Thursday, February 13, 2014

And They're Off...

Obviously one game does not make an entire tournament, even one as short as the Olympics. But if you are an American hockey fan you had to like what you saw from the United States this morning against Slovakia as they cruised to a 7-1 victory. The discussion up until this point had been all about the goaltending of Team USA and who was going to assume the starting role. By the end of it, the story was the solid play of the skaters and the kind of speed the team could bring on the large ice surface. 

When it comes to a team being on the larger ice surface there is a huge adjustment for guys who have, almost exclusively their entire lives, have played on a rink that is 200' x 85'. Adding an extra 15 feet of width may not sound like much but you may have noticed that the wingers on these teams had more room than you normally would see in a NHL game or even from the last Olympics when the games were held on a NHL dimension rink in Vancouver. The extra time and space for forwards is a trap for defensemen. As is taught to those patrolling the blue line in any hockey game, the faceoff dots are your guide as to where you should be. Straying outside of those dots and you leave your defensive zone vulnerable to plays to the middle of the ice and good scoring chances for the opposition. Team USA's first three goals were direct results of play outside the dots and it ended up being the downfall of the Slovaks. Defensemen have to be aware of where they are on the ice and you have to trust your goalie is going to make stops on shots from outside the dots. 

For the US, they certainly had their moments in the defensive zone where things broke down a bit and the Slovaks were able to get some chances. What was encouraging was just how mobile the defensive corps of Team USA is. In the last Olympics Team USA had names such as Mike Komisarek, Tim Gleason, Rob Scuderi, and Ryan Whitney selected to the roster (albeit Komisarek never got in because of injury). While all of them are solid defensemen in the NHL they are not quite as mobile as some of the other American defenders who have joined the ranks this year. Guys like Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Cam Fowler have all made the team partly because of their mobility on the ice. Without that mobility, your blue line is going to have a tough time on the large surfaces, especially on the big ice. 

Now American fans shouldn't be thinking the gold medal is coming back to the USA right now. Slovakia did not play a very good game and got real sloppy at times. They lacked a strong offensive and defensive effort for the most part. Could Team USA do this to a team like Canada, Russia, or Sweden who are deeper defensively and have some high offensive power? Possibly but its not likely. What certainly won't be a question is if Team USA can skate with other teams and that is half the battle. We will see how the line combos change throughout the tournament and how Team USA will handle a strong team like Russia (who got a bit of a scare from Slovenia) on Saturday. But I don't think Team USA could have asked for a better start to their tournament and certainly have plenty of positives to build on.

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