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Olympic Ice Hockey

Team USA feasts on Slovakia in Sochi opener with Russia up next

Photo: David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated

Paul Stastny, who scored twice for Team USA in its 7-1 blowout, is from a family with a proud Slovak heritage.

SOCHI – Team USA’s goaltending is a riddle wrapped in an enigma obscured by a mask.

(Take that, Winston Churchill.)

After an elaborate 7-1 dress rehearsal on Thursday in which Jonathan Quick was tested but not extended by a Slovakian team that brought a big name but not a lot of game, coach Dan Bylsma would not touch the question of who will play in goal in the U.S.'s second game, the most keenly anticipated round-robin match at the Olympics.

Heading into the game against Russia on Saturday -- a game that was circled on the calendar as soon as the Olympic schedule was released (“I mean we only play a few games; it’s not like we’re looking at the NHL schedule,” said defenseman John Carlson) -- Bylsma has a choice: He can continue with Quick, the 2012 Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, who did not seem the least bit troubled by the different angles presented by the wider ice in Sochi, or he can switch to America’s Goalie, Ryan Miller, who in Vancouver protected the net the way a troll guards a bridge and carried Team USA into overtime of the 2010 gold medal match.

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There is no bad option here, just as there were virtually no bad moments against Slovakia if you were willing to overlook a few odd-man rushes that stemmed from U.S. turnovers.

The opener could hardly have been more pleasant or instructive for Team USA. The rewards of driving the net were bountiful against a Slovakian defense that seemed as organized as a brushfire. Young American defenseman Carlson, Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler were delightfully poised; the scoring was spread among the team’s four lines; and with a six-goal lead heading into the third period – the Americans had responded to the lone Slovak score with a torrent of their own in a six-goal second period that sucked the oxygen out of Shayba Arena – Bylsma had the luxury of smoothing out ice time. While a plucky Slovenian team, whose glow-in-the-dark jerseys made them look more like the Oregon Ducks than the Mighty Ducks, pushed Russia in the Bolshoy Arena next door, the Americans were writing a script that was almost too good to be true.

The Disney-on-ice feel to the victory was heightened by the role of Paul Stastny, the U.S.'s fourth-line center who has the most glorious Slovakian heritage in the sports world. Stastny, who scored twice, and linemates T.J. Oshie and Max Pacioretty, carried a lot of water for the Americans, but Peter Stastny, Paul’s father, carried the flag into the opening ceremonies of the Lillehammer Games in 1994, the first time Slovakia participated as an Olympic nation. Two goals can never trump that moment.

Peter Stastny, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and one of the grandest two-way centers in the game, was in the stands on Thursday, the proudest of Olympic fathers. His son, whose full-time job is with the Avalanche, is not the player his old man was, but then neither was anyone else. Paul spoke with his father Wednesday night. The message: “He told me to have a smile on my face and have fun. When you play in these tournaments, they don’t happen too often. I think all of us are at such a young age that we take things for granted a little bit. It’s not until you reach another age that you realize how rarely something like this comes around. You have six, possibly seven games, so enjoy them and try not to put too much pressure on yourself.”

In the 34 years since Lake Placid, the rivalry with Russia has been genetically coded into American hockey. But the games against Slovakia are in Paul Stastny’s DNA. He still has family in that country, and an Olympic match was a chance to show himself to the members of that nation’s extended First Family.

Paul, 28, has no memories of his father in the 1994 Games. (“I was in New Jersey. Six hours behind. I was probably going to school.”) But his ears perk up at those rare times when Peter talks about carrying the flag and playing in that initial tournament. “He’s always proud of his history,” Paul said. “And he’s my biggest supporter. My agent talked to him the other day. He asked my Dad whom he was rooting for. Dad said, ‘Well, we’re playing Slovakia ...’”

The world is so different than when Peter, with his brother, Anton, defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1980. For one thing, there is no longer a Czechoslovakia. During his career, Peter represented that country, as well as Canada (at the 1984 Canada Cup) and later Slovakia. Paul has always played for Team USA, but he also holds Canadian citizenship. The straight lines of heritage and nationality are now squiggly, just like the blurry patterns that North American hockey players follow on the ice because of the influence of European players like Peter Stastny.

With the Slovak hors d’oeuvres swallowed whole, Team USA now turns its attention to the main course in the main rink. The Americans answered many questions in their crushing victory – they have scoring throughout the lineup and the young defense simply did not rattle – but there is one more worth pondering.

Quick or Miller?

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