Don't count out Uncle Sam

Americans look strong and deep in opener

Its economy might suck, but America’s hockey system is showing no signs of decline if today’s convincing 3-1 victory over determined Swiss team is anything to go by.

Clearly they have what it takes to run with the big dogs. Scratch that. They are big dogs.

In the weeks leading up to this tournament the Americans have been ranked in predictions below an upper tier of teams that includes Canada, Russia and—depending on who you’re talking to—Sweden or Finland.

What the U.S. showed this afternoon was depth that matches up well with any of the foregoing countries. If you get past the flashy top line of Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Paul Stastny, you run into workhorses a whole lot more talented than anyone gives them credit for. Jamie Langenbrunner, Ryan Kesler and Dustin Brown on one line; Ryan Callahan, Bobby Ryan and David Backes on another.

“We’ve got guys playing on third and fourth lines who play on top lines on their various NHL teams,” U.S. coach Ron Wilson noted after the game. “I don’t think they should be lacking for confidence here.”

How deep are the Yanks? Phil Kessel, the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs, could pry only 15 shifts out of Wilson, who happens to be his NHL coach.

Backes, perhaps more than any of them, characterizes the combination of size and ability that will serve the Americans well on the more narrow North American ice surface. The 6-2, 216-pound winger pumped in 30 goals for the St. Louis Blues last season. His pace has slowed this year, but he brought his A game this afternoon.

In the first period, he pounced on a rare gaffe by the Swiss defence and fired home the first goal of the Games. Then, after Ryan Miller made an eye-catching save on Swiss forward Ivo Ruthemann, Backes carried the puck the length of the ice, around defenceman Yannick Weber and slid it under Jonas Miller for what would prove to be the winner.

Ryan Malone added a third on the power-play—one of his patented goal-mouth efforts.

“The one thing we all have in common on this team is that we’re all hard to play against,” Malone said when asked to describe the team’s identity. “We’re going to play playoff-type hockey, where we throw pucks on net. We have enough skill to make the pretty plays when necessary, but we’re playing together and we’re all on the same page.”

Miller, who is a strong contender for the Vezina Trophy as the best NHL goalie, looked more than comfortable throughout the game despite facing only 15 shots (the Americans put 24 on Jonas Hiller). And anyone thinking the Swiss are no yardstick of the Americans should remember the 2-0 shocker they won against Canada in 2006 in Turin.

Questions remain about the U.S. team: will the hot-shot Kane line get going? Can their defence cope with bigger, better finishers than the Swiss have up front? (late addition Ryan Whitney could be particularly vulnerable; he saw 12:23 minutes of ice today, the lowest among U.S. defencemen).

Still, this U.S. side is a potential dark horse, and they had plenty of support today amid the 16,706 fans at Canada Hockey Place.

Canada plays the Americans on Sunday, after meeting Norway this evening and the Swiss on Thursday.