"Maybe not enough speed or skill on the big ice; offense could be a problem."
Those words or something close to them were some of the conventional, pre-Olympic punditry when sizing up Team USA's gold-medal chances. The Americans, many of us thought, would have to get big-time goaltending to win consistently because goal support might be a problem.
But so far, Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller are living off the largess of the boys up front.
Fifteen American goals after the first three games—14 real ones, plus one symbolic, T.J. Sochi-led goal in that thrilling shootout against Russia—have meant a lot of flashing red lights at the Games.
However, things are about to get a lot bigger, and in hockey that usually means significantly lower scoring. Against the one truly good opponent the Americans have played so far, Russia, they managed only two regulation goals—both on the power play.
The tomato-can teams of the preliminary rounds have winnowed away, so it's back to the original worry/question facing the American team: Can they still keep scoring effectively?
Sunday morning's 5-1 rout of Slovenia proved that Phil Kessel can still score in bunches. He became the first American since John LeClair in 2002 to score a hat trick—only, we didn't see too many Russian Ushankas on the ice.
The Americans have been good-to-great so far in these Games. They've also been a bit lucky. There was the bent goalie peg in the Russian game, and on Sunday there was only the intermittent presence of Slovenia's one NHL player, Anze Kopitar—their team leader and son of the head coach.
The Slovenians, down 2-0 in the game's first five minutes on two Kessel goals, managed to play pretty well the rest of the first period and kept it to a two-goal game with the shots only 9-8 in favor of the Americans.
At the 57-second mark of the second, David Backes was sent to the penalty box, and onto the ice came the Slovenian power play. All except one player—their best one, their team leader, Kopitar.
While the crew doing the game on NBC wondered how Kopitar could be left off the ice for this key sequence, the fact was he wasn't on the Slovenian bench.
While he would play some the rest of the period, ESPN's Scott Burnside reports that Kopitar spent most of the final part of the game off the ice, feeling ill:
Slovenian head coach Matjaz Kopitar said his son, Anze, would go to local hospital for blood tests after falling ill during U.S. game.— Scott Burnside (@ESPN_Burnside) February 16, 2014
Without Kopitar—the player, not his father—Slovenia's spirits sloughed from there. The leaderless bunch tried to stay competitive, but it was easy to see the players' hearts were no longer in it.
Maybe the most encouraging thing for Team USA going forward is that, while they are cranking out some goals, they still haven't gotten big contributions from guys like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise.
If some of the lesser lights—like Ryan Callahan, Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny and the now ubiquitous T.J. Oshie—can keep chipping in offense, this team might really be unstoppable once Kane and Parise get moving.
Still, the checking will get tighter, the refs figure to swallow their whistles a little more and teams will collapse more around their goalie, especially if they get the first goal or any other lead against the Americans. Obviously, Team USA needs to keep getting those first goals and not have to face as many collapsing defenses.
One thing I don't see as a problem going forward, as much as I thought it might before the tournament, is American team speed. So far under Dan Bylsma, the Americans are moving the puck quickly in all three zones.
The defense isn't getting hemmed in much and having to subsequently make desperation chips out of the zone that just reset the opposing offense once the puck is retrieved at center ice.
The American D-men are giving the puck to forwards with speed coming out of their own zone, which is leading to a lot of confusion and scrambling for opposing defenses.
Meanwhile, Ryan Miller looked good in his first start of the Games, though he did lose his shutout with 18 seconds to go. He actually had to face some quality pressure from the Slovenians for much of the first period after Kessel's two quick goals, but he was square to the puck.
It also helped his cause that Slovenia over-passed at times, looking for the prettiest play possible.
According to Stephen Whyno of the Canadian Press, Bylsma was asked after the game if he would go back to Jonathan Quick for the quarterfinals:
Bylsma on if he will go back to Quick for quarterfinals; "I'm not going to tell you that right now."— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) February 16, 2014
Quick is the obvious choice to get the next start, though. It's reassuring to have Miller in the wings if they need him, but the way the Americans are scoring goals right now, a goalie named "Sieve" might be able to get a win playing behind this team.
The line of Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Joe Pavelski sure is looking comfortable together.
The going will get tougher now, but for the Americans to this point, so far, so great.
"We have played three games in four days and have done a lot of traveling to get here," Kane told USA Today's Kevin Allen. "We have a couple of days off now and that will give us time to get ready for the quarterfinals."
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