Every coach who has ever coached an international tournament as at one point or another told his team that it is all about getting better in every game you play. The US can not say they’ve gotten better each time out, but they can say they had their best game to date when it mattered most. The Americans beat Slovakia 5-1 in the qualifying round to advance to Wednesday’s quarterfinal against the Czech Republic (The game will air Tuesday night at 10:10 pm ET.
The Americans played their most complete game from start to finish, making only a few errors and playing through maybe one or two lulls in play, which mostly came in the first period. Team USA was able to keep pressure on, got major contributions from their top line and Ryan Zapolski made some key saves early in the game. Special teams were better, too. A lot went right.
The thing that went most right was that Team USA has Troy Terry and Ryan Donato and other teams do not. Donato scored two of the goals, while Terry had three assists. Their center, Mark Arcobello, also scored a goal off of a slick feed from Terry. Team USA’s top line has become very difficult to contain and they were buzzing in a big way in this one, having contributed to four of the five goals scored.
Another thing that I think is really important to bring up is that it is really, really difficult to beat the same team twice in the same tournament. You can not play the same game twice and expect to win, basically. USA did not. Craig Ramsay is a great coach and you had to figure he was going to make some adjustments. Slovakia actually carried play for a good portion of the first period, but they started making mistakes in the second and the US capitalized. Then they dominated the rest of the way.
This is a huge confidence booster, but the US still has just two wins in the tournament and both are against Slovakia. The Czech Republic, which finished with the second best record overall in the preliminary round is going to offer a bigger challenge in the quarterfinal. So as good as Team USA was against Slovakia, they’re going to have to be even better against the Czechs.
So, some stray thoughts…
Donato and Terry were ridiculous. Seems like we say it every time. The college guys have been so good in the tournament and these two were at their best. I thought Donato’s play – while mostly good – has been a little uneven in the Olympics. The effort is always top notch and he can make plays others do not, but we’ve seen some youthful mistakes with some turnovers and trying to force things. Today, he made smart play after smart play and even when he was not scoring, he was involved in the play. He’s become a player teams have to be aware of at all times. Meanwhile, Terry’s ability to make plays and use his speed have made him next to impossible to contain. A good example of how well they’ve been playing came on USA’s first goal.
You can not see all of it develop in this clip, but Matt Gilroy won a puck battle to start the transition, the puck bounced to Terry who made a tremendous pass to spring Terry, whose speed got him past the D. The goalie makes a nice save on Terry, but Donato gets himself to a good spot on the ice, while Terry and Gilroy managed to get just enough of the puck to get it to an open Donato whose finish was perfection.
Also, the pass Terry made to Mark Arcobello for USA’s third goal was high-skill. His vision is off the charts. I can not say enough about their games at this event. His four assists in the tournament lead Team USA.
Garrett Roe’s goal was huge for a few reasons. First, his line with Brian O’Neill and Broc Little has been buzzing throughout the tournament with little success on the score board. They deserved to be rewarded. O’Neill made it happen with his work along the boards and speed to the outside. He found Little with a drop pass and Little had the patience to get around a defender and send the puck to a wide-open Roe.
For one, it was a nice play from a line other than the Donato-Arcobello-Terry line. They need that line to help out a bit. Fact is, they’ve been a factor in games but Roe had not really been, at least not offensively. His wings, Little and O’Neill had been doing most of the damage with their speed. They also did all the work to provide the golden opportunity for Roe, which he finished well. Maybe that goal is the spark they needed.
Bobby Sanguinetti had his best game of the Olympics. I have been a critical touch of the Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson pairing, but they were strong today. I thought Sanguinetti defended well and helped get the puck up ice a lot. He had more minutes than anyone with 20:37 of ice time. It was a great bounce back from a rough game against the Russians. He managed to be a factor in all zones.
Ryan Zapolski made some big stops. When The US had to battle a bit, Zapolski was able to bail them out. He still looked a little shaky doing it, but the only goal that beat him was a laser through a screen on a power play. Everything else he managed to keep in front of him. The Jokerit netminder made 22 saves, some of which came after he got run into. It looked like he might have to come out and give way to Brandon Maxwell. After the game, Zapolski explained why he almost had to leave.
Yeah, that does not sound good.
Before that happened, I thought Zapolski was fighting the puck a bit, as he has been for much of the tournament. That said, the players in front of him were protecting the net well to not allow second chances. He also was making the first stop, which has not happened every game. Perhaps that will be a confidence booster for the goalie after the rough outing against OAR.
James Wisniewski came through on the power play. He is on the team for one reason and one reason only – to play on the power play. Wisniewski has not yet topped seven minutes of ice time in any game the US has played, but he delivered in a big way against Slovakia. Wisniewski scored a power-play goal on an absolute bomb from the left faceoff circle. He also sprung Donato down the wing for the goal that made it 5-1. Wisniewski’s legs are pretty much toast, which is why he’s a power play only player right now, but he still has the puck skills and the mind geared for offense. I think there is plenty reason to be skeptical of giving roster spots to players who aren’t going to play a versatile role for you, but if Wisniewski can keep coming through like he did against Slovakia, then he proves USA’s brass right.
Bad penalties will be costlier against a better team. One area of the game where the US was not particularly strong was discipline. They only took three penalties, but two of them were fairly unnecessary. Both Brian Gionta and Jordan Greenway got slashing penalties. Greenway’s was the most poorly timed as it allowed the Slovaks some life with a late second-period power play that they scored on. What I liked, however, was that Greenway was put right back out there and had a great shift to close out the second alongside Gionta and Chris Bourque. That line has had its ups and downs throughout the tournament, but the good outweighed the bad in that particular game. Still, the US can not be taking careless penalties the rest of the way. The Czechs are better than the Slovakians at this tournament and if the US wins that game, they’d likely play OAR again in the semifinal.
A win away from playing for a medal. Despite a 1-0-1-1 preliminary round, the US is one win away from guaranteeing themselves a chance to play for a medal. This tournament has been wildly unpredictable. Only Sweden has a perfect record with three regulation wins and the Czechs have two regulation wins and one overtime win. Everyone else has lost at least one game. I do not think any of use really knew what to expect with this tournament, but anything seems possible at this point. Having watched at least one game for most of the teams here, the US certainly is not the best among them, but they have enough to compete. There’s no guarantee the US will beat the Czechs, but I think it’s a good draw for them. If this team can play for a medal, even if it’s bronze, I think that’s a huge accomplishment. This is not an easy tournament for anyone.
Quick look ahead. The Czech Republic’s biggest win of the tournament was a shootout victory over Canada. The Czechs seem to like to play things slow. They managed to shut down the Canadians over the last two periods and won the shootout after Canada’s Maxime Noreau beat the goalie but not the post. In the Czechs’ first game, they narrowly beat host Korea, 2-1. All three goals in that game were scored in the first period. The Czech Republic closed out tournament play with a 4-1 win over a Swiss team that just lost to Germany in the qualifying round. The Czechs can shut teams down and play a really boring game. The US is going to have to jump on them early and try to dictate the pace of the game. It’s going to be a real tough one, especially with the Czechs getting some extra rest and USA playing games on back-to-back days.
The game is at 10:10 pm ET Tuesday night on CNBC.