on the American side, including both an outstanding scoring line and a rock-solid checking unit, both of which will be vital in the United States' pursuit of gold. It also showcased a potent power play and unveiled a devastating shootout weapon in the person of T.J. Oshie.
Conversely, American weaknesses were exposed too. Not all of the forward units performed as well as those two identified above, the defence had some definite flaws, and a penchant for taking penalties nearly proved fatal in this match.
Scoring chances can help to illustrate those strengths and weaknesses in more detail. They are a helpful tool because goals are so rare; in a single game, a player who is on the ice for one chance for and five against can go plus-one in the goals department, while another who was on for five chances for and one against can go minus-one. The second player likely had a better game and over time will probably be on the ice for more goals for than against, so identifying the players and lines that drive scoring chances is pivotal for any coach.
This table shows the scoring chance plus/minus for each American skater:
|Van Riemsdyk||Joe Pavelski||Phil Kessel||Ryan Suter||Ryan McDonagh|
|Dustin Brown||Ryan Kesler||Patrick Kane||Brooks Orpik||Paul Martin|
|Zach Parise||David Backes||Ryan Callahan||Cam Fowler||Kevin Shattenkirk|
|Max Pacioretty||Paul Stastny||T.J. Oshie||Blake Wheeler||John Carlson|
Let us start with the forwards.
The engine that drove the American attack was clearly its top line, and more specifically sublime winger Phil Kessel. Kessel was on the ice for half of Team USA’s even-strength scoring chances, a feat he had almost managed in the American rout of Slovakia earlier in the tournament. (The United States had 20 chances at even strength in that game; Kessel was on the ice for nine of them.)
The top line clicking so effectively against Slovakia was one thing, but by overpowering a far more competent Russian opponent it has shown an ability to drive scoring chances at pivotal moments against quality players. This is a unit that has been much more effective than the Canadian top line centered by Sidney Crosby, and to date has at least matched the top Russian unit of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin.
Also playing an effective game was the third line centered by David Backes. This unit has been tasked with taking on the shutdown role for the Americans, meaning lots of ice time against elite lines and plenty of shifts starting in the defensive zone. As a unit this line broke even, creating two scoring chances and allowing two scoring chances, which is an awfully respectable showing against a Russian attack that boasts what might be the two top offensive lines in the tournament.
Together, the two lines considered above give Team USA both an effective offensive unit and a strong defensive counter to other teams. Those are important, even critical strengths for a national team striving for gold. However, the situation is still some distance from perfect.
The second line, which features a trio of talented players with what should be complementary skill sets, has not been good so far. Patrick Kane had strong moments, but most of those were on the power play or when united with Zach Parise when head coach Dan Bylsma shortened his bench late in the game against Russia. This line was the only American unit out-chanced in the game against the Slovaks, and they were again on Saturday by the Russians. Add in a pair of Dustin Brown penalties and this is a unit that Bylsma has to look at adjusting.
It is particularly critical because other teams in this tournament have strong secondary scoring lines. Canada has a No. 2 line powered by the Anaheim duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, a line that has been very good for them so far. Russia's second line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Radulov did all the offensive damage against the Americans. While Radulov had disciplinary problems similar to Brown, that unit can generate opportunities.
Unfortunately for Bylsma, his source of reinforcements—Team USA’s depth forwards—didn’t play very well against Russia. T.J. Oshie was the best of the lot (and instantly legendary thanks to the shootout) and the best bet for a promotion, while Paul Stastny had moments as a utility faceoff man plugged in on other lines. Max Pacioretty struggled, while Blake Wheeler had one shift that ended in a penalty, one shift skating from the penalty box to the bench and otherwise didn’t see the ice.
The good news for Bylsma is that the fourth line was much better against Slovakia, and he still has the option of dressing Derek Stepan, who has yet to play. Overall, the forward picture is quite positive: two lines of difference-makers with complementary skill sets, a third line that may need reworking but has some nice parts, and a group of depth forwards who have collectively had one good and one bad game.
Defensively, Team USA’s coaching staff tried a different approach to the game against Russia than they had against Slovakia, reworking the defence pairs to create two shutdown units and a multipurpose third tandem. It was a move that had mixed results.
There is no doubt that Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh are the top two rearguards available to the American team, and they played reasonably well together. Importantly, the left-shooting McDonagh showed himself capable of playing on the right side (as a rule, defencemen play the same side of the ice as they shoot because having their stick to the outside makes a number of routine plays easier).
The trouble was that the second shutdown pair, comprised of Pittsburgh Penguins Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, did not fare all that well. Orpik in particular was victimized on the only even-strength goal of the game, the Pavel Datsyuk first-period marker that saw Russia’s captain walk around an aggressive check from Orpik and then drive down the middle of the offensive zone.
Bylsma and his coaches now face the choice of either splitting the Orpik and Martin pair based on one game, or alternately keeping them together based on what they have done as a unit in Pittsburgh. Interestingly, the Penguins’ shot totals have improved both this season and last year when Martin played with a partner other than Orpik, though that may have something to do with Martin playing easier minutes when separated from the shutdown-minded Orpik.
The third pairing wasn’t overly impressive, but both Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk figured in key offensive plays. This pairing gives Team USA some much-needed firepower given that the top four is currently configured primarily with an eye to preventing offence rather than generating it.
Somehow Bylsma needs to find two units that can handle top opposition.
Canada has ridiculous strength on the back end and will be able to do it, while Sweden's deep blue line has far more potency on the attack than the United States' does. The Americans are in a situation where they don't yet have the defensive presence of the former or the same level of offensive threat as either of those countries.
There are some big-picture considerations worth looking at too, items that transcend the individual even-strength lines. The American power play was extremely effective, providing Team USA with scoring chances every time the United States was given an opportunity. The flip side was that the Russian power play was also extremely good, and given the star power available to top teams in this tournament, discipline needs to be maintained.
Bad penalties, including the one Brown took that led to Russia’s third-period tying goal, have to be eliminated.
Finally, T.J. Oshie’s bravura shootout performance (combined with the odd IIHF allowance of repeat shooters) can have the Americans confident in their abilities in the shootout. It may not seem like much, but in a tournament with so many good teams, having a trusted weapon in that event may mean the difference between a gold medal and early elimination.