SOCHI -- After setting up the chess board for months, Dan Bylsma, the coach of the United States Olympic team, has started putting the pieces in motion.
A late-night practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome allowed the Pittsburgh Penguins coach to see line combinations and defensive pairings operate on the ice, something which up to that point he only could envision in his head using the empirical data at his disposal.
As the Americans took the ice at 9 p.m. local time, the last practice in a seven-hour window following the arrival this morning of North American-based players, Bylsma and the United States management staff got a first taste of what the team will look like when it opens the 2014 Sochi Olympic hockey tournament Thursday against Slovakia (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
No longer was it a philosophical process of believing Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk would work well together as the wings on a line because of their familiarity as teammates with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now they were on the ice with the San Jose Sharks' Joe Pavelski as their center, showing the coach what they could accomplish.
The trio of Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks found lightning in a bottle four years ago when they were thrown together late in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Would that magic remain four years later?
"In putting together a team, there are going to be chemistry situations," Bylsma said. "That's something you can't get in three days of practice and find in a game. That's certainly not the only situation on the team where we will have a potential for chemistry."
In fact, chemistry defined the majority of the American lines that skated Monday.
The aforementioned van Riemsdyk-Kessel-Pavelski trio not only has the Maple Leafs connection, but Pavelski is familiar with both players from his circle of hockey friends. David Backes and T.J. Oshie, both of the St. Louis Blues, are on a line together with Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild. All three are from Minnesota.
Then there was the reunification of the Kane-Kesler-Brown line, a unit featuring two ferocious forecheckers and hitters complemented by Kane, one of the game's pure scorers. That line played together for the final two games of the 2010 tournament.
"I think you have certain lines you have in your head that you think it is going to be," said Kane, who said he learned Monday afternoon who his linemates would be to start the tournament. "We were on a line in 2010 and had some success there. Maybe that is what they are thinking there.
"If you look at the other lines there is so much balance. I was saying to [Ryan] Callahan in the locker room before practice, there are some pretty good forwards here, even guys that could potentially be your 13 and 14th forwards here. There are some good players here. So it's nice to have that balance and maybe a four-line rotation."
The Americans still have two more days to fine-tune their line combinations, and Bylsma said Monday he would not be afraid to throw the U.S. personnel into the blender if he doesn't like what he sees. His argument was that the tournament format is too unforgiving to try to ride out chemistry issues or slumps.
"In a short tournament like this, you have to be ready to move, and it can't be two weeks late," Bylsma said. "We have contingency plans to change on the fly."
Bylsma also still has to decide what he wants to do with his three goalies: Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings. Will he want to see at least two goalies in the preliminary round? Or has he picked the goalie he believes can take him the furthest in the tournament and ride that player as far as possible?
Those decisions don't have to be made until after the United States holds two more practices, both of which likely will be more structured. The practice Monday, Bylsma said, was about getting the players a workout before they succumbed to the jet lag that has been stalking them since they set foot on Russian soil. He also wanted to make them more familiar with the larger ice surface that will be used in this tournament.
For the players, who spent the afternoon watching the minute hand tick ever so slowly or wandering zombie-like around the athletes' village, the practice was more about putting an exclamation point on a long but unforgettable day.
"I don't even know what day it is," Backes said. "It was a struggle to stay awake today. But getting on the ice, getting a sweat in, it was good to be here as a group of 25 and get one practice in. Having to think while our brains are tired like ours are is not a bad thing. A little mental fatigue and working through it. Hopefully we got better today."
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Managing Editor