GANGNEUNG, South Korea – For a team that has won only one game so far in the Olympic tournament, you have to admire Team USA’s confidence.
When the clock struck midnight here on Sunday, the U.S. Men’s Team learned its path to the gold-medal game. And with all due respect to their upcoming opponents, they kind of liked the hand they were dealt.
First up in the qualification round, the Americans draw a familiar foe in Slovakia, a team they beat, 2-1, earlier in the tournament. If they win that game, they would next face the Czech Republic, with the Olympic Athletes of Russia waiting in the hole.
Ryan Zapolski has started all three games in goal for the U.S.
“I’ll take that. I think we have a pretty good bracket. I’m confident and I think our players feel confident that we’re in a good spot,” said U.S. head coach Tony Granato. “No disrespect to them, they’re great teams, but I think they’re looking at us and asking, ‘How are we going to slow those forwards down?’ I think there’s a lot of things that we have that would intimidate these teams.”
Now comes the tricky part. The U.S. has to cash in on what it views on a favorable draw. That means doing what they do best, which is using their speed to create sustained pressure on the forecheck to force turnovers and create scoring chances.
“Our speed up front is our biggest asset, for sure,” said defenseman Matt Gilroy. “We need to make sure we’re using it and we need to go all game long for 60 minutes.”
That was a hard lesson they learned in its opening game loss to Slovenia, where it surrendered a two-goal lead in the third period and lost in overtime. Two nights later against the Slovaks, the Americans never let their foot off the gas and held on for a 2-1 victory, their only win in the preliminary round.
And as they enter the knockout portion of the tournament, the margin for error gets razor thin.
“There’s more pressure on everybody now,” said Ryan Zapolski, who has started all three games in goal for the U.S. “It’s do-or-die and our backs are against the wall just like everybody else and now we need the best from everybody.”
And their best means playing to their strength, especially against a towering Slovakian defensive corps that averages 6-foot-4.
“In our first game against them we had a lot of chances in their zone just hanging on to the puck, cycling down low and getting it to the net,” said U.S. blueliner Jonathan Blum. “So it’ll be our small forwards against their big defensemen and we need to use our speed against those guys.”
They also need to remember that no shot is a bad shot. With goals in such short supply for the U.S. – only four in three games – getting down and dirty could be the secret to moving forward.
“We have to try to be more aggressive and find ways to get bounces. How do you get more bounces? You throw more pucks to the net and you get bodies in front of their goaltender,” Granato said. “You look at a lot of goals in this tournament that have deflected off of players in front of the net. It’s about paying the price and finding a way to score.”
While this team may have a shortage of goals, there is no lack of confidence in the U.S. locker room. This has been a team that’s counted out before they even set foot on foreign soil. And despite their record, they feel their best hockey is still ahead of them.
“We feel good about ourselves. We have a few tweaks that we have to make here and there, but we’re a confident group and we know how we need to play and we know the right way to play in order to win games,” Blum said.
“Every game from here on is a must win and we want this story to keep going as long as we can.”
|Wed., Feb. 14||Slovenia||Preliminary||OTL, 2-3||Kwandong Hockey Centre|
|Fri., Feb. 16||Slovakia||Preliminary||W, 2-1||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Sat., Feb. 17||Olympic Athletes From Russia||Preliminary||L, 0-4||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Tues., Feb. 20||Slovakia||Qualification||W, 5-1||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Wed., Feb 21||Czech Republic||Quarterfinals||SOL, 2-3||Gangneung Hockey Centre|