'A good beginning' for Team USA
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It took less than 2½ hours for the U.S. men's hockey team to equal its win total through the entire tournament four years ago in Torino.
Erasing the stain of that miserable performance in Italy will take a little longer, but Tuesday's 3-1 opening win over Switzerland was exactly what this young American squad needed.
"This is, for us, a good beginning," Team USA coach Ron Wilson said.
Of all the medal-hopeful teams in this tournament, perhaps no team began play facing as many unknowns as the Americans.
No one knew how this squad, an average five years younger than the U.S. team that compiled a grisly 1-4-1 record in 2006, would respond to the glitz and glamour of playing in the Olympics here in hockey-mad Canada.
Would the Americans have enough scoring depth?
Would they be disciplined enough?
Would their special teams be effective?
Would they get enough goaltending?
Would they be fast and physical enough?
It is painfully early in the proceedings here, but Tuesday's win was a significant step toward answering all those questions in the affirmative.
It was Bobby Ryan, 22, who scored the game's first goal with just 1:01 left in the first period to give the Americans the lead. The second pick in the 2005 draft, Ryan hustled to keep the puck in the Swiss zone along the boards, then pounced on a loose puck in the slot and ripped a shot past Swiss netminder and Anaheim Ducks teammate Jonas Hiller.
The goal was, simply put, huge for the Americans.
"I got a sense before the game a lot of our young players were a little tight and nervous," Wilson said.
And although the team had played a hard, physical first period, the Ryan goal was tangible reward for that effort.
"I think it kind of just made everyone take a deep breath a little bit and relax and get more comfortable," forward Ryan Malone said.
If the Swiss had scored first, who knows how this game would have played out. But they didn't, and the U.S. built on that with a dominating performance in the second period, outshooting the Swiss 14-4 and scoring twice more, including a dynamite solo effort from David Backes. The St. Louis Blues forward picked up a loose puck after a Swiss chance in front of netminder Ryan Miller and raced the length of the ice, swooping around sometimes Montreal Canadiens defenseman Yannick Weber and tucking the puck past Hiller. Backes joked he was just trying to get his big butt around the defenseman and to the net.
Malone finished the scoring for the Americans with a power-play marker less than three minutes after the Backes goal.
The Americans did not get any production from their top line of Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Paul Stastny, and the thinking going into the tournament was that if that unit did not produce, it would be problematic. Yet on this night, it was the so-called fourth line of Dustin Brown, Ryan and Backes that provided two of three goals and earned high praise from Wilson.
"I think all the goals were the results of banging away, other than Dave's, but he's a big body and took the puck to the net. All those goals came as a result of us playing physical along the wall and Malone in front of the net," Ryan said. "I think we did our job, and if we're going to score for the team, well, that's just a reward for us."
This was not by any means a perfect performance. The Americans seemed to let down in the third period, and Switzerland took advantage to score a power-play goal, and only some timely saves by Miller kept the Swiss from closing the gap even further.
"We didn't have much left in the third period," Wilson acknowledged. "And we were hanging on a little bit."
The Swiss outshot the Americans 6-2 in the third period and proved again that they are not to be taken lightly in this tournament. This is a team that has played together for years, one that knocked off Canada in Olympic round-robin play in 2006.
"They were surprisingly physical," Backes said. "They were big, strong guys that skate very well. I think they surprised us with how intense they were and how hard they were playing."
Veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski was a member of the 2002 U.S. team that lost in the gold-medal game to Canada in Salt Lake City. He was also present for the debacle in Italy and understands how important it was for this young team to be rewarded for its hard work and to start the tournament by answering questions instead of raising more.
"It's good, it's huge," Rafalski said. "We'll take it and move forward three points and get geared up for Thursday, but I think it's good to get these young guys their first game under their belts."
The U.S. will play Norway on Thursday, then face Canada in a pivotal game Sunday. Wilson joked he still needs to check his lineup card to make sure he's sending the right guys over the boards, that's how fresh this team and its identity is.
"We've got so many damn Ryans," he said referring to the preponderance of players named Ryan on the roster. "It's a chemistry experiment, and it's going to take us some time. It's going to get harder, and we have to get better."
These things are true. Yet it's hard to imagine the Americans could have scripted the opening game to what some are calling the greatest hockey tournament of all time any better.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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