Early thoughts on the US Olympic hockey team

Team US Olympic hockey team rolled over Slovakia in its opening game in Sochi, using a six-goal outburst in the second period to skate away with a 7-1 win. It was a loud, emphatic statement from the Americans, who quickly quieted any concerns that they might not have enough scoring depth to make a run at the Gold Medal. This wasn’t Slovenia they had just pummeled, after all, but Slovakia, an NHL-heavy side with an elite goaltender. If the US were contenders entering Thursday’s game, they were near-favorites after it. In response to their dominating display against the Slovaks, here are some preliminary thoughts on the American squad.

–       This group is big up front. And those who aren’t big play big, pounding away at opponents in swarming fashion. Hello Ryan Callahan; Hello Dustin Brown. And just when you’ve had your fill of pests Callahan and Brown, here comes David Backes (6’3) or Ryan Kesler (6’2) or Max Pacioretty (6’3). The Americans are undoubtedly skilled, but it may be their ability to grind their opponents down – to impose their will, as the saying goes – that becomes their trademark as this tournament continues.

–       How deep is the US up front? The most constant offensive-zone pressure against Slovakia came from the fourth line, where Paul Stastny centered Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie. Stastny scored twice, while Pacioretty and Oshie combined for three assists. The trio was a force from the get-go, chasing down pucks down low and completely controlling possession in the offensive end. Pacioretty may end up being the scorer on this unit and Stastny/Oshie the playmakers, but either way this is a fourth line capable of first-line production.

–       While the forwards erased the notion that this team might not have enough scoring, the defensemen quieted concerns about their inexperience. The Americans are glaringly young on the blueline, especially among the top-six, where only two defenseman – Ryan Suter and Paul Martin – have Olympic experience. But greenhorns John Carlson, Cam Fowler, Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk all played with remarkable poise against Slovakia and appear ready for what lies ahead. If this group is short on maturity, they are long on nerve.

–       In goal, surprise starter Jonathan Quick was sharp in his Olympic debut. The feeling entering Sochi was that the net was Ryan Miller’s to lose, but Dan Bylsma announced on Wednesday that Quick would start against Slovakia and the former Conn Smythe winner rose to the occasion. He wasn’t called upon often, but quietly made 22 saves – including 13 in the second period – and let the offense take care of the rest. Quick will start again on Saturday against Russia, so it appears Bylsma has found his man between the pipes.

–       Does anyone else love watching Phil Kessel play? As a forward, this guy is the full package: great speed, soft hands, and a wicked shot. All three were on display against Slovakia as Kessel tallied a goal and two assists to lead all scorers. Ever since basically talking his way out of Boston and winding up in Toronto in 2009, the 26-year-old has fallen off the American radar, losing national face time to Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. In the meantime, Kessel has done just fine. He is fourth in the NHL this season with 65 points – first among Americans – and has quietly emerged as one of the premier forwards in the NHL. If the US accomplishes its goal in Sochi (and we all know what that is), Kessel will be one of the big reasons why.

–       That’s not to minimize Kane. If Kessel is the country’s best goal scorer, Kane is its most dazzling talent. Parise might have the looks, but Kane is likely the guy the US would sent to a hockey beauty pageant, what with his slick hands, offensive ingenuity, and great hair. He was a force to be reckoned with against Slovakia, recording two assists while playing alongside fellow 2010-holdovers Brown and Kesler. If there is one American who might benefit more than anyone else from playing on the Olympic ice, it is Kane, who needs but an inch to take a mile.

–       All of these positives, and not one mention of James van Reimsdyk or Joe Pavelski – never mind Blake Wheeler, Derek Stepan, Justin Faulk and Brooks Orpik. Do the Americans have the depth to make a run in Sochi? You bet.

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