Team USA Hockey: One Game Down, Very Little Learned
Patience, please, everyone. Can we suspend judgment for now?
Someone who missed Team USA’s 2010 Olympic hockey opener Tuesday afternoon against Switzerland might have this morning read Russell McKenzie's piece on Bleacher Report and thought Brian Burke’s young team played at a level above and beyond their somewhat low expectations.
Someone else who didn’t watch might have read Matthew Hogan's piece and thought Team USA’s sometimes-sloppy play means the team is already “doomed” to a disappointing finish.
Against an inferior Swiss team, Team USA looked like a team full of young NHL players that just got together a couple of nights ago after more than 50 games with their respective professional teams since October.
In other words, they had their ups and downs.
Hogan is right; the U.S. team was sloppy. Switzerland was a poor passing and puck-handling team that should have been consistently punished in their defensive zone by a hard-forechecking, Burke-style team. But aside from the two-goal second period, this was not enough the case.
Team USA let their slower opponent break through the blue line on an inappropriate amount of odd-man breaks. Had the Swiss not missed several wide open nets, the Americans would have had an even tougher game on their hands.
A shaky first period and lack-luster third, though, were overcome by Team USA with an impressive second that showed their NHL skill. So McKenzie is right, too. The team can play.
U.S. forward David Backes looked impressive flying down the left wing after a sprawling Ryan Miller save. Backes went coast to coast before cutting across the net and forcing the puck past Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks to push the U.S. lead to 2-0 nearly six minutes into the middle frame.
The team showed some grit with their third goal, an in-close rebound batted past Hiller by forward Ryan Malone. The Americans dominated the front of the net on the play, refusing to be pushed around or cleared out by the Swiss defensemen.
And though the U.S. forwards did get caught deep in the offensive zone often, leading to Swiss breaks, the defense did not surrender a goal skating backwards. Strong body play, quality poke checks and smart positioning forced the Swiss into, for the most part, low-percentage shots and turnovers.
In the ESPN age of instantaneous analysis and immediate team judgment, it is important to put things in context.
Yes, Team USA controlled Switzerland on the stat sheet and got some good performances from players they likely did not expect them from (Bobby Ryan). But it was against the Swiss, a team that looked as unskilled with the puck as they did helpless without it.
Yes, Team USA had some ugly periods of play in which their defense looked porous and their heads weren’t in it. But it was the first game. Nine players had played for their NHL teams just two days prior.
On that Sunday, five players played against one of their Team USA teammates. Ryan Suter’s Predators beat Brooks Orpik’s Penguins while Rangers Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury knocked off Ryan Malone’s Lightning.
For guys to go from being fierce opponents in a league where the heated fight for playoff spots is well underway to everybody-love-everybody Team USA teammates at the Olympics is not something that can be done in two days.
Let’s just give them some time. They have a game against Norway Thursday. Ron Wilson’s squad should win and, more importantly, improve on Tuesday’s performance.
We’ll take it from there.
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