Well, that was something, wasn’t it? There was so much buildup to the Olympics and now that it’s finally here, Team USA is apparently really excited about it. So excited they scored seven goals against a pretty solid Slovakian side.
To say it was unexpected is putting it mildly. Unlike Canada and Russia, who struggled a bit against weak opponents, the U.S. surged into their opening game with the confidence of a team that had been together for years it seemed. There were some miscues, but nothing too alarming and nothing that proved too costly.
The team played the way it was built to play and that’s the best result the U.S. could have hoped for. The 7-1 scoreline was just an added bonus.
Now they carry a ton of momentum into the next game and also end the first two days of action with the best goal differential in the tournament, which can definitely matter in tie-breaking scenarios.
Coming up after the jump, five thoughts on our first look at Team USA.
First off, after every Team USA game, I’ll have a full column over at CBSSports.com. In the first one, I addressed Team USA’s play mirroring the blueprint for how the team was built.
Shared some thoughts on USA Hockey’s post-game show for its YouTube Channel. Video also includes some really insightful comments from Team USA’s players.
Here are five additional thoughts on Team USA’s opener:
1. The scoring was there, but there was a lot more to that game offensively for Team USA beyond the goals. It was the utter dominance from Team USA in the puck possession battle. They obviously were at their best in the early goings of the second period, but throughout the game, the U.S. was taking all the extra time and space they had on the big ice and using it incredibly effectively.
It all started from the back end out, too. The defense were moving the puck extremely well in transition. I was particularly impressed with Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler and Ryan Suter in that regard. They were patient and didn’t make too many of those risky passes, but when they had openings, they took them. That was huge in allowing Team USA to dictate the pace of the game.
Throughout the lineup, the U.S. used the big ice to their advantage and let things open up in front of them. Those extra seconds taken with the puck helped players find the right option as opposed to the first one available to them, which is not usually easy to do in the NHL. Making that adjustment to hold just a split-second longer can take time in adjusting to the surface size, but that didn’t seem to be the case for Team USA.
2. Phil Kessel will rightfully get a lot of the headlines today, but I think it’s important to focus on Paul Stastny’s play overall. The two goals were both great plays as driving the net is not always the easiest to do on the big sheet. The European teams love to crowd the slot, but when you have the speed the U.S. does, you can make those plays that Stastny did to either get behind or get ahead of the defense in transition.
Stastny actually has been on a bit of a roll lately internationally. He was on the last two U.S. Men’s National Teams at the IIHF World Championships and was a prominently featured player both times. In helping Team USA earn its first medal in nearly a decade at the Worlds, a bronze, Stastny was named to the media all-star team after leading Team USA with 15 points, which put him second in tournament scoring.
Including Thursday’s game against Slovakia, Stastny has 26 points, including 12 goals over his last 19 games in a USA jersey. I don’t think he’ll necessarily be a dynamic scorer for Team USA at the Olympics, but he’s a proven producer on the big sheet and Team USA needs production from its depth players. If guys like Stastny continue to be offensive threats, it makes Team USA a difficult team to prepare for.
3. Ryan McDonagh was a standout defender in my book. He made a couple of noticeable plays, but I thought his mobility, his positioning and his physical side were all right where they needed to be. Of all the solid defensive players he made, there was none better than his innovative push off the boards to sweep the puck away from Marian Hossa, one of the strongest players on the puck in all of hockey. This coming after he took the passing lane away. Crafty. GIF via @Dr_Habs:
Beyond special plays like that, I thought McDonagh got in a lot of lanes to break things up for Slovakia when they did manage to get into the U.S. zone.
I thought the pairing of McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk looked every bit the part of a solid second defensive unit. Their ability to control the puck and move it in transition was huge. On top of that, McDonagh allows Shattenkirk to jump into plays more as the more stay-at-home of the two. He also has the speed to recover quickly.
4. One of the perceived weaknesses of this team coming into the tournament was its depth down the middle. The centers, when compared to, say, Canada, don’t look as great on paper. All four were excellent against Slovakia.
Ryan Kesler and Joe Pavelski dominated the faceoff circle, finishing 11-for-13 and 12-for-13 respectively. Only three faceoff losses between them?
David Backes and Paul Stastny weren’t as prolific at the dot, but both made an impact on the scoresheet with goals. All three of the goals scored by these players were at the net front. Establishing a net-front presence in international hockey is even more important than on NHL ice. It’s not an easier to get to and when pucks actually do get there, you usually only get one shot. They made those plays count.
Kesler also scored on a rocket one-timer and finished the game a plus-4, tops on Team USA. He showed really good offensive instincts throughout and with Patrick Kane on one of his wings, it’s not hard to look good offensively. That duo could be pretty significant in this tournament.
Then Pavelski was obviously noticeable with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. That line was threatening the whole game and all three looked very comfortable together.
Derek Stepan is a pretty skilled center, but the way these four played, he may end up staying in the bullpen for now.
5. Now that the U.S. has a tougher test coming Saturday against Russia, the question becomes was Thursday for real? Is this U.S. team that good? I don’t know if we can say that definitively yet. They certainly looked the best of all the big teams in their first games of the Olympics and that is really something.
There’s always talk about gelling quickly and catching lightning in a bottle in these short tournaments. No question, that is important. Team USA got the gelling quickly down as they looked pretty strong throughout. Now they have to maintain that level for six more games.
We’re going to learn a lot about this team on Saturday, but the most encouraging thing for USA fans is that all of the things the management team and coaching staff has talked about wanting this team to be, they showed it on Thursday. That’s the big takeaway from the game for me.
Check back Friday for a look ahead to USA-Russia.