U.S. sizzling heading to next round
SOCHI, Russia -- For the second Olympics in a row, the U.S. men's team has run the table in the preliminary round, handling the first-time Olympians from Slovenia by a 5-1 count on Sunday for a third straight win in Russia.
The win, a workmanlike effort that not surprisingly lacked the emotional juice of Saturday's thrilling shootout win over hosts Russia, means the Americans earn a bye to the quarterfinals. But unlike four years ago, when the U.S. won all three preliminary-round games in regulation, the fact the Americans went to a shootout against Russia means they will be the second seed.
Here's a look at where the U.S. is after its play in the preliminary round:
Phil the thrill
We sometimes talk as though the Vancouver Olympics were last week, and so it is more than a little unfair to talk about Phil Kessel and his play in Vancouver, which was, to be fair, a little tepid.
People, it was four years ago.
And there's no doubt Kessel is in a different place in his career. His play last season and this season, especially in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, are a perfect illustration of his maturation into an elite NHL scorer. One of the NHL's hottest players at the time of the Olympic break hasn't missed a beat here in Sochi. After a three-point game to start the tournament against Slovakia, he added an assist against the Russians and then scored two goals before Sunday's game was five minutes old. He added a third at a crucial time, with the Americans going through the motions in the middle part of the game.
The goals were pure Kessel, the product of speed and terrific hands. On the second, he batted a fluttering pass from Joe Pavelski out of midair and into the net. The U.S. team is often described as not having the kind of individual stars of a Canada or a Russia, but Kessel's play suggests that might not be entirely accurate.
Defenseman Ryan Suter grew up in the same hometown as Kessel, and Kessel played for Suter's father.
"He's always been a good player. He's always been a goal scorer, he's always been quick, explosive. He's doing all the things that he should do. He has all the tools; he's putting them together," Suter said. "I think he's more comfortable with himself. I think in 2010, he was kind of a little hesitant to talk or to try things. Now, he's comfortable with where he is and he's making a lot of good plays."
Spread that scoring around
Still, if this team is going to find its way to a gold-medal game, it seems inevitable that it will get there because it can inflict damage from anywhere in its lineup. After Sunday's game, the Americans have gotten goals from 10 players.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said what has impressed him has been his team's response to adversity. When Slovakia tied their first game early in the second period, the U.S. exploded with six second-period goals. Against the Russians, players were blocking shots from some of the most dangerous players in the world and also bounced back from a one-goal deficit, and then a late power-play goal.
If there is a fly in the gold ointment for Team USA, we'd have to say it's the team's discipline. The Americans dodged several bullets Saturday when they took six minor penalties but allowed only one Russian power play (although that one did result in the tying goal in the third) and on Sunday they took three more minors.
Now, if you're an Olympic optimist, you'll say the penalty kill has been superb -- and it has been. But as the games go on, they're bound to get tighter and, against a team like Switzerland, for example, a power-play goal could mean the difference between winning and going on or simply going home.
Bylsma said he was looking for lots of power-play and penalty-kill time during the preliminary round because special-teams play will be so critical come elimination time. Now, though, he quipped that he would prefer not to have the penalty-kill unit get too much work.
Miller stays solid second
Great to see Ryan Miller get the start against the Slovenians on Sunday. You know not starting the first two games after what he accomplished four years ago in leading the U.S. to within a goal of a gold medal was eating him up. But he's been a true pro and he was sharp on a day when the Americans were pretty lackluster through the middle part of the game.
Although Bylsma hasn't been tipping his hand regarding his long-term goaltending plan -- he politely declined to answer a question about the team's quarterfinal starter -- you can bank on Jonathan Quick being the starter on Wednesday. Quick was outstanding against Russia on Saturday and was given Sunday off as Jimmy Howard dressed as Miller's backup.
That said, Miller's sharpness in turning aside 17 of 18 Slovenia shots Sunday (his shutout was broken with 18 seconds left) will reinforce to the coaching staff that if they need to make a goaltending change, there won't be any drop-off in level of play.
"I didn't think I'd actually play if we won [against Russia]," Miller said. "It was nice that he showed faith in me to be able to be ready to go. I prepared myself for any situation over here. It was fun to get into the game and compete with the boys. You can see why it's a good team. They work hard and compete for each other. It was fun to be a part of it."
Take the day, boys
The Americans will get rewarded for their strong play thus far with a full day off on Monday. With three games in four nights, that's not a surprise. It will give the team a chance to see more of the Olympics or just put their feet up.
Monday is an off day in terms of competition, as the tournament resets for the start of elimination play.
"They came hard and I don't think we were nearly as good as we need to be to be where we want to be, but we got through the game and now we put ourselves in position to get a good couple of days to rest to prepare," said L.A. Kings captain Dustin Brown after Sunday's win.
Games resume on Tuesday, with teams ranked fifth through 12th squaring off in a one-game qualification. Those four winners will go on to play the three group winners and the team with the next highest point total, which earned a bye to the quarterfinals.
The quarterfinals will take place on Wednesday.
"I don't think we're going to be satisfied with where we're at," defenseman Paul Martin said. "We've still got a long ways to go."