Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 23:02
On Thursday, Team USA’s men’s ice hockey team won 7-1 in an absolute thrashing of Slovakia. It’s clear that Head Coach Dan Byelsma won’t change the lines after such a great performance, so a recap of each line in Thursday’s game can be used as a preview for how the Americans will proceed going forward.
Many questioned the line combinations that Byelsma put together prior to the first game. But the team’s performance against Slovakia silenced critics, myself included. At forward, Byelsma placed Ryan Kesler as the top center in between Dustin Brown and Patrick Kane.
Prior to the tournament, I was concerned about this decision. I was hoping for Kesler and Kane to be grouped with either team USA’s all around best forward Zach Parise or Max Pacioretty, another pure scorer who would benefit from Kane’s great playmaking and stickhandling abilities. Admittedly, I was wrong. Kesler had a plus 4, while recording a goal and an assist. Kane had two assists, and Brown also scored. Not too bad.
The second line of Joe Pavelski at center and James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel — Maple Leaf linemates — also jumped in on the scoring. Riemsdyk and Kessel each had two assists and Kessel also scored a goal. This line was built to score, given that they have combined for a ridiculous 84 goals this year, and they did their jobs against Slovakia.
The fourth line, comprised of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie, was also impressive in the first game. Stastny had two goals, and the line as a whole played all-around great hockey.
The only line that failed to live up to expectations was the third line. David Backes, Zach Parise and Ryan Callahan were expected to form the strongest line, but against Slovakia they didn’t play their best hockey — especially on offense. Although Backes did have a goal, the line wasn’t sharp, and Parise and Callahan combined for only one shot on goal. But, if the other three lines, or at least two, are scoring, then Byelsma could easily shift the third line to be used mainly for defensive purposes.
The simple way to look at Thursday’s game and look forward is to say that, if Team USA scores anywhere in the same tier as its first game, they’ll likely take home Olympic gold. The biggest knock on Team USA was that it didn’t have enough pure scorers, but I am confident that Pavelski, van Riemsdyk and Kessel can be one of the top lines in the tournament because of their combined speed and pure scoring ability.
Another key to Team USA’s scoring will be the power play, and after today’s game it is clear the power play will depend on Kane. Kane was at the center of both of Team USA’s unsuccessful power plays, but he’s an expert at entering the zone and setting up his teams’ power play units smoothly.
Defensively, Byelsma made many USA hockey fans happy when he decided that the bulk of the defensive minutes would go to the four blueliners: Ryan Suter, Paul Martin, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Ryan McDonagh. Each played upwards of 18.5 minutes — the majority of the minutes. In the quarterfinals and beyond, assuming team USA reaches that point, Byelsma will most likely continue to rely on them because the play of the top defensemen will be key for the Americans to knock off any other top teams. USA goalie Jonathan Quick’s performance was also noteworthy — he saved 22-of-23 shots.
The rest of the teams in the men’s tournament break down nicely into four tiers. First, we have Sweden and Canada in the first tier as the top two teams. Because Henrik Sedin was a late omission from the team due to injury, I believe Canada is the team to beat. Team USA, and Russia closely follow. Before the tournament, I would have given Russia the slight advantage, but after the USA’s performance today, I am hesitant to do so.
The next four, which could make some noise but are very unlikely to win, are probably Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Finland — who will go as far as goalie Tuukka Rask takes them — and Switzerland. The final four of Norway, Latvia, Austria and Slovenia are just happy for the opportunity to represent their countries.
Team USA will return to the ice Saturday morning against Russia. Russia’s defense is weak, and its forwards are top heavy — although Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin are amazing. But Russia was less than impressive in its opening game — a 5-2 win over a Slovenia team that doesn’t have one NHL player. Given that the Americans destroyed a better opponent than Slovenia, against whom the Russians played below their standards today, the Americans’ hopes are flying high.
Tom Hoff is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. DOWN TO THE WIRE
appears every Friday.