SOCHI, Russia – It may not be blessed with a superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but the United States men’s hockey team showed Thursday what four solid lines with a healthy mix of talent, tenacity and chemistry can do.
A dominant 7-1 win over Slovakia was how the U.S. opened its 2014 Olympic tournament. Paul Stastny scored twice while skating between wingers Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie on a line that was technically the Americans’ fourth, but sure didn’t play that way.
Not that the trio’s effectiveness surprised head coach Dan Bylsma.
“We talked about it going into the game,” said Bylsma, “that the line of Stastny, Pacioretty, and Oshie could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that for us.
“Not only did they find themselves on the score sheet, I think every time over the boards they made something positive happen with their shifts, with their offensive zone time. That’s the kind of depth throughout your lineup that you need to have, that we do have.”
Phil Kessel had a big game as well, finishing with a goal and two assists while showing off his already-proven chemistry with Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk, who assisted on Kessel’s second-period tally.
“He is on fire,” van Riemsdyk said of Kessel. “It is fun to play with him and the game is coming really easy to him right now. He is working hard and creating a lot.”
The pair of Maple Leafs, centered by Joe Pavelski, also combined to set up John Carlson for the game’s first goal.
On top of all that, Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler – usually on opposite sides of a fierce (or at least once-fierce) rivalry in the NHL – seemed to click, with the former setting up the latter for the one-timer game-winner early in the second period.
“He’s always looking for you,” Kesler said of playing with Kane. “He’s always dangerous when he gets the puck. For whatever reason, we seem to be reading off each other well, and I like playing with him a lot.”
And remember that finding chemistry in rapid fashion is especially important in a short tournament like the Olympics, where there’s so little time to gel before the win-or-go-home games begin.
“You need to figure out each other’s lines quick, get chemistry,” said Kesler. “If you do that, you’re going to be successful.”
Next up for the Americans? A date Saturday with the host Russians in the showcase contest of the preliminary round.
Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Alex Semin. Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russians may not have the kind of forward depth the Americans showed off today, but Bylsma – who coaches Malkin in Pittsburgh – doesn’t know if any team can match the hosts’ top-end skill.
“Their team is very talented,” said Bylsma, “maybe the most talented in the tournament, with some of the star players they have. Evgeni Malkin, I’ve seen him do things that I don’t know what he’s going to do next, and how he does it offensively and with the puck.
“So to have a game plan, or to tell someone what to expect, you might have to expect the unexpected against a player of that ilk, how talented he is. … It’s not just going to be one or two players on their team that we have to be concerned with. We may have a little more information on how to get to Evgeni Malkin, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the full story.”