SOCHI, RUSSIA – Dustin Brown and Ryan Kesler traded punches to the head in a fight during an NHL regular-season game in mid-January. On Monday night, they skated together as Olympic teammates.
Welcome to the Olympic Games, where peace and harmony between professional rivals is paramount and success often is determined by a team’s ability to establish that cohesion and chemistry in such a condensed time frame.
It’s patriotism over pugilism the next few weeks.
“I know both of those guys are competitors,” Team USA captain Zach Parise said. “I think both of them, if they had a chance to take a run at me during the game, they would do it. No hard feelings.”
The U.S. contingent began that bonding process during a flight to Sochi that arrived Monday morning. They planned to use the first few days practicing on the larger Olympic-sized ice and becoming acclimated to the time change in advance of their opening game against Slovakia on Thursday.
Team USA enters this Olympic hockey tournament in a different position than in 2010 at the Vancouver Games. A long shot then, the Americans are viewed as one of the favorites now after claiming silver in an overtime loss to Canada.
Many of those same players will wear the American colors again this time and that experience should serve them well, knowing that expectations this time far surpass what they encountered in Vancouver.
“They raised the standard in 2010, and it showed a lot of young guys like me and some of the other guys on this team that nothing else is really going to be accepted other than a gold medal,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
Team Canada, with its superstar roster, remains the favorite to defend its gold medal. Team USA should contend for a medal again. The Russians have lots of talent and a nation behind them, though the pressure to perform well in front of their nation could become suffocating if they start slowly or don’t handle scrutiny.
Wild defenseman and U.S. assistant captain Ryan Suter didn’t bite on a request to handicap the field.
“That’s for you to decide,” he said. “We’re only worried about ourselves.”
Team USA’s initial focus is to develop chemistry despite having only a few practices together. Goalie Ryan Miller, the Olympic MVP in Vancouver, attributed his team’s surprising success four years ago to its ability to mesh quickly and accept roles.
“I think that’s part of the story that hasn’t come out quite as much, is how quickly we came together and how positive we were,” Miller said. “It’s going to have to be the same feeling over here.”
Team USA’s brain trust constructed this team with chemistry in mind. Coach Dan Bylsma said he’ll likely keep NHL teammates together on lines — St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie and David Backes, for example — because they already have established a bond and on-ice familiarity. Bylsma said he also examined how certain combinations worked in Vancouver.
“In a short tournament like this, you have to be ready to move and it can’t be two weeks late,” Bylsma said.
His biggest decision, of course, revolves around goaltending. In a short tournament, teams must get solid, if not superb, goaltending. Bylsma said he’s already made his decision on his No. 1 goalie, but he hasn’t told anyone, not even the goalies.
The safe bet is that he picks Miller, the 2010 hero who has performed admirably this season for a crummy Buffalo team. The other two goalies — Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard — have battled injuries this season.
“I feel like I definitely had a good start to the season and just tried and show that I can play at a high level,” Miller said.
Perhaps a more pressing issue is how well Team USA adjusts to the larger rink, which is 15 feet wider. The extra ice puts a premium on skating and moving the puck. Team USA has not fared well in Olympics played on the larger surface, which probably explains why Parise attempted to deflect a question about the challenges that poses.
“Yeah, there are a few differences, but you don’t want to beat it to death,” he said.
As captain, Parise said he has no plans to give any locker room speeches to his teammates.
“That’s not really my personality,” he said.
He prefers to lead by example, as he did in 2010 when Team USA accomplished more than anyone expected. That result serves as the baseline for these Games.
“We have a lot of guys who are here that played in those games four years ago in Vancouver,” Parise said. “We’re anxious, we’re excited. We know that just because we got silver last time, there are no guarantees. We know how good these teams are.”