GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The idea belonged to Jim Johannson, the general manager who conceived this motley U.S. men’s hockey team. Most of the players would come from minor league affiliates and far-flung European leagues, grizzled skaters who could provide experience in a grand and tense competition. Sprinkled among them would be a handful of college kids, somewhere between three to seven, meant to provide bursts of energy and skill.
The plan — the one USA Hockey officials always circled back to when trying to design a team without NHL players — worked to perfection Tuesday, the first time the Americans needed it most. The United States walloped Slovakia, 5-1, in its first elimination game of the Olympic tournament, rebounding from its trouncing at the hands of the Olympic Athletes from Russia with its first offensive explosion.
The five goals came against what Coach Tony Granato called “maybe the best defensive team in the tournament.” The college kids had a hand in four of them. Troy Terry, a 20-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect who played at the University of Denver, dished three assists, all beauties. Ryan Donato, a 21-year-old Harvard winger whose contractual rights belong to the Boston Bruins, scored twice.
The Americans, who had previously defeated Slovakia, 2-1, in group play, advanced to Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup against undefeated Czech Republic (set to start at 10:10 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday). A victory over the Czechs — far from guaranteed, probably not even expected — likely would set up a heavily anticipated semifinal showdown with the Russians, who dusted the Americans, 4-0, last weekend.
For their tournament survival, the United States can foremost thank the college kids. Johannson, the general manager, died suddenly in late January, so he never got to see his plan come together. In a day’s time, Team USA’s outburst Tuesday might seem like a blip or the start of an improbable run. For now, the college kids carried the team forward.
“They’re fearless,” said 31-year-old goalie Ryan Zapolski, who made 22 saves despite jamming his neck on an interference penalty. “I mean, they’re kids, and they’re just here having fun. That’s the cool thing. A lot of the guys on our team are 12, 13 years older than them. To see the way they play and the energy they bring, it’s been really good for this team.”
The U.S. team was tossed together. Most players had never met before arriving in South Korea, and they practiced together for less than seven hours before the Olympic tournament began. Several players believed not winning their group, which meant having to play into the quarterfinals, was beneficial. They could hone their power play and penalty kill, and they could acquire more full-speed repetitions with new linemates.
“I don’t think it’s hurting we actually had to play this extra game,” said 33-year-old defenseman James Wisniewski, who scored the second U.S. goal.
Within the unique challenge of forming an Olympic hockey team in days was the unique challenge of four college players meshing with veterans who have played professionally for years, more than a decade in some cases.
“They just make us feel confidence,” Donato said. “They include us on everything. I think at the beginning, it was tough. You have the college guys, they’re all your own age. You have the guys who older than you, it’s tough. But they do a great job of making you feel a part of the team, feel important.”
On Tuesday, after a scoreless first period, Donato delivered the game’s first goal minutes into the second. He would another in the third period, bringing his tournament goals total to four, tops on the team.
“When you’ve got a guy that’s that fast and that skilled and [has] a shot like that, it’s pretty easy to play with,” Terry said. “For myself, I’m more of a playmaker and a passer, so I know if I get the puck to him, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to go in the net.”
Shortly following Donato’s first strike, a flurry of near-injurious mayhem allowed the Americans to seize control. Slovakian forward Ladislav Nagy rammed into Zapolski, sending him to the crease and drawing an interference penalty. As the play went on, defenseman Michal Cajkovsky decked Donato with an open-ice check to the head, which drew a game misconduct penalty.
“I just dropped my head for a second to look at the puck, and I looked back up and I had an elbow in the mouth,” Donato said. “And it felt not too great. I’m not going to lie. But, I mean, it created a five-on-three.”
The U.S. team capitalized with a play it had been drilling in practice. Terry fed a sweet pass to Wisniewski, who blasted a one-timer past goaltender Jan Laco.
The third goal might have been the prettiest. From behind the net, Terry zipped a pass to Mark Arcobello, was screaming into the slot. Arcobello pounded a shot into the back of the net. The Americans had taken a 3-0 lead and put a hammerlock on the game despite having generated two fewer shots on goal than Slovakia.
The United States will probably be a slight underdog, at least, in every game it plays from here on out. But the Americans have shown steady improvement, and the nature of the event suits an underdog. “You only have to be great for the next five days,” Wisniewski said.