(Photo: Nathan Denette, AP)
By Andrew Imber
The first game of the 2014 Winter Olympics for the United States Hockey Team is going to be monstrously huge. Some could argue that it is actually their most important game of the round robin section. It isn’t just about getting off to a good start, but mainly about who their opponent is and how the group works.
It is hard to believe, but the United States is actually the third highest ranked team in their group of four (based on when seedings constructed the groups). That means, by the book, the United States is actually supposed to lose to Slovakia, their first opponent of the round robin. Now, it would be very surprising to see the US come in as anything but favorites in this game, but that doesn’t mean they should be expected to win. Slovakia is one of those under the radar type teams that could surprise a lot of opponents, and they will certainly be looking to make a statement against the Americans.
Slovakia’s notable NHL’ers – Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik*, Jaroslav Halak, Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky, Lubomir Visnovsky*. *Injured
The Good: In my opinion, in a tournament like this, you ideally want your first opponent to be a mixture of NHL and KHL players. It will, naturally, take time for these players to gel, and they should find chemistry difficult during the first game. Taking that into consideration, the US is lucky to draw Slovakia first, as opposed to huge underdog Slovenia (who will be almost exclusively used to the large ice surface). Slovakia has 11 European players (mostly KHL) and 14 from the NHL/AHL, meaning they have a big split of styles to deal with. Nobody could blame them if they struggle to adjust in their first game, and the United States, though completely unfamiliar with the big ice (except in brief prior tournaments), will at least all play the same style game. Slovakia’s goalies are solid, but projected starter Jaroslav Halak has been up and down and has had trouble holding off Brian Elliott at times in St. Louis this year. Injuries to Gaborik and Visnovsky take away from some of the higher end NHL talent.
The Bad: In all honesty, I would have rather drawn the Russians first. Get your toughest game done with first, another team dealing with a big mix of KHL and NHL talent, and major pressure of being at home right away. This is also a very dangerous game, as it is the second toughest team in the group. If the United States drops this one, they put themselves in very precarious waters. The game against the Russians becomes a near must win, or a date with a heavily favored team could result in the Quarters (not to mention a tough play in game). Slovakia is a tough team with super stars like Chara and Hossa, and they won’t be a push over. They put a huge scare into Canada during the Semis in 2010.
The Bottom Line: It is kind of nerve-wracking to say this, but I feel like this is a huge litmus test for the United States right off the bat. Win this opener, and your tournament becomes a totally different ball game. Lose this and you’re playing from a large hole, and medal chances go way down. The US can win and should be favored, but it will be interesting to see how Slovakia gels, and if their European league players give them any sort of edge. The United States can’t afford to come into this tournament with anything less than 100% intensity from the get go because a loss in the opener sets the stage for a potential early exit. You don’t want your first toss up elimination game (on paper) to be until the Semis. Only winning your group will ensure that, and it is tough to envision the United States winning the group if they head into the showdown with Russia at 0-1.