Colin Dunlap: Team USA Better Than Anticipated
OK, now I believe.
Here is the truth: As these Olympic games approached, as the run-up to Sochi was happening, there was much skepticism from this vantage; a healthy bit of hoping that the Team USA men’s hockey squad could compete, but a notion deep in the back of my cranium doubting them.
It is gone. Fully.
How could we all not be in that place right now after watching what this team has done in a 7-1 win against Slovakia, that thrilling 3-2 shootout victory against Russia and then a 5-1 conquest over Slovenia in Group A of preliminary play?
But here is a bit more reality: With what the Americans have done thus far in these games on that bigger sheet of ice, so too comes a wider expectation and larger hope. That is to say, this group led by Dan Bylsma has gone, in three games, from players who I had some uncertainty in into a team that should be looked at as disappointing if they don’t at least play for the gold medal.
After Team USA’s latest triumph, the drubbing against Slovenia on Sunday in which Phil Kessel netted a hat trick, he told reporters covering the event, “It’s about the wins, right? We just want to win games.”
They have. But isn’t just winning them, it is how they have done it as to why expectations should be grossly heightened.
Team USA tied Finland for the most goals in the first three games (15) and were third behind the Swiss (1) and Canada (2) with four goals against. Team USA’s plus-11 goal differential was the best in the 12-team field.
Simply put, the Americans got it done on both ends of the ice.
On top of that, a strong argument could be made that Kessel — with four goals and three assists in the first three games — has been the most outstanding player as the tournament now heads into the qualification playoffs and then the quarterfinals. And complementing Kessel, T.J. Oshie and Joe Pavelski (four points apiece) have given the Americans the supplemental scoring that Bylsma knew he needed to have in these games.
Team Bylsma has also been solid on special teams, killing off all but one of the nine penalties that forced them into a disadvantage.
There’s also no doubt goaltender Ryan Miller — a backup to Jonathan Quick first two games — pushed the notion forward that Team USA comfortably has a solid two-netminder tandem as he won on Sunday by making 17 saves. To me at least, there aren’t those questions left in net for the Americans that there were when the tournament approached. Quick is the No. 1 guy, but what Miller showed on Sunday proved that he’s more than capable if he needs to be called upon as the tournament moves ahead.
After all, wasn’t that one of the bigger controversies — even if manufactured — as these games approached with Team USA? What would happen in goal? Who is truly the guy; Quick or Miller?
Bylsma has handled it swimmingly.
He has also handled ice time for some of the defensemen to perfection, as a guy like Ryan Suter has been an absolute workhorse by being out there over 23 minutes a game, yet Bylsma has forced a spike in the play in Paul Martin on the blue line by finding the perfect balance between work and overwork, at about 17 minutes per game.
Certainly, Team Canada stands in the way in the semifinals if both teams can survive and advance to that point. But the way it looks right now, with what has transpired over the first three games for all the combatants in these Olympics, wouldn’t you think the Americans have a darn good shot to get past their neighbors to the North?
Right now, that’s the way it looks from here.
Right now, I would find it impossible to bet against Team USA.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Check out his bio here.