Rugged 'fourth line' sets the pace for USA's opener, Olympic battle
Team USA's three scorers stand at an average of 6'3, 218 pounds
The Swiss were a good tuneup for the Americans, who play Canada on Sunday
The more glamorous first line will have to improve on its ineffecive performance
VANCOUVER -- The motto of the host country is A Mari Usque Ad Mare -- from sea to sea -- but obviously Olympic hockey tourists from south of the border are not discouraged from going coast to coast.
After a swell save by goalie Ryan Miller, a bullish center named David Backes gathered the puck just a foot or two from the blue paint and started lugging it up the left boards. He was not about to set a land-speed record, but he is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and fearless, two of the reasons he recently has been tagged with the nickname of Inglorious Backes, in a nod to Quentin Tarantino.
Certainly he bleeds like a Tarantino character. After the game, as he described his second-period goal in the 3-1 Team USA victory over Switzerland in the Olympic tournament opener, there still was a wad of gauze crammed up his left nostril. Backes is from Herb Brooks/Miracle on Ice country in Minnesota and happily bleeds for his homeland, which he did from the first shift on because of an errant Swiss stick. Still trying to escort the puck long distance, an estimated 178 feet while gasping for air, is a neat trick.
"This was one of those times when the goalie makes a great save and the puck bounces out and I've got some momentum," Backes said, warming to his play. "You have a few (Swiss) guys trapped, so I'm trying to use my big butt and get around the corner there."
Backes indeed made the corner and then rambled for daylight, carrying the puck on his backhand, until he had a fleeting encounter with a Swiss pylon called Yannick Weber, a Montreal Canadiens farmhand, at the faceoff circle. Like a bored customs official, Weber simply waved him through. Backes bore in on goal, shifted backhand to forehand, and shoved it past goalie Jonas Hiller.
The goal was precisely the kind of wizardry Team USA was expecting from its small and swift forwards, not one of the fourth-line monsters expected to do the heavy lifting.
While it is difficult to measure the import of the opening victory over a moderately dangerous hockey country -- Switzerland 2, Canada 0 in Turin 2006 -- you can measure this: The three American scorers averaged 6'3" and 218, roughly the size of NFL strong safeties. This was not glitz. This was Team USA GM Brian Burke's Hungry Man Hockey. In addition to the Backes burst, Bobby Ryan started the scoring by neatly controlling the puck along the left boards (after Backes did the dirty work behind the net) and then exploding into the slot to bury a loose puck high over the drop-too-early Hiller. And Ryan Malone, a human eclipse in front of the net, added a power play goal, which, if measured in feet, would be less than a Baltimore snowstorm.
Maybe it is unfair to tag Backes, Ryan and Ryan Callahan (and occasionally Chris Drury) as a fourth line, but coach Ron Wilson used them fourth in the rotation to start the game -- so the label will have to do for now. In addition to accounting for two goals, they mussed up a few of the Swiss with rousing checks and played a momentum-changing shift midway through the third period when Switzerland didn't realize it was supposed to be fodder for one of hockey's powers.
"When (our team) got away from (its game) a little bit in the third, (Wilson) told us that he needed some crashing and some banging, and we're certainly happy to oblige," Ryan said. "I think that shift we spent a little bit of time in their zone."
The rapport was instantaneous among linemates, partly because theirs was a Chemistry 101 experiment and nothing that needed a post-grad education. The trio talked in the dressing room prior to the game and agreed they would play a dangle-free game rooted in physicality and hard work. Unlike the glamorous and ineffective first line of center Paul Stastny, Patrick Kane and Zach Parise, they did not have the option of having too many colors on the artist's palette. Trying to mesh those three dandy players might have been the only disappointment of the game, if you let slide the occasional 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 the Americans allowed because Wilson wants his defensemen to be active in the attack. Said Ryan, "They're not players who play together much, and they have to get comfortable. They have to find it pretty quick, obviously, in a short tournament. But when you get goal scorers like those two (wingers) ... well, they're two pretty confident players and two pretty great players."
Cleary more demanding tests await this young team. But Switzerland was an ideal opponent to begin a medal quest against. Unlike a cupcake such as Norway, the Swiss presented challenges in a solid goalie, a dollop of skill and the willingness to force the play. Switzerland invented neutrality, but that didn't mean it had to play a neutral zone trap. Indeed, the Swiss were sending two forecheckers deep in the furious first period, checking with surprising zeal. On the international-sized ice, Switzerland might have gone with a yawn-inducing 1-4 trap and waited for turnovers and counter attacks. But on a 200-x-85-foot NHL rink, they played the Americans like they meant to win, not merely survive.
For Team USA, this was a solid start. The secondary scoring already is in place.
Now, if it gets some primary scoring in time for the highly anticipated showdown Sunday against the Canadians, it might be on to something.