Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
/ Pittsburgh Penguins
VANCOUVER -- While the style points have been few and far between in Team USA's first two wins, the Americans are right where they wanted to be at this point of the Olympic tournament.
With Thursday's 6-1 win against Norway, a game that wasn't decided until the Americans rifled home three goals in the game's final six minutes, the United States advances to Sunday's Group A finale against the Canadians with a chance to win the group stage and earn a bye into Wednesday's quarterfinals.
So while the Americans will be the first to admit parts of their game need to improve -- the power play and the transition game head that list -- they don't feel the need to make too many excuses.
"Well, first off, (we're) 2-0 so we're not going to have too many complaints," American forward David Backes told NHL.com.
Backes, the St. Louis power forward, is logging fourth-line minutes for the Americans. But he has been one of the team's most effective players, and his line has been the Americans' best through two games.
But this team was not constructed for David Backes to be a leading light -- or for the fourth line to drive the engine.
"We know our game has to get better, especially in the neutral zone, in order to beat a team of the caliber of the Canadians or the Russians," Backes said.
"Even watching the Czechs and Slovaks yesterday, the Swedes and the Finns -- if we give odd-man rushes up the way we did against Norway, that's going to be troublesome for us."
There are many troublesome aspects to the American game after 120 minutes of Olympic hockey. All of them were on display Thursday at Canada Hockey Place as this young team struggled to put away an undersized and overmatch Norwegian team that had been pasted 8-0 by the Canadians less than 48 hours earlier.
"I think now we have to get past the learning curve and start cleaning up different areas," first-line winger Zach Parise said.
Coach Ron Wilson will spend the next two days trying to get his team on the same page. He believes that his team is not playing enough north-south hockey, a hallmark of the North American style all of these players use in the NHL.
The fourth line, which has been culled from the final four forwards on the roster -- Backes, Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury and Bobby Ryan -- plays the straight-line game that Wilson craves from the top half of his forward rotation. It is why they have been so effective in these two games.
Against Norway, the fourth line scored what proved to be the winning goal as Drury stuffed the rebound of a Callahan shot through the legs of Norwegian goalie Pal Grotnes, who play valiantly and stopped 33 of 39 American shots.
Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone has also been very good, scoring a goal in each game and adding an assist on Thursday's game-opening goal by Phil Kessel. Not surprisingly, he doesn't have much flash-and-dash to his game.
It is the creative players on the roster who have been struggling for the Americans in this tournament. Both Patrick Kane and Kessel got their first goals of the tournament in Thursday's game, but they are struggling to find chemistry with their linemates. Defenseman Brian Rafalski scored the other two goals for the Americans in the game's last three minutes.
As a result, Wilson switched up the lines late in the game, jumbling things with seven minutes remaining. It's not a coincidence that his team responded with three goals after the shakeup.
The top line of Parise, Kane and Paul Statsny was scrapped as Jamie Langenbrunner was elevated into Kane's spot. Langenbrunner and Parise are teammates on the New Jersey Devils and regularly play on the same line.
Kane, meanwhile, was put with Anaheim's Ryan and Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, who has been playing a dynamic, straight-line game through the first six periods. "You do need instant chemistry in this tournament," Kane said. "So I don't know what they are going to do, what the plans are."
Wilson said Thursday that he will stick with the lines that finished Thursday's game for the next two days of practice as the Americans work on the troublesome aspects of their game.
But not everything is doom and gloom for the Americans.
Team USA has received tremendous goaltending from Ryan Miller. Despite a lack of consistent work in either game, Miller has been very sharp. He had no chance on a shorthanded goal by Marius Holtet, but he made some huge saves as the Norwegians made a serious play to fight their way back into the game after getting their first goal of these Olympics.
Miller made several of his 10 saves on odd-man rushes as the American defensemen continue to try to find the balance between the pinching the U.S. system encourages and the defensive integrity it demands.
Wilson also likes how the Americans used their speed advantage to get in on the forecheck and put both the Norwegians and the Swiss on the defensive.
The players said they will take those positives into consideration while working on some of the undeniable blemishes that have cropped up in their game.
"We're getting better," Backes said. "I don't think our game is where it needs to be by any means. But we've got a couple of days here to watch a little video, have a little constructive criticism and get to that level where we're going to be a competitive team and a medal contender."
Can they do just that in 48 hours?
"We'll see what we're made of Sunday," Backes said.