Phil Kessel, Paul Stastny power Team USA's 7-1 win over Slovakia
All of the questions asked of Team USA coming into the Olympics were answered in emphatic fashion Thursday with a 7-1 win over Slovakia to start the tournament.
There were plenty of questions about the U.S. men's hockey team coming into the 2014 Olympics. Is the defense too young? Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller in net? How will they play on big ice? How the heck did they leave Bobby Ryan off? What is Dan Bylsma thinking with these lines? It took the US about 40 minutes of clock time in its first game to provide some answers in emphatic fashion.
Team USA earned a rousing 7-1 victory over Slovakia, the first for Team USA over that proud hockey nation, and began to confirm David Poile's blueprint for building this team may have been a good one. There's still a lot of hockey left, so it's too early to say this is what we can expect from Team USA every time out, especially with the US having a much tougher test ahead against Russia on Saturday.
What the opening game did do, however, was show the team can absolutely play the way it was built to play.
When Poile and his staff put this roster together, it was built on a foundation of speed, balanced scoring and puck possession. All of that came to fruition against Slovakia in a game that was thought to be much closer coming in.
The first half of the second period was a veritable clinic of puck possession, where the US spent almost all of the first 10:30 in the Slovakian zone. It all came after the US gave up an early goal that tied the game just 36 seconds into the second period.
The US response was swift and vicious. The Americans never looked back.
When Bylsma's line experiments in practice were reported by those in Sochi, there was a lot of head scratching. It was clear Bylsma wanted scoring throughout the lineup and not just overloading the top lines like you might see in the NHL, but was that going to stifle the offense?
The top scoring unit kept together in both practices included James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel centered by Joe Pavelski . As expected, that line created chances frequently and was part of the first goal, by defenseman John Carlson on a bullet.
Kessel ended the game with three points, while van Riemsdyk had two. Pavelski didn't get on the score sheet, but he was making a lot of plays to open things up for his linemates.
Team USA's line that would be considered the closest thing to an energy line in the NHL has David Backes centering Zach Parise and Ryan Callahan . They were the most defensively effective group and put a lot of pressure on Slovakia on the forecheck.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Team USA was what it was able to get out of its fourth line featuring Paul Stastny , who scored twice, Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie . That line gave Slovakia fits all game with its cycling and general play down low.
Lastly, the trio of Ryan Kesler , Dustin Brown and Patrick Kane provided a pair of goals as well, with Kane showing the big ice may be a playground for his immense puck skills.
The defense was involved as well, using the big ice to their advantage in stretching it out with long passes and taking pucks up ice. The US also transitioned out of their zone well thanks to the defense, which is something they want to do consistently.
Then there was the play of Jonathan Quick. In his first start in a USA jersey at any level, Quick looked settled. He did give up that early second-period goal, but there were other saves he made when the defense broke down that were key. It makes the decision on who to start against Russia an interesting one, but Quick looked the part of Team USA's starter in making 22 saves.
The big ice didn't seem to be too much of an issue, either. If anything, the US did a good job of using it to their advantage. There were some positioning mistakes early in the game, but those are more easily corrected as the US continues to play. The skill players definitely made the most of the extra space they had and USA's speed worked well in keeping the ice spread out and making Slovakia work hard defensively.
Team USA couldn't have asked for a better start. They were able to put the game away early and could take their foot off the gas a bit heading into a day off before the big tilt against Russia.
All the questions will fire up again heading into that next game, but temporarily, the US calmed a lot of doubt about their abilities in this tournament and confirmed a lot of the decisions their head coach and general manager made right away.
Here are some other stray notes from USA's 7-1 victory over Slovakia:
• Team USA dominated the faceoff dot, particularly Joe Pavelski and Ryan Kesler. The pair had 26 faceoffs between them and lost only three. It was just another area of the game where the US was dominating possession.
• Team USA's top defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and Paul Martin each played 19:46, leading all players in time on ice. Suter played significantly less in the third period, which was good because he'll probably play a lot against Russia.
• Special teams: The US took one minor penalty in the game, successfully killing the power play, and went 1 for 2 with the man advantage.
• With three points for a regulation win and a plus-6 goal differential, Team USA sits in first place in Group A after the first day of action.
Team USA meets Russia on Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
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