U.S. Focused on Pushing the Pace Even Faster
SOCHI -- While their neighbors to the north are focused on figuring out line combinations and how and where they should attack heading into the quarterfinals, the United States simply is focused on playing faster than it has been in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Speed kills, even on the big ice, but U.S. coach Dan Bylsma doesn't think his team has been killing it with enough speed in the tournament despite winning all three preliminary-round games and scoring 14 goals in regulation.
"I would say there are opportunities that we have missed that we can play quickly, play north, push the pace up the ice," Bylsma said. "That's something we did well at times; I just think we can be better at realizing that."
Bylsma spent Tuesday emphasizing the speed game he'd like to see his team play Wednesday in the quarterfinals against either Slovakia or the Czech Republic. Those teams will play in a qualification playoff game Tuesday (Noon ET, NBCSN, CBC).
He wants the Americans to be quicker on their breakouts and through the neutral zone. If they can't enter the zone with control, he said they need to get their forecheck going faster so they can be more aggressive than they have been.
"We have to be aware that we can still play a fast game and we can still play an aggressive game," Bylsma said. "We have maybe thought it was going to be a more patient game [on the international-size ice] and looked to play it more patiently when we can go quicker."
The good news, though, is these are simply tweaks to the United States' game. On the whole the Americans have been pleased with how they've attacked to generate scoring chances, because unlike the Canadians they've tried to do it through the middle of the ice instead of along the walls.
It's part of the reason why they were able to get 12 goals from their forwards and 15 in total in the preliminary round. Canada got five goals from its forwards and 11 overall.
The U.S. has let its defensemen control the attack from the back and has had forwards swinging through the middle. If the pass is there, the defensemen have done a good job of putting the puck on the mark so the forward can continue his momentum and attack with speed, occasionally catching the defender flat-footed. The defensemen have come up and supported well in case the play isn't there.
"The game here on the Olympic sheet, I feel it is so much more controlled by the defensemen," U.S. captain Zach Parise said. "There are more longer, controlled, set regroups; more controlled, set breakouts that you don't see as much in the NHL. I think our [defensemen] are doing a good job of slowing down when we have to but also finding forwards in stride."
When the play isn't there, the Americans have at times been able to recoil or reverse to try it again. This doesn't happen every time and it isn't happening quick enough for Bylsma's liking, but they are doing it well enough to not get stuck on the outside, the least dangerous area on any ice sheet but magnified on the big one here in Sochi because it puts them even further from the net.
To counter that, the Americans say they have been trying to use the faceoff dots on each side of the ice as their guide in an attempt to shrink the width to make sure they can stay dangerous through the middle.
"If we come with speed and we do our systems, there's going to be holes," center Ryan Kesler said. "I like getting speed coming through the neutral zone. With this team I think that's when we're at our best."
The holes, though, aren't easy to find when you're trying to match patience with patience, such as playing slow against a team that is spreading four players across the neutral zone. The U.S. saw plenty of that from Slovakia and Slovenia and some of it from Russia, and expects to see more of it in the quarterfinals.
It's almost impossible to crack a 1-4 forecheck when you're not playing fast, hence speed being the topic du jour for the Americans.
"What we've done well is be patient in certain areas; almost too patient at times," center Joe Pavelski said. "There are certain parts of our game that have kind of slowed down at times more than they need to, so if we can get a little aggressive it might help out."