Sam Donnellon: U.S. hockey hoping to be served by its youth

David Backes caps end-to-end rush by beating Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller.
David Backes caps end-to-end rush by beating Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller.
Posted: February 17, 2010

VANCOUVER - Here's what Brian Burke was thinking in leaving behind veteran guys like Mike Modano for these Olympics:

"Young players sometimes try things that older players won't," he was saying the other day. "Sometimes they do things that our older players won't."

Like? Like taking a stick to your nose while diving for the puck on your first-ever Olympic shift. Like blocking shots in a preliminary-round game with your team up two goals. Like playing a puck along the boards on all fours just to keep it inside the offensive zone, or rushing the puck from one end of the ice to the other, surprising the opposing defensemen, surprising the opposing goaltender, surprising the 16,706 who came to watch Team USA's 3-1 victory over Switzerland yesterday.

"Hell," said David Backes, "I surprised myself."

A forward with the St. Louis Blues, Backes might be the most controversial pick among Burke's slew of controversial picks. He has 13 goals this season, playing for a struggling team. But he's 6-3, 225 pounds and has speed and toughness, characteristics likely to play large on the smaller North American surface on which these games will be held.

Swiss coach Ralph Krueger called it the difference, the U.S. team's "skill and cold-blooded scoring ability." American coach Ron Wilson noted the physicality was a difference, that the smaller Swiss defensemen had difficulty warding off U.S. cycling, especially as the game, and hitting, wore on.

"We're counting on our youth being an asset, not a liability," Burke said.

There was enough evidence to argue it either way.

Cherry Hill's Bobby Ryan, all of 22, scored the game's first goal with 61 seconds left in the first period by pouncing on a loose puck in the high slot after his work along the boards created the necessary chaos. Early in the third, Ryan Kessler and Erik Johnson limped off the ice after blocking shots.

Goalie Ryan Miller, who came into this tournament fighting the puck a bit, scored on himself when he rerouted a third-period crossing pass between his own legs.

Also a first-time Olympian, Backes, his left nostril a reddened mess of blood and gauze, authored his electric end-to-end rush down the left side of the ice only after Miller bailed out some giveaways in the defensive end with two big saves. The U.S. team had 22 shots after two periods . . .

And two more after that.

Why? Youth, that's why. The U.S. team started and ended this game in much the same way, stiff-legged, making long passes, overrunning pucks, running into each other. Ryan said he fought nerves at the start. Backes said the same thing. They fought through it, used the nervous energy to propel them into that dominating second period, then evaporated after that.

"I sensed we were a little tight and nervous early," Wilson said. "We used a lot of energy up, and we didn't have much in the third period. We were hanging on."

"They had way too many odd-man rushes," Backes said. "A team with a ton of scoring like Russia or Canada will make us pay for that a few more times."

Said Ryan: "I think we learned you have to come out for all 60 minutes for these games."

Jamie Langenbrunner, the U.S. team captain and veteran of two Olympics, called it "realizing the situation of games a little better.

"It'll come. Everybody wants to do their best out there and create things, and the more we get relaxed and the more we feel comfortable, we'll get better."

The United States plays Norway tomorrow, then Canada on Sunday in the final pool-round game that will determine seedings and a potential bye. More important to Burke and Wilson, it will provide a big clue as to how their little experiment is faring, whether yesterday's breathless second period was a harbinger of things to come . . .

Or whether that gassed-out third period was.

"Obviously the way we put this team together, if it's successful, people are going to say it was a strike of genius," Burke said. "And if it isn't, they're going to say we brought the wrong guys."

Oh, it's more than that.

If it's a bomb, we're going to say we had the wrong guys bringing the wrong guys.

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