Smolinski gets U.S. started early

Updated: September 4, 2004, 12:40 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Upset by the lackluster play of some veterans, Team USA coach Ron Wilson benched Brett Hull and three other regulars.

Wilson described the move as "the most difficult decision I've made as a coach."

But, it worked.

With younger, fresher legs, the U.S. team finally showed some energy in the World Cup of Hockey, beating Slovakia 3-1 Friday for its first win in the tournament.

"Now, we have an opportunity to still play here on Tuesday, which is a great boost for us," Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano said.

Bill Guerin, Jason Blake and Bryan Smolinski scored for the Americans, who moved into third place in the North American Division. Slovakia dropped to fourth at 0-2.

"We need to look at each other and start over again," Minnesota Wild forward Marian Gaborik said.

After being outworked against Canada and Russia, the Americans responded with their best offensive output of the tournament, outshooting Slovakia 39-17. The U.S. team had 24 shots against Canada and 21 against Russia.

Wilson started goaltender Rick DiPietro to save Robert Esche from playing three games in four nights. Esche stopped 72 shots against Canada and Russia. DiPietro didn't face nearly the same intensity against Slovakia, finishing with 16 saves.

But the Americans were more physical against Slovakia and played smothering defense in the second and third periods.

"We did a much better job up ice, establishing our forecheck," Wilson said.

After Thursday night's 3-1 loss to the Russians, a frustrated Wilson said he would shuffle his lineup because the team lacked energy. He scratched Hull, Craig Conroy, Brian Rolston and Eric Weinrich.

Wilson said Hull took the decision "like a professional." The players got the message and played with a spark in the first period.

"We just try to get better as the tournament goes on, and we feel like maybe we turned the corner in knowing what we need to do," Modano said.

Asked if he would keep the same lineup for next week's games, Wilson said, "If I can procrastinate on that one, I will."

On the Americans' third shot of the game, Smolinski -- who was scratched from the previous two games -- poked a rebound past Jan Lasak for a 1-0 lead at 3:09.

Slovakia tied it at 8:46 when Pavol Demitra found Ladislav Nagy on the left side of net, and Nagy beat DiPietro on his glove side.

The Americans regained the lead when Blake scored his first goal of the tournament at 13:27 of the first.

After weaving his way through two defenders, Blake passed to Scott Gomez and was tripped from behind. A sliding Blake then intercepted Chris Chelios' pass from the right circle and the puck deflected in off Blake's chest.

"It's a great pity that they got that second goal because, up to that moment, we were an equal team with the Americans," Filc said.

Guerin sealed the win at 16:17 of the third on a breakaway when he backhanded a shot past Lasak. Slovakia had only two shots in the final period.

"We expected the American team would create bigger pressure," Filc said. "But we didn't expect things in the defensive zone to take so long.

"The last period, from my point of view, was a disaster."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press