VANCOUVER – David Backes scored the winner early in the second period as the U.S. beat Switzerland 3-1 to open the 2010 Olympic men's hockey tournament on Tuesday.
Bobby Ryan and Ryan Malone also scored for the Americans. Roman Wick replied for the Swiss.Click here for the photo gallery of the game.
Jonas Hiller put on a strong performance in goal for Switzerland to keep his team within striking distance, but it wasn't enough. The Americans outshot the Swiss 24-15 at Canada Hockey Place as Ryan Miller got his first Olympic win.
"We played with a very honest effort," said Swiss head coach Ralph Krueger. "We thought we played America eye to eye, but in the end, their skill and cold-blooded scoring ability was decisive. "
"I thought we did a good job of sticking to our system for a team that's just come together," said Miller.
If the flavour of this game provided a foretaste of the overall caliber of 2010 Olympic hockey, fans in Vancouver and watching on TV worldwide are in for a treat. As cowbells dueled with Stars and Stripes banners in the stands, the teams dished up high-tempo, hard-hitting but clean play. The flow was excellent -- and neither of these teams is even considered a leading medal candidate.
Eventually, the Americans would wear down the Swiss with their big-body presence and their superior finishing ability around the net.
Backes sported a bloody nose after the game and commented: "It's a tough game, it's a man's game, and you bleed every once in a while."
Switzerland's Severin Blindenbacher took the first penalty of the tournament, a holding minor, as Dustin Brown tried to barge his way to the net at 9:49. The Swiss penalty-killers worked hard to minimize their opponents' chances.
Later, Miller had to be sharp when Hnat Domenichelli picked up a loose puck from a Julien Sprunger wrap-around attempt. The Americans threw lots of traffic at Hiller's crease, and the big Swiss netminder was involved in several collisions.
"We spent too much time in our zone and not enough in theirs," said Hiller.
The U.S. opened the scoring at 18:59 after some heavy forechecking, when Ryan grabbed a loose puck in the high slot and beat Hiller high glove side.
Hiller, Ryan's teammate in Anaheim, said: "He was lucky it went through two pairs of legs and over my glove. It was a good shot; I just couldn't see it."
In the second period, the Americans grabbed a 2-0 lead at 5:52 when Backes stormed down left wing, cut past Swiss defenceman Yannick Weber, and tucked the puck past Hiller's left skate. The goal came seconds after Miller had foiled a close-in chance for Ivo Ruthemann. It was a pure power forward exploit, and it reminded Canucks supporters why Vancouver GM Mike Gillis tried to sign Backes to a three-year, $7.5-million offer sheet in 2008.
"To score a goal in my first Olympic goal on Canadian soil is special," Backes said.
Less than three minutes later, Malone made it 3-0 when he poked a rebound through Hiller's pads on the power play.
"Hiller kind of bobbled it a little bit and it was lying between his legs," said Malone. "I just whacked it as hard as I could, and it found the back of the net."
Sprunger misfired on a golden Swiss chance midway through the game, firing the puck high and wide on a beautiful 2-on-1 setup from Raffaele Sannitz. Miller foiled Swiss captain Mark Streit's slapper on a 3-on-1 in the final minute of the middle frame.
The Buffalo Sabres netminder continued his solid play in the third, stopping Ruthemann on yet another 2-on-1.
"The Swiss had a few too many odd-man rushes against us, and if they score on those, maybe it's a different game," said Backes.
"I think we could have done better today," said Weber. "We had some chances and if we were able to score early and didn’t make some mistakes, it could have been a different game. But it’s good for us to see that we can play with those guys."
With just over 10 minutes left in the game, Switzerland's Roman Wick spoiled Miller's shutout bid with an assist going to Domenichelli. The latter, a Canadian-born veteran of 267 NHL games, is making his Olympic debut: he's played seven seasons in the Swiss league.
Switzerland faces the host Canadians next on Thursday, while the Americans take on Norway that day.
Speaking of the strategy for Canada, Streit said: "Get pucks deep and use our speed. Take the puck wide, go to the net, and work down low. We've got to be strong defensively, too."
The Swiss will continue to lean on Hiller as this tournament progressses. They staged two major round-robin upsets four years ago in Turin, largely thanks to their NHL goaltending. First, they stunned the Czechs 3-2 with David Aebischer between the pipes, and followed that up with an even bigger surprise, beating Canada 2-0 as Martin Gerber posted a shutout.
Neither Gerber nor Aebischer is part of this year's Olympic squad, however: Gerber is recovering from a neck injury he suffered with the KHL's Atlant Mytischi, and Aebischer's game has fallen off with Lugano.
The U.S. is aiming to prevail with youth. GM Brian Burke's team brings an average age of 26.5, with six players named “Ryan.” The roster only boasts three veterans of past Olympics: captain Jamie Langenbrunner, whose only previous appearance was Nagano '98, and Chris Drury and Brian Rafalski, who won silver in 2002 and also suited up in 2006.
"All our young players, especially the ones having their first Olympic experience, they were a little nervous, but they played well and physically," said USA coach Ron wilson of the effort against Switzerland.
NOTES: There were loud cheers for Ryan Kesler when the centre was announced for the USA's starting lineup as the only Vancouver Canuck participating in this game...The last time Switzerland beat the Americans in Olympic hockey was on home ice, a 5-4 decision on January 30, 1948 in St. Moritz...The Americans are hoping to capture their first Olympic gold since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid.