Coming into the game, if you looked at the two rosters, you’d have expected the Olympic Athletes from Russia to be the better team and they were. The U.S. dropped a 4-0 decision to OAR and despite a shot counter that favored the Americans, 29-26, anyone watching the game saw that the Russians were better in a lot of different ways.
That’s not to say that the U.S. didn’t have chances to keep the game tighter than the final scoreline ended. They certainly didn’t get run out of the building or anything. But the Americans’ inability to capitalize on the best chances took them right out of the game.
Brian Gionta had three scoring chances in the second period alone. The first was a breakaway off o a great play by him to sneak through the defense and the puck rolled off his stick. Then he had a point-blank shot that caught the top of the goalies pad and lastly, Jordan Greenway set up an opportunity for Gionta to pop out and he shot a backhander right into Russia’s goalie, Vasili Koshechkin. The bad news is that Gionta didn’t score, but the good news is that he played his best game yet in South Korea. They need to get him going to give themselves a little extra depth because that hasn’t been there.
We should mention that Koshechkin was very good today as well. USA tested him just enough for him to need to be sharp and he was. Stopping Broc Little on a breakaway was probably his most important stop. He definitely earned the shutout.
Meanwhile, USA goalie Ryan Zapolski didn’t have his best stuff tonight. The first goal there wasn’t much he could do as the Russians worked the puck around and Nikolai Prokhorkin buried from in close. The second goal was a shot from distance by Prokhorkin that Zapolski didn’t get a good look at and missed. It was a heck of a shot and he was using the defenseman as a screen, but that one stung the U.S. The dagger, however, was Ilya Kovalchuk’s one-timer that leaked through Zapolski just ahead of the buzzer to end the second period. Kovalchuk didn’t get all of that one and Zapolski was where he needed to be, it just got through at the most inopportune time. The last goal was a Kovalchuk breakaway thanks to a couple of USA players running into each other going for the same puck.
Obviously goaltending is a big key, but — breaking news — you have to score goals, too. Special teams has been a huge key so far and the power play was not good today. The PK was pretty solid, but the power play has to get you some traction in a game where the other team is that much better 5-on-5. The U.S. went 0-for-3 with the advantage.
I thought Russia did a good job of bottling up Ryan Donato, Mark Arcobello and Troy Terry. If that line isn’t going, USA isn’t going. Donato did hit a crossbar on a rush that could have been a difference-making goal had it been just a little lower. Jordan Greenway’s line, which sometimes featured Chris Bourque and Bobby Butler, and sometimes Gionta, was probably USA’s most consistent threat.
Now Team USA will have to wait to see who they’ll play in the qualification round. The Americans finished in third in Group B thanks to their regulation win over Slovakia, and Slovenia beating the Slovaks in a shootout. That helps them seeding wise a little bit. We won’t know until Sunday’s games are complete who Team USA will play Tuesday, but there isn’t another team in the tournament that has the weapons Russia does. I think the Americans have enough to get through the quarters if things fall the right way for them.
Here are some stray thoughts from the game…
Jordan Greenway was really strong today. The Minnesota Wild prospect was probably Team USA’s best player for most of the game today. He used his size well, he battled along the boards and won a lot of those battles. Even though Russia had a lot of NHL-caliber players, Greenway was making things difficult for them in the offensive zone. He played 17:07, most of any forward on Team USA and also finished the game with four shots on goal. The young guys continue stepping up and I think Greenway in particular gets better with each game.
Team USA’s D had some rough moments today. The worst was probably the fourth OAR goal with Kovalchuk getting a free look 30 seconds into the third period after Bobby Sanguinetti whiffed on a bouncing puck with a flailing stick. The pairing of Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson was on the ice for both of Kovalchuk’s goals. They were also out there for Slovenia’s game-tying goal in the first game. Additionally, Noah Welch took two unfortunate penalties in this game. He’s been very hot and cold in the tournament. I like his physical presence and his size, but some poor decisions with the puck and shaky moments on the back end haven’t been great for confidence in him as a No. 2. Jonathan Blum actually got a fair amount more ice time today and I think he’s been a pretty steady, stable presence out there. Meanwhile, James Wisniewski remains a power play-only player and Will Borgen continues to be a scratch.
