Team USA wanted to find some confidence early in this Olympic hockey tournament. Tuesday afternoon, in the opener of the tournament, the Americans got off to a near-perfect start.
After feeling its way through much of the first period, Team USA used its depth and an opportunistic power play to put Team Switzerland under duress before skating away with a 3-1 victory in Group A at Canada Hockey Place.
Canada plays Norway later Tuesday in the other Group A game. The Americans are back in action Thursday against the Norwegians before closing pool play with Saturday's showdown against Canada that will likely determine the group champion and assure a bye into the quarterfinal portion of the tournament.
Entering the tournament, there were considerable questions about GM Brian Burke's decision to construct a roster featuring younger players with limited experience at the senior national team level that would then be plugged into specific roles.
However, that plan worked to perfection on Tuesday, with only Roman Wick's bad-bounce goal on a power play midway through the third period marring the good vibrations. On the play, Miller tried to poke check a pass into the slot from Wick, but Miller's stick served as a ramp and sent the puck skittering over his left leg pad and into the net. Ryan Suter was serving roughing penalty at the time.
That was the only one of Switzerland's 15 shots to beat Miller.
Team USA's fourth line got the all-important first goal in the first period's final 61 seconds -- washing away doubts caused by an indifferent first 18 minutes of the game. Anaheim's Bobby Ryan got the goal on a rocket from the slot after a gritty play at along the offensive-zone half boards.
David Backes of the St. Louis Blues, one of the more controversial selections on the team and another fourth liner, made it 2-0 at 5:52 of the second on a brilliant end-to-end rush that culminated with a sweet backhand-to-forehand move that left Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller helpless.
Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone struck at 8:25 of the second, on the power play. Malone, a classic power forward for the Lightning, was on the man-advantage unit with San Jose's Joe Pavelski and Toronto's Phil Kessel when Suter unleashed a bomb from the point that bored through a high-low screen in the slot set up by Pavelski and Malone. Hiller made the initial save, but Malone stuffed the rebound between the legs of the Swiss goalie.
From there, the game was pretty much all Team USA.
Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, who is scheduled to start in every game Team USA plays, was solid, despite sporadic work.
He faced just nine shots during the first 40 minutes, but made a few key saves. His denial of Ivo Ruthemann on a rebound attempt from the slot was the precursor to Backes' breathtaking rush up the ice and around Swiss defenseman Yannick Weber, who plays with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League
Miller also made two huge saves in last three minutes of second period, stoning Wick on a bang-bang play in the low slot and then turning back a quality attempt by defenseman Mark Streit, who plays for the New York Islanders. He also stoned Ruthemann in the third minute of the final period.
But it was the game-opening goal by the 22-year-old Ryan that might define the identity of this American team.
Ryan, playing fourth line despite his 28 goals this season (which leads the Anaheim team), was one of the most dominant players in the first 40 minutes.
On the goal, the fourth line -- both Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan took turns as center -- was hard on the forecheck, pinning the puck in the Swiss zone. Ryan challenged Switzerland's Thierry Paterlini along the half boards as the Swiss forward tried to clear the puck and was able to get it free and shovel it -- from his knees -- to the point.
Swiss defenseman Rafael Diaz batted down the high wrister from Brooks Orpik
, but it fell invitingly into the high slot and Ryan, scrambling in from his entanglement along the boards, beat everybody to the loose puck, firing a high wrister that beat Hiller, his NHL teammate, past his right shoulder.
The goal was huge for the Americans, who had trouble generating offense for long periods of time in the first and were being challenged physically by a determined Swiss side.
The shots were 8-5 in favor of the United States after one period, but Hiller had to make just two difficult saves -- off the sticks of Zach Parise and Pat Kane -- both of whom were playing on the Americans' top line.