SOCHI, Russia – With just one game to prepare for its Olympic showdown with Russia, the United States men’s hockey team decided to cram an entire tournament’s worth of hard work and highlights into one spectacular opener.
Paul Stastny scored twice during a six-goal barrage in the second period, and the Americans got off to a roaring start in Sochi with a 7-1 victory over Slovakia in preliminary-round play Feb. 13.
Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Phil Kessel and Dustin Brown also scored as the U.S. battered Slovakia for six consecutive goals in a 13:51 span, turning what was expected to be a tough matchup into a laugher with their relentless offense.
“I guess you never really expect to beat a team like that 7-1, and you never do it in a tournament like this,” captain Zach Parise said. “We just capitalized on the chances we had, moved the puck well and used our speed.”
Although their goal celebrations declined from elation to excitement to sheepishness while the score skyrocketed, the Americans answered any lingering questions about their offensive abilities and their aptitude on the big Olympic ice by decimating a Slovak roster studded with NHL players.
“You have to do a lot of skating out there on the big ice, but I think we handled it all right,” said Kessel, who led the U.S. with two goals and an assist.
Jonathan Quick made 22 saves in his Olympic debut for the U.S., which hopes to improve on its silver-medal finish in Vancouver despite a roster that isn’t thought to have the offensive power of Canada, Russia or Sweden.
In their only warmup for a Feb. 15 game against Alex Ovechkin and the host Russians, the Americans had more than enough potency to leave Slovakia’s two goalies battered.
“For the first time on the big ice for most of us, I thought we did pretty well,” Stastny said. “Our strengths are our puck possession and our speed, and we were really able to use both of them. All four lines just kind of clicked, and so did our D-men.”
Jaroslav Halak stopped 20 shots before getting pulled when Stastny tipped home Kevin Shattenkirk’s pass to put the Americans up 5-1 with their fourth goal in 12:04. Peter Budaj replaced Halak, but Kessel and Brown piled on goals in the next 1:47.
Tomas Tatar scored for Slovakia, which traveled to Sochi without high-scoring Marian Gaborik and veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky due to injury. Nobody anticipated such a defensive collapse by a talented roster anchored by Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Slovakia’s last two Olympic appearances have been humiliations: The Slovaks blew a third-period lead and lost to Finland in the bronze medal game in Vancouver, depriving them of their nation’s first Olympic hockey medals.
“We’re going to be better,” said Tatar, the Detroit Red Wings’ young forward. “We had a solid first period and then tied it. We’ve just got to play way better in our defensive zone. I think we’re going to be ready to play the next game. We have a lot of talent in our locker room, and we’re going to sort it out.”
John Carlson opened the scoring for the U.S. in the first period, and Tatar tied it with a nasty wrist shot in the opening minute of the second. Kesler put the Americans back ahead 1:02 later with a one-timer through Brown’s screen, and Stastny scored 1:06 later on a fat rebound of Max Pacioretty’s shot.
The hits just kept coming, and the U.S. didn’t let up until Brown redirected Carlson’s pass to make it 7-1, sending the once-boisterous Slovak crowd into frustrated silence at Shayba Arena.
Patrick Kane, T.J. Oshie and James van Riemsdyk added two assists apiece, with the speedy Kane looking particularly comfortable on the wide Olympic ice.
The U.S. had lost to Slovakia in each of the teams’ two previous Olympic meetings, giving the game special meaning to Stastny. The two-time U.S. Olympian has a famous Slovak father: Hall of Famer Peter Stastny played extensively for the Czechoslovakian and Slovak national teams alongside his lengthy NHL career.
“It was good to finally get it on the third try,” Stastny said.
The Americans’ scoring outburst made their goaltending situation seem secondary for a day, but Quick still handled the Slovaks’ chances well. U.S. coach Dan Bylsma waited until Feb. 13 to choose Quick for the first start over Ryan Miller, who backstopped the Americans to silver medals in Vancouver while winning the tournament MVP award.
Quick, who didn’t get in a game in Vancouver, emerged as one of the world’s top goalies while leading Los Angeles to a Stanley Cup championship in 2012, but he missed seven weeks of the Kings’ current season with a groin injury.
(Greg Beacham, AP Sports Writer)