It’s Zapolski’s net no matter what. One thing that is abundantly clear — and basically has been since the roster was announced — is Ryan Zapolski is the undisputed No. 1 goalie on the team regardless of what happens. He’s had some shaky moments throughout the tournament and currently owns an .890 save percentage. This team needs a goalie that can steal them a game and I’m not sure they have it. That said, now that the tournament has reached the elimination stage, I don’t think you can go to either Brandon Maxwell or David Leggio over Zapolski. I might have wanted to see either of them come in after the fourth goal just to see what they looked like on Olympic ice, but I don’t have a problem with Granato sticking with his guy. We’ll just have to see if his guy can get the job done when the team’s tournament lives are on the line. After the game, Granato told the AP’s Stephen Whyno that Zapolski is their goalie.
Tony Granato wasn’t happy with the Russian coach. Oleg Znarok can rub people the wrong way, no doubt, but putting his best players on the ice in a 4-0 game on the power play isn’t that big of a deal. Total goal differential is the third tiebreaker when it comes to seeding for the qualification and quartefinal rounds. Russia is not guaranteed the No. 1 overall spot in the QF, which is why they should want to score as many goals as possible. Apparently Granato wasn’t happy at all with it and they didn’t shake hands with the Russian coaches. I kind of hope he was just doing it to deflect attention from the players after a tough loss because Znarok did exactly what every coach should do in that situation in international hockey. Maybe it’s a different story if it’s in an elimination game and goal differential doesn’t count, but in the prelims, goals matter a great deal. Also, it’s USA-Russia. There’s no way they’re taking the foot off the gas, nor should the U.S. if the roles were reversed.
Looking ahead. The thing that we all figured would be a problem before the tournament is a problem now. The U.S. has four goals through three games at the Olympics. They had four goals in three games at the Deutschland Cup, too, and that was without Terry, Donato, Greenway and a few others.
Scoring is hard on the big ice, it just plain is. But that was a big reason USA Hockey took so many European pros. These players have produced on the bigger surface and they need to start finding ways to put pucks in 5-on-5. There aren’t enough penalties being called to hope you can pop a few in on the power play and the power play hasn’t been consistently good enough to rely on goals coming from there anyway. That said, aside from Donato, there aren’t a lot of high-end finishers on this team. There are a lot of pass-first guys. Aside from a few college players, there weren’t a lot of snipers in the player pool, either. Even though that may be the case, the U.S. has to start finding ways to score.
Now that the Americans have had three games at the Olympics, there shouldn’t be any more surprises and I don’t think there will be fore them. Whoever they get in the quarterfinal is going to be a beatable team, but there are no guarantees in this tournament, not with this or any roster. The team is taking a full day off tomorrow, they’re not even practicing. After they recover a little bit, perhaps they can work on some more combinations up front.
I continue to wonder what Greenway would look like between Broc Little and Brian O’Neill. Garrett Roe has been their center so far and I don’t think he has been driving play enough for the two of those speedy guys to get activated consistently. I wonder if Greenway opens up the ice more for them and they’re able to be even more of a threat. Outside of Donato and Terry, Little and O’Neill have looked the most dangerous offensively, but they’re not taking that next step. A guy like Greenway, who is playing with confidence and winning a lot of puck battles needs to have better options to get the puck to and guys that can get the puck back to him. That said, it may make things tougher for Bourque, Butler and Gionta, but Greenway seems like he’s on the cusp of a breakout. Heck, maybe even they could try an all-college line a little bit.
Today’s result should not have come as a shock to anyone. The U.S. was coming in a big underdog. I think they hung with Russia better than I expected and that’s a somewhat positive thing. The lack of finishing ability is a big concern, but the tournament remains wide open. Canada losing to the Czechs in a shootout is another good example, and that Finland-Sweden game should be a real thriller tomorrow.
Now it’s win or go home time for the U.S. It’s amazing how quick things go once the tournament gets started. I think we’ve seen these Americans respond well to some adversity. The game against OAR was a good experience to have before the games take on the higher stakes of potential elimination. Now we’ll see if they can take those lessons and put them to good use.
Also, if you’re looking for reasons to root for Team USA, check out this touching piece from ESPN colleague Wayne Drehs about the U.S. players getting the call that they made the team. I definitely teared up a little bit reading it, especially the parts where the players talk about sharing the news with their spouses, parents and children.
There’s no doubt that these guys are playing hard. Effort has not once been an issue or concern with this team. It’s all about execution at this point. Now that they’ve played three games together, let’s see what they can do with their tournament lives on the line.