SOCHI, Russia – As far as the reigning ice hockey silver medalists are concerned, they are still the underdogs – even if they didn't play like it in their first game of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
The United States men's hockey team under-promised but over-delivered, netting six goals in the second period alone to defeat Slovakia, 7-1, in the preliminary game, held Thursday at Shayba Arena.
Paul Stastny scored two goals, while Ryan Kesler, Davis Backes, Phil Kessel and Dustin Brown each added one goal during a 13:51-minute time span in a game that put Team USA's offensive prowess on display.
Several lineups showcased the chemistry USA Hockey spent months trying to acquire in the selection of its final roster. Coming into these Games, the team insisted it had a long way to climb.
"You never really expect to beat a team like that, 7-1," said U.S. captain Zach Parise. "You never do it in a tournament like this. They are a tough team."
"We just capitalized on the chances we had, moved the puck and used our speed."
Team USA scored late in the first period as Kessel collected an assist and John Carlson fired a goal off a snapshot past Slovakian goalie Jaroslav Halak stick side.
Slovakian forward Tomas Tatar evened the scoreboard 24 seconds into the second period, but Slovak celebrations were short-lived as Kesler and Stastny quickly answered with a pair of U.S. goals in a 66-second span.
Stastny prompted Halak's exit with a long shot past the Slovak goalie, who had just allowed a goal from Backes on a crowded net. Kessel made it 6-1 for the U.S. 50 seconds after back-up goalie Peter Budaj inherited the pipes. Brown polished off the second-period U.S. scoring frenzy with a wrist shot a minute later.
"We kept them in their defensive zone and hemmed them in," said head coach Dan Bylsma. "That's the type of team we are going to be, that's the type of team we are."
"The USA was faster and more composed than us," said Slovakian head coach Vladimir Vujtek. "Overall they were better. We couldn't put anything past them."
Bylsma said the U.S. looks to improve with each game and is looking forward to its next match against Russia on Feb. 15. The host nation is favored to play in the gold-medal final at the Sochi Games.
At the Vancouver Games, Team USA began the tournament as the underdog, but played its way into overtime of the gold-medal match.
The U.S. is remembered as the team that nearly put a dent in Canada's golden Games in Vancouver after Parise tied the final game with 24.4 seconds left in regulation time. Canada, of course, went on to win that game.
Team USA's success with silver in Vancouver came with the team's ability to put all the screws in place and execute as a collective whole. At those Games, the U.S. roster carried just three players with previous Olympic experience. In Sochi, Team USA boasts 13 returning Olympians.
"We are all better players now," Backes said. "Back then we were young and excited and playing on adrenaline. Now we know what to expect. We are more mature and playing better hockey."
The Slovaks, at least, can attest to that.