SOCHI, Russia — In case you missed it, the International Olympic Committee has backed off its threat to dump women’s hockey. They’ve watched some of the early games and decided there’s more competitive balance in the women’s game than they realized.
But after what took place Thursday afternoon at Shayba Arena, the IOC may decide it’s the American men who need to be put on notice for being too good.
The U.S. men opened their Olympic tournament in dazzling fashion, scoring six goals in a span of 13:51 in the second period and coasting to a 7-1 victory over a shell-shocked Slovakian squad.
There were lingering questions about the selection of the U.S. roster, which became even more contentious when two hockey writers were allowed to observe the process. Critics wondered if some natural scorers had been left off in favor of pure speed players.
But if the opener was any indication, USA hockey has assembled a deep, versatile and enormously skilled team, one that used four effective lines to confound and embarrass a proud Slovakian national team.
“It’s a lot of up-and-down players, a lot of guys who can contribute on a scorer’s sheet,” said South Buffalo native Patrick Kane, who had two assists, including on the go-ahead goal by Ryan Kesler.
“There’s a lot of guys who are physical and fast,” Kane said. “There are a lot of special talents on the team. But I think they did a good job of not really maybe picking the most skilled players, but the best players to complement each other.”
The Americans had an 11-4 edge in shots in the first period, putting a lot of pressure on Slovak goalie Jaroslav Halak. But they only cashed in once, on a 30-foot slapper by defenseman John Carlson.
When Slovakia’s Tomas Tatar beat Jonathan Quick just 24 seconds into the second period, you wondered if the U.S. might be in for a real challenge. But Kesler wired home a perfect feed from Kane just 1:02 later. And 1:06 after that, Paul Stastny scored to make it 3-1.
The Americans were just getting started. David Backes took advantage of some shoddy defense, knocking home a loose puck to make it 4-1. Stastny scored five minutes later, chasing Halak from the net. Peter Budaj was no answer, giving up a goal to Phil Kessel 50 second later and one to Dustin Brown 57 seconds after that.
Wow. This wasn’t some weekend bar league team, or the lowest seed in the women’s tournament. This was proud Slovakia, a former world champion, a team that lost, 3-2, to Canada in the semifinals in Vancouver and lost to Finland in the bronze-medal game. The Americans had lost to Slovakia in their two previous Olympic meetings.
Zdeno Chara plays defense for Slovakia. Halak has a 24-8-4 record and a 2.26 goals-against for the Blues this season. The Slovakians have 12 NHL players on their roster (including ex-Sabre Andrej Sekera). It didn’t matter. For 14 minutes, they were the Slo-mo-vakians.
“I thought it was going to be a close, low-scoring game,” said Kesler, of the Canucks. “Our first period was decent. Then, for whatever reason, we poured it on and really played our game in the second period. I think the idea for us forwards is skate with speed.”
Speed was a prime consideration when USA Hockey picked the team, largely because of the wider international ice surface. The U.S. players quickly dispelled any questions about their aptitude for the big sheet.
“You have to do a lot of skating out there on the big ice, but I think we handled it all right,” said Toronto star Kessel, who had a goal and two assists for the U.S.
It’s just one game, of course, but the U.S. served notice that it has serious designs on the gold medal that eluded it in overtime of the final four years ago against the Canadians.
Canada and Russia, the presumed favorites here, were not that impressive in their openers Thursday. Canada struggled to beat Norway, 3-1. Russia beat Slovenia, 5-2, but observers say the Russians are a two-line team and eminently beatable.
We’ll find out more when the U.S. and Russia collide Saturday in a highly anticipated preliminary at Bolshoi Arena, the larger of the two hockey venues. There were a shade over 4,000 fans at USA-Slovakia. Bolshoi, which seats about 12,000, will no doubt be jammed on Saturday.
Dan Bylsma, the U.S. head coach, would not reveal his starting goalie for Saturday after Thursday’s win. There’s a strong suspicion among the media that Miller, the MVP of the 2010 tournament, will get the nod. The drama of the moment seems to demand it.
“When we saw the bracket, we felt we had possibly the toughest preliminary round with Slovakia and then Russia on their home soil,” Bylsma said. “We were excited, knowing what an opportunity it would be to play them in their home building in their home country in Game Two.
“And that’s what we have in front of us now.”