By Andrew Imber
When all was said and done, and the final buzzer went off to signify the end of the United States’ 7-1 victory over Slovakia, the Stars and Stripes had achieved more than a big win. They had also sent a major message to the rest of the field.
Ready or not, here they come. The United States Men’s Hockey Team is for real.
With one game in the books for each team, the United States sits atop the standings based on goal differential. It is also important to note that they did not play the bottom ranking team in their group. They played Slovakia, and though they are older, they were a legitimate contender in 2010. Time will tell just how far Slovakia has fallen in the past four years, or how much the United States simply made them look it.
You can’t overreact to one game, but everything the United States was built to do worked in the opener. They were fast, physical, and dominated virtually the entire game. Their mobile blue line was excellent in transitioning the play out of the defensive zone, assuaging concerns of their overall inexperience. They scored in bunches, and took advantage of the existing chemistry of Toronto teammates Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, as well as new chemistry with combinations such as Paul Stastny, TJ Oshie, and Max Pacioretty. And though he wasn’t tested often, Jonathan Quick did what needed to be done to keep the game in hand.
As I alluded to in my preview of the contest, this win sets up the United States for good things. Of course, they want to beat the Russians, and doing so would almost certainly lock up the group and a bye to the Quarter Finals, shortening a tournament where anything can happen. However, if they do happen to lose to the host nation on Saturday, they will still be firmly in the running for a bye, and a strong seeding for the elimination round. There will be no ‘must-win’ games until the games are literally must-wins, with a trip home as the only alternative.
The United States against Russia may be the most anticipated game of the round robin, and there’s a good chance that the winner may grab the number one seed heading into elimination. The biggest thing about the number one seed is that you are set on the opposite side of the table from both the second and third seeds. Less complicated, that means the number one seed does not have to worry about the second or third seed until the Gold Medal Game, should they get there. If the second and third seeds end up being Sweden and Canada, that would be quite the luxury for the United States.
For now, it is a great start. However, it is only the beginning of the journey. All aboard for the ride.