BEIJING – Matty Beniers went to the Olympics and a Mite hockey game broke out.
With nobody keeping score and coaches serving as referees, he may have felt like he was back to starting out in Hingham (Mass.) Youth Hockey. The only difference was there were no cross-ice dividers or blue pucks. And the speed was light years ahead of anything he’d ever experienced.
Beniers and his U.S. teammates got their first taste of Olympic action in a controlled scrimmage with Canada on Monday afternoon at the National Indoor Stadium. The pace was quick and the play was physical as both teams were happy to do something a little different than a few flow drills and small area games.
“It was a lot of fun to be playing an actual game and get to develop some chemistry with your linemates,” said Beniers, who started skating on a line with his University of Michigan teammate Brendan Brisson and Noah Cates.
The two-hour scrimmage consisted of two halves and a 3-on-3 overtime session similar to the format during the preliminary round. And with no fans in the stands or television cameras broadcasting the action, it provided the U.S. coaching staff an opportunity to assess where the team is at prior to their first game against China on Feb. 10.
“There were things that we liked, things that we anticipated we were going to be able to do when we chose the team,” said head coach David Quinn. “I really liked our speed, and I thought we did a lot of good things from that end of it. When we stayed on top of them, I thought we were successful. When we backed off, we got ourselves in a little bit of trouble. But overall it was a pretty good effort.”
Quinn also liked the fact that while there was some physical play, everyone knew when to dial down the intensity.
“There was no BS during the course of it,” Quinn said. “There’s mutual respect. Obviously we’re fierce rivals, but there’s a lot of mutual respect. I commend both teams that there was no chippiness and it was just hard hockey.”
And while no score was kept, there was plenty of back and forth action.
For the record, Ben Meyers and Nathan Smith scored in the 3-on-3 extra session where the U.S. speed forced Canada into a number of turnovers that led to five breakaways against goaltender Matt Tompkins.
“We have a lot of speed and a lot of skill and I think teams are going to have a lot of trouble with us,” said Beniers, one of 15 collegians on the team.
Drew Commesso got the start in net and looked sharp despite not having played a game since Jan. 30 against Providence College.
“I feel like this is a really good building block for myself and for our team,” said the Boston University sophomore.
“Just getting a little taste of the competitiveness of this tournament and playing Canada is something that’s going to really help my game and help our team.”
Strauss Mann played the second half and looked equally good, coming up with a number of good stops from close range, particularly when the Canadians were working on their power play.
“They both made big saves when they needed to,” Quinn said. “All four goalies were very good. There’s a reason there were no goals scored until the 3 on 3. There certainly were plenty of scoring chances.”
The scrimmage allowed teams an opportunity to work on their special teams and juggle line combinations and defensive pairings.
“I honestly was unsure about the game going in, how it was going to be. I’ve never played in something like this without refs, but I was impressed,” said Justin Abdelkader, the senior statesman on the U.S. team.
“I think both teams would say they got what they wanted out of it, special teams, up and down action, 3-on-3. I think it’s going to help us as we move forward and get ready for the first game.”
After two practices in Los Angeles and three more since arriving here early on Friday, it felt good for everyone to switch things up a bit and play in a game-like situation.
“In these situations, we’ve been together for a week – it’s seems like a month – and it’s certainly good to see another opponent,” Quinn said.