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Team USA bounced back in a big way from their shocking loss to Slovenia with a 2-1 win over Slovakia. With the win, the U.S. has four points in the standings and holds sole possession of first place in the group with one game to play. It’s quite a swing from the bitterness of Wednesday’s collapse.
Considering Slovakia successfully outplayed OAR, the most skilled team in the tournament for a 3-2 win Wednesday, the U.S. had to work for the little bit it got. More importantly, however, Team USA had to minimize mistakes as Slovakia’s passive game thrives on opportunism over attacking.
The Americans were able to tilt the ice just enough to minimize the quality chances against and took advantage of the power plays they had. Ryan Donato scored twice with the man advantage, first with a great shot and second with a high-skill play in tight. Special teams are huge in the international events as the old cliche goes, and it proved to be the difference in the game.
Meanwhile, the U.S. played a more complete game than it did against Slovenia, which is a huge understatement. Aside from a short period of uneasiness after Slovakia tied the game 25 seconds after Donato put the U.S. ahead 1-0, they were on an even keel for most of the game. They played the attacking style they wanted to play without overdoing it, as they did in the early goings against Slovenia. It was more calculated and as a result they were fresher as the game wore on.
Team USA faces its biggest test Saturday when they take on the Olympic Athletes from Russia, but today’s game was a big step forward from the start. If they can continue to get better as the tournament wears on, they’re going to at least have a chance to make a run.
Here are some stray thoughts from today’s game…
So, the college kids are their best players… Through six periods, Team USA’s most threatening forwards are Troy Terry and Ryan Donato. They’re dynamic together and they appear to be maximizing each other’s talents.
Terry is the most skilled player on the roster by a wide margin. He is their go-to guy for zone entries and creating chances. His entry and drive to the net opened things up for his slick drop pass to Donato who had room to pick his spot.
Meanwhile, Donato is showing that he can score just like he has been doing all year at Harvard. The first goal was a nicely-placed, hard shot, while the second goal from in tight was just a tremendous play.
I’ve also really liked Jordan Greenway’s game. Since I’ll be writing up something on all of the NHL prospects at the Olympics over at ESPN Insider later on, I’ll save the details aside from this — Greenway’s growth as a player from two years ago is pretty impressive. He has a better idea of how to use his size and it’s making things tough for the opposition.
They paced themselves without losing their identity. After watching Team USA play so well in the first period against Slovenia only to see their energy melt away, we talked about managing the game in the last post. That’s absolutely what they did today, but didn’t lose their edge. The Americans were physical early, they forechecked hard, but they didn’t play with such reckless abandon. They made more patient plays, slowed things down when they had to and protected the puck very well. Slovakia likes to sit back and make you work for everything, while hoping for power plays and turnovers to generate their offense. That can wear teams down, but it did not appear to impact the U.S. in any noticeable way.
It’s still fair to be concerned about USA’s 5-on-5 play. While we saw Terry and Donato, who play with Mark Arcobello, play extremely well, there were far fewer chances generated by the other lines. Team USA finished with 31 total shots on goal, but it was really hard to get to the middle of the ice against Slovakia. I think Team USA has some players that have been driving the net hard, but they have to be able to finish a little better. Donato is their go-to scorer at this point, but they need more from guys like Chris Bourque and Broc Little, who have solid offensive ability, to use their skills and make some plays in the middle.
Slovakia’s goal was pretty brutal. Coming 25 seconds after the U.S. took the lead, Andrej Kudarna redirected a puck from a tough angle that leaked through Ryan Zapolski. It was a tough goal to give up, especially because of the timing, but also because it was the kind you’d expect Zapolski to have. One wonders what the coaching staff will do against OAR. My gut says they’ll play Zapolski again and maybe only Zapolski this whole tournament if they have the choice. Losing to Slovenia made it tough to do anything differently. Still, it may not hurt to give Brandon Maxwell or David Leggio a look in a non elimination game, as Saturday’s is.
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So, about those college players… The most common thing I heard from people about this U.S. team on Twitter last night — given the success of Terry, Donato and Greenway — is that they should have taken more college players. As easy (and really early) as it is to second-guess now, I agree.
I saw some suggestions that they bring all college players, but I think that would have been extreme. From the very beginning, I thought the roster should have seven to eight college players, give or take one or two. I know this was a decision the staff wrestled with a ton and I think the final decisions to go with the roster they went with were made for fair reasons. Going young is risky, but as we’ve seen, the young guys are the closest this team has to NHL players and all three of the aforementioned guys could be in the NHL as early as next season. At all levels and pretty much in all leagues, younger players are having a bigger impact sooner.
The U.S. also has scratched Will Borgen in each game and I’m pretty surprised by it. I think he gives them more versatility on the back end, but they appear set on having James Wisniewski as a power-play specialist for their seventh defenseman. In Wisniewski’s defense, I thought he was pretty good in that role against Slovakia, but I still think I would prefer seeing Borgen get third-pairing minutes for this team. He’s a really mobile kid who defends on the big ice extremely well.
But getting back to the idea of adding more college players. It’s pretty easy for us to sit here now and say it, as we’ve seen six periods (plus an agonizing 36 seconds of overtime) and the young guys are killing it. Also, OAR’s Kirill Karpizov is the tournament’s leading goal scorer at 21 years old. The tournaments leader in points with six right now is Eeli Tolvanen who is 18 (and was supposed to go to Boston College this season, but didn’t get cleared academically). Their teams are entrusting them with big roles, just as USA is doing with Terry, Donato and Greenway, and they’re excelling.
That said, I think there was a lot of resistance to bringing guys that also played in the World Juniors like Casey Mittelstadt because of the academic side of things. Some of those guys probably aren’t going back to school next year, but managing the World Juniors, their own team schedule, and then the Olympics is asking a ton of a teenager. So I think that weighed pretty heavily and if that was the case (and based on previous conversations with the late Jim Johannson, it was), then their hearts were in the right place. Others who weren’t at the WJC, like Adam Gaudette, were definitely in the mix for a spot, but in the end they went with the older guys that they knew a bit better. Time will tell if that was the right decision.
With all of that said, the U.S. is currently in first place in their group. They have a chance to earn a bye to the quarterfinals, which is something I didn’t think would be possible after losing to Slovenia. If they can get progressively better, then maybe they can keep moving forward. Terry and Donato are no longer secrets, though. Teams are going to know if they can shut down those guys, then they’ll probably have a chance of shutting down the U.S. completely. They need to be more than a one-line team going forward.
The game against OAR, which is at 7:10 a.m. Saturday morning, is going to be a huge measuring stick game. OAR absolutely pummeled Slovenia after losing their opener to Slovakia. I don’t know that the U.S. has the guns to keep up and they might have to play a more boring style of hockey to even have a chance, but I’m pretty darn excited to see what they can do.
As we’ve seen throughout with a lot of tight results, this Olympic tournament remains wide open. You get hot at the right time and you’ve got a chance. So let’s all enjoy the very weird tournament. It’s getting kind of fun.