After a mostly dominant first period, the Team USA men’s hockey team watched Team Slovakia quickly tie things up in the early second period, leaving some to wonder if the Slovaks were just shaking off the rust. Then in a matter of two minutes, USA shut the door. By the end of the second period, it was 7-1 USA. Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and this deep, talented squad showed everyone why this team is a favorite to return to the Gold Medal Game. They’ll need all of that effort and more to get there, and it starts in two days against the host Russians.
Team USA played tight on offense early on, preferring to lean on the agility and space making abilities of Patrick Kane on the top lines, and play a dump and chase game with their speedy bottom six. On an early power play, Kane handled the puck for long stretches and even managed a nice wrister that got stopped, but they saw no success early. When he wasn’t on the ice, it was Phil Kessel who pressed the action and kept the defensemen on their heels. He did just that when he dished the first assist of the game to John Carlson, who buried a slap shot at 14:27 of the first period. Thomas Tatar, by far the best Slovakian in the game, tied the game 24 seconds into the second period with a beautiful wrist shot, giving the Slovaks life after being outshot 11-4 in the first. For a minute, at least, they stood poised to make it a game.
One minute and two seconds after Tatar’s goal, Ryan Kesler one timed a pass from Kane to give USA the lead once more. A minute later, Paul Stastny scored his first of two in the period while playing on a fourth line with Max Pacioretty and TJ Oshie. The line created two goals and plenty of havoc on the lower line defensemen. David Backes, Kessel, and Dustin Brown tallied one each in a six goal period that iced the Slovakians and set the Americans up with a chance to seize control of their pool with a win over Russia.
1st star: Patrick Kane. Until Canada plays at least, he’s the best player I’ve seen in the tournament. The big ice is perfect for his skill set and he looked right at home leading that offense. His speed put the Slovak defense on their heels for much of the game and opened things up for others to cash in.
2nd star: Phil Kessel. Same deal here. There’s nothing like the Olympics to showcase world class talent. Kessel is one of the fastest skaters in hockey and his wrist shot is among the deadliest. Both altered the Slovak defense and opened up lanes elsewhere. Oh, and he still managed to score a goal off a beautiful James van Riemsdyk saucer pass.
3rd star: David Backes. When better teams push back against Team USA, I suspect it will be Backes who answers. His relentless physicality and strength around the net can’t be understated. Even Zdeno Chara was having fits with him today. He will need every ounce of it when he plays in less than 48 hours across centers like Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.
The takeaway: We expected a win. We did not expect 7-1. This was a clear statement by a group mostly intact from their 2010 run that they are here for gold alone. How they play in a road game against a fellow gold medal candidate will give us a much clearer indication of where this team stands for the tournament. Either way, it’s likely that the Americans won’t have to play their way into the quarterfinals thanks to today’s win.