Commentary

Keys to the game for Team USA

Updated: February 24, 2010, 3:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Heading into Wednesday's quarterfinal game between the United States and Switzerland, we take a look at what's at stake for the Americans:

[+] EnlargeRyan Miller
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesRyan Miller made 42 saves in the Americans' 5-3 preliminary-round win over Canada on Sunday.

Burnside: Five reasons Team USA will win

1. Talent imbalance: Let's be honest here. As much as we have stoked the fires of unparalleled parity at this Olympic hockey tournament, there remains a significant divide in pure skill between the U.S. and Switzerland.

The Swiss team features two NHLers in Mark Streit and netminder Jonas Hiller (defenseman Yannick Weber is an occasional call-up of the Montreal Canadiens). The American roster is made up entirely of NHLers. That's why finishing at the top of the preliminary round is so crucial. Look at the other quarterfinal matchups and this is, on paper, the game that represents the greatest gap in talent. Now all the Americans have to do is to work hard to put that talent to good use.

"We know what the Swiss do. We obviously know their goaltender," Team USA coach Ron Wilson said. "There won't be any surprises there. They're the team that has the least to lose in this. Getting this far suggests the tournament is already a success for the Swiss, so they're playing with house money. Now we can't afford mistakes, but we can't [play] tight either. We've got to play our game, simple as that."

2. The Burkie factor: GM Brian Burke rattled his players' cages by announcing publicly he didn't like his team's intensity and only about half his players pulled their weight against Canada. To make sure he had their attention, Burke then had Wilson relay that message at practice Tuesday and spoke individually to some of the players.

"Well, I think I was a little more delicate than Brian," Wilson joked.

But Wilson did reinforce he will go with the guys that are playing well.

"I told them today, 'I will shorten the bench in a hurry if I have to. It's your obligation, you're here to be mentally ready to play,' that everybody is capable of blocking a shot or winning a battle on the boards or anything like that," Wilson said. "If you want to be a part of it, we need all hands on board."

The message appears to have sunk in.

"Yeah, I talked to Burkie today," captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "He's just like all of us. We have to make sure we're not resting on the fact that we beat Canada. We have to make sure our focus is in the right direction, that we're looking ahead, understanding the importance of tomorrow's game and play accordingly."

3. Slumbering stars awaken: Patrick Kane, Paul Stastny and Zach Parise have combined for exactly one goal in the first three games of the tournament. Stastny, especially, has not looked particularly comfortable and has yet to record a single point. Meanwhile, Phil Kessel saw his ice time shrink against Canada. But we're guessing it's only a matter of time before the team's most explosive forwards break through.

"I know I have another level I can get to and I'm going to get there in the next three games," Kane said Tuesday.

Langenbrunner, who will again likely play with Parise and Stastny, said he wasn't worried about Parise, his New Jersey Devils teammate.

"He's done a lot of good things out there," Langenbrunner said. "He's picking up assists. He's putting himself in position to score goals. I'm not worried about Zach scoring goals. He'll score goals."

Stastny, too, believed the goals would come.

"I feel better every game and more comfortable out there as a team and who I'm playing with," he said.

Wilson, for one, refused to get into a discussion about which of his players needs to contribute more offensively.

"No, I don't need scoring from them, I just need goals from wherever they come," Wilson said. "And we're not putting pressure on the other guys. Just play the best; whoever scores, that's great. We're a team. It's not the first line that has to score or anything like that, we just need goals and we need everybody to play hard defensively, too."

4. Discipline: The only way the Swiss have a chance is if the Americans go off the rails and start taking needless penalties, giving the surprisingly potent Swiss power play a chance to steal the game. The Americans, however, have been exceptionally self-controlled, allowing just seven power-play opportunities through the first three games, the lowest in the tournament. They have allowed two power-play goals, but Wilson said he thought the penalty-killing unit was in good shape.

5. In the moment: They call this a trap game, the kind of game a team could overlook if it is thinking ahead to a possible semifinal matchup later in the week. And there is a danger, of course, of thinking the win over Canada suggests an easy time ahead. But this young American team does seem to have its collective eyes on the prize.

