BEIJING – In three games, the USA men's hockey team routed a team it was expected to rout, punched its biggest rival in the mouth and held off the silver medalist from four years ago.
It has done so with 15 college players on the roster, and nine players with ties to Minnesota. It has done it with plenty of speed and skill and a couple dashes of grit. Team USA has scorers, forechecking fiends, heady defensemen and netminders. It also has a coaching staff that seemingly has molded a cohesive unit in just a few weeks, which is not easy to do with college kids.
Remember when it was written before the Olympics that coach David Quinn had an unpredictable team on his hands?
Now he has a team with ... what was that, coach?
"There's a swagger to us right now and it's not arrogance," Quinn said. "It's, you know, there's a swagger to us and there's a believability that's gone on here over the last week and it's put us in this position."
On Sunday — late evening here, early morning in Minnesota — Team USA beat Germany 3-2 to finish undefeated in group play. It gets a bye for the next round and heads into the quarterfinals as the top seed. It will play the winner of Germany-Slovakia on Wednesday in the quarterfinals. Before you assume that Germany will get a rematch with Team USA, Slovakia has 17-year-old goal-scoring sensation Juraj Slafkovsky.
One more win, and Team USA will go from a team with swagger to a gold medal threat. That's not typed lightly, for the last United States gold medal winners were the late Herb Brooks' miracle men of 1980.
"Everyone feels pretty good about their game," defenseman Nick Abruzzese said. "There's obviously room for improvement for all of us. And I think, you know, when it comes down to it, the coaches do a great job of letting us know what we can do."
Germany upset Canada in the semifinals in 2018, so the team, nicknamed Bearers of the Eagle, doesn't back down against teams with bigger reputations. That was the case again Sunday, when the Germans dished out as much as they could to Team USA — with their play and their mouths — as they tried to pull off another upset.
"We got a taste of that in the Canada game, the physicality of this tournament," Gophers forward Matthew Knies said. "So no, we were prepared for what we're gonna see, and so I was, it wasn't shocking at all. I think we matched that physicality and that tempo well with them. I think once we did that, I think the game, you know, kind of turned toward us."
After falling behind 1-0, Team USA got a power-play goal from Steven Kampfer 3 minutes, 15 seconds into the first. Abruzzese, from behind the net, fed Knies for a score in the second for a 2-1 lead — finishing off a strong forechecking sequence.
It factored again in the United States' third goal, a beautiful backhand from Minnesota State Mankato forward Nathan Smith — one of college hockey's leading scorers — for a 3-1 lead in the third. Noah Cates' work along the boards led to the puck deflecting toward the slot for Smith to pounce on.
The Americans, as they had done for most of the tournament, pinned Germany in its own end for stretches of the game, leading to some good looks at the net. But Germany's Danny aus den Birken, named best goaltender of the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, made quality stops to keep the United States from running away.
Team USA, with victories over China, Canada and now Germany, got a day off from practice Monday before charging into the quarterfinals.
"One thing we've loved about our group from Day 1 is that we continue to get better," Quinn said. "I think that you know, the only thing you can do in these tournaments is focus on the short term, get better every day."
In three games, Team USA has gone from being unpredictable to having swagger. When teams with upside, like the Americans, show growth in the short term and build confidence, that makes them dangerous.