Kovacevic: Unbeaten U.S. ‘excited’ with cause
SOCHI, Russia — It has been pretty much bronze or bust for the United States at these Olympics so far. Unless, of course, the expectation was that we’d be neck-and-neck with Poland down the home stretch.
Seriously, check the medal standings: It’s a 4-4 tie in golds. And while all of ours have come in our very own X Games events the rest of the world is still learning, the Poles have two in ski jumping, one in skiing, one in speedskating.
Hey, how many Americans does it take to screw up an Olympics?
Better question, actually, if you want to go sunny-side: How many Americans will it take to save these Olympics?
My guess: 25.
“We’re ready, man. And we’re excited,” Paul Martin was telling me after the U.S. coasted by Slovenia, 5-1, on Sunday at Bolshoy Ice Dome, to finish the round robin 3-0 and earn the No. 2 seed in the medal round, with a bye to the quarterfinals. “I like a lot of what I’ve seen of the way this team’s come together. You can see it in how we’ve adjusted to the big ice, forechecking better, defending smarter, using our speed. It feels good.”
By this time next week, it might feel great.
Except, of course, for the hosts, who’d feel anything but great.
Let’s just come right out and say it: The U.S. has been the top team in the tournament. No one has matched them. Not in the combination of their tournament-high 15 goals, the goaltending of Jonathan Quick and, above all, the guts symbolized by T.J. Oshie taking down that wall all by himself. Thrown in guile, too, if you factor in some smart, steady-handed decisions Dan Bylsma’s made.
Doesn’t mean it can’t change. The roster isn’t without flaws, but a powerful argument can be made that, when including intangibles, it’ has fewer than any team here.
A look at hockey’s superpowers in the breakaway rush toward the gold-medal game Feb. 24:
• The Americans will open with the winner of the Czech Republic-Slovakia qualification game. After that, it could be a semi with Canada.
That might not be as unfortunate as it sounds. It’s fair to weigh whether a team would rather face Canada earlier or later — even by a game — in a short tournament where additional time benefits Canada more than anyone.
It’s also fair to weigh the Americans’ growing and visible confidence.
“Honestly, everything is positive,” Blake Wheeler said after outskating everyone in the Slovenia game. “That starts with Dan and the coaches. All the messages, and all the talk among ourselves, all positive, all encouraging. That’s the sign of a pretty good team to me.”
• Canada, my pre-tournament pick for gold, still is figuring stuff out. It’s a nice problem to have all those megastars, but it also slows — or stunts — creating an actual team.
Mike Babcock’s panicky coaching only exacerbates it. In three games, his best player, Sidney Crosby, has played with four combinations and had Chris Kunitz taken away Sunday. Because, you know, it mattered how everyone clicked against Norway and Austria.
After needing overtime to beat Finland, 2-1, on Sunday, Shea Weber was blunt: “We’ve got work to do.”
• Russia’s just a mess. Maybe even worse than it looked Sunday in a 1-0 shootout survival over a lousy Slovakia team that Alexander Ovechkin aptly described as “a pity.”
I’m hearing that some players — Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin among them — are being driven batty by the bizarre strategies of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, in particular the 1-4 trap that has all that scoring talent skating backward. The thinking is that the fear of failure among the coaching staff in this pressure-packed setting is outweighing the will to win. It’s hard to dispute.
And never mind the wacky hijinx of Malkin being on the second power-play unit.
• Sweden and Finland can be placed in a very similar category. Both have plenty of NHL players. Both are strong in goal, and both got through the round robin smoothly via their classic mistake-free styles.
Unfortunately, both have something else in common: The Swedes are without Henrik Sedin, Johan Franzen and now Henrik Zetterberg. The Finns are without Valtteri Filppula, Mikko Koivu and now Alexander Barkov. That’s scoring neither could afford to lose.
Coming off the ice Sunday after the Finns’ loss to Canada, Jussi Jokinen summed it up: “We’re at the point where our guys who can score have to score.”
So, a new favorite?
Nah. I’ll stick by my original pick, if only because I can’t fathom that ridiculous Canadian roster losing in any circumstance.
But then, I also can’t fathom Babcock’s chemistry-through-chaos approach working.
And I can’t fathom the Russians scoring enough while backtracking and backbiting.
And I can’t fathom the Swedes and Finns scoring much at all.
And I can’t fathom the Americans … eh, let’s get back to that one in a week.