"That's the mindset we've got to go with; we're back to square one and we've got to start winning games again," Langenbrunner said.

Wilson also seemed satisfied his team was in the right head space.

"I think they've moved on," Wilson said. "We didn't come here to get a participation medal. We talked all along about our goal is to win a gold medal. They understand what we're talking about here. We didn't come here just to beat Canada. We came here to try and win a gold medal."

[+] EnlargePaul Stastny
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesTeam USA forward Paul Stastny has yet to register a point in the Olympics.

LeBrun: Five reasons Switzerland will win

1. Overconfidence: Picture Team USA before the Olympic tournament and its reaction if you told its players it could avoid Canada, Russia and Sweden -- the top three hockey countries in the world -- in its medal bracket. The Americans would be dancing in the streets. Well, guess what? That's exactly what position the U.S., amazingly enough, finds itself in. About as easy a path to the gold-medal game as you could ever imagine in international hockey, starting with the easier quarterfinal matchup Wednesday with Switzerland.

The American players weren't hiding their glee at facing the lowest seed left in the quarterfinals.

"I think right now we've put ourselves in a good position," said winger Patrick Kane. "Obviously, we have three games we have to win, but at the same time, we're facing the lowest seed going in and that's nice."

Just don't be too happy, boys; remember, Switzerland has had big upsets in past Olympics.

"It's important, it's huge," Kane agreed when asked to be weary of the upset potential. "Especially, you saw the Swiss do really good things against Canada in the round robin. The chance for an upset is still there, so we know that we have to take every game serious, for sure."

2. Hung up on Canada: What if beating Canada meant more than winning a gold medal? America's inferiority complex to Canada in hockey is at the root of its incredible desire to beat the host country here.

Problem is, that's not the actual goal of this tournament. And sometimes, when you talk to people in and around the U.S. team, you get the distinct impression it confuses winning gold with beating Canada. Know this: The American players better have that Canadian win out of their system because, frankly, it means nothing moving forward. They need to find another level in this tournament, not bask in the glory of Sunday's win. If the latter happens, their tournament will end Wednesday.

"It's one of those things where the Canada game was a pretty big game and an exciting game to be part of with the outcome," said U.S. forward Dustin Brown. "It's important for us to kind of forget about it. We beat Canada, but if we lose to Switzerland, our tournament is over. It's a matter of mentally preparing yourself. Ultimately, this game is much bigger than the Canada game when you look at the outcome and the circumstances. It's do or die. It's a much bigger game."

3. Hostile crowds: Moving forward, Team USA will indeed feel like the road team in a Stanley Cup final. The locals haven't taken too kindly to Sunday's upset, and you figure they'll take it out on the Americans by cheering against them with all their might. (Actually, the locals might like to see all the American athletes go home with all their darn medals.) So you can bet from here on out, booing Uncle Sam will be priority No. 1. Suddenly, the sale of Swiss jerseys just went up in Vancouver.

"I don't know if it'll be any more hostile than it was the other night," said Kane. "It was a pretty cool environment to play in. At the same, after the game, the city was pretty quiet. It's almost like we shut down the city that night. Hopefully we can keep that going."

4. Struggling stars: Stastny, Team USA's No. 1 center, has zero points in three games. Kane has only one goal. Kessel hasn't scored against anyone not from Norway and was benched for large parts of the Canadian game. At some point, goalie Ryan Miller can't do it all. These offensive stars have to wake up if Team USA is going to have any chance.

"We need to give Ryan some more help," said Kane. "I think we'll be better going forward. … I know for myself I think I can take it another level. I definitely want to be better."

5. Jonas Hiller: This is one of the premier goalies in the NHL and he can single-handedly deliver the upset win Wednesday. He nearly did against Canada.

"I've seen plenty of him," said Brown, whose Los Angeles Kings are rivals to Hiller's Anaheim Ducks. "The key against Hiller is obviously traffic. You have to make it hard for him to see the puck."

It's all about Hiller on Wednesday.

"He's a really good goalie," said Swiss captain Mark Streit of the New York Islanders. "He's big, he can move, and he knows the [U.S.] guys well. We need him to play an unbelievable game in order to make, maybe, a miracle. But it's going to be a tough challenge."

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.

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