Offense had been hard to come by for Team USA and the grip on their sticks had grown tight, but they let loose against Slovakia in a must-win game.
With their medal round hopes on the line, the Americans came out firing and put the Slovaks in a 5-2 hole before the first period was over. They chased Adam Nagy from the Slovakia net with three goals in the opening 11 minutes and kept the pedal down to ensure they would move on to the quarterfinal with a 9-3 victory.
And though the U.S. can breathe a bit easier knowing it avoided relegation and now has a chance to compete for a medal, there's little time to sit back and enjoy this one. The final seeding in Group A won't be determined until Sweden and Finland face off later today, and if Finland wins in regulation, the three-way tiebreak (including the Czech Republic) will get complicated.
But what it all means for Phil Housley's team is the gold medal dream is still alive, and their next challenge comes in the Wednesday "cross over" against the second-place finisher from the other group.
How did the Americans get it done today? Put simply: a hot start, a hotter power play, and timely saves from their MVP -- goaltender John Gibson, who helped kick things off for Team USA.
Cole Bardreau was the recipient of a nice feed from Blake Pietila at the offensive blue line, and he roofed a forehand shot over Nagy at 4:05 of the first period. The Slovaks would quickly tie it up on a breakaway goal of their own, but the U.S. answered with four straight goals to take control of the game.
Jake McCabe, Johnny Gaudreau, Mike Reilly and Jacob Trouba scored goals for the United States in a fast-paced first period, which was blemished by a major penalty and game misconduct to Shayne Gostisbehere.
The Slovaks didn't help their cause much, either, taking countless penalties and gift-wrapping opportunities to Team USA. The U.S. scored three power play goals and created a lot of pressure while on the man advantage, something Housley hopes to see carry over to the quarterfinal game on Wednesday.
Some assorted notes from today's game:
-- You have to like how the Americans put the disappointment of the Canada loss in the rearview mirror. They turned the page after Sunday and refocused on the task at hand, and put forth perhaps their best and most complete game of the tournament. The challenge now is to capitalize on the momentum heading into the medal round.
-- Big game today for Jim Vesey, elevated to the top line in favor of Rocco Grimaldi (who was effectively benched as the 13th forward). The Harvard forward had three assists and was a factor inside the offensive zone all day, and Housley showed no hesitation in using him a lot.
-- Also an impressive showing for Gaudreau, whose clutch reputation came to fruition today. He scored two goals and added an assist for Team USA, and both tallies were high-skill finishes. If the U.S. is going to make noise in the medal round, it will need a productive Gaudreau to do so.
-- Sean Kuraly was solid again, being the go-to guy in the faceoff circle and showing good instincts on the offensive side of the puck. The points haven't come as often as he'd like, but Kuraly has been one of Team USA's strongest players in the middle of the ice.
-- Perhaps a bit of a surprise in such an offensive outburst, but Alex Galchenyuk had to wait until the latter stages of the third period to get on the scoreboard. Dublin native Connor Murphy set him up with a one-time pass that Galchenyuk ripped short side for the American's ninth goal of the day. The goal was insignificant in the grand scheme, but hopefully it sparks Galchenyuk for the quarterfinal.
-- As of this writing, Sweden holds a 3-0 lead over Finland. If that score holds (and mind you, there's a ways to go), the Finns would be sent to the relegation round and the U.S. would likely face the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal. The winner of the Canada-Russia game later this morning would get Switzerland.