SOCHI -- If you are not absolutely convinced Team USA is the most powerful of the remaining teams in the Olympic hockey tournament, here is some food for thought:
The Meat Line.
On the hockey culinary menu, they represent 100 percent Grade-A American meat. No filler. The Meat Line is composed of David Backes (beef), Dustin Brown (pork) and Ryan Callahan (chicken).
The sobriquet is the invention of the players themselves; its origins, according to coach Dan Bylsma, date to Vancouver 2010. This sort of makes the nickname self-service, doesn’t it?
“Putting us all three together, we work well down low,” Callahan said. “We just want to get the puck behind a defenseman and work him. Doing that, other plays will open up.”
Clearly there was too much protein for the weary, aging Czech Republic to handle. The Meat Line smothered the dangerous Czech line centered by Tomas Plekanec (which included hockey’s eminence gris, Jaromir Jagr) and scored two first-period goals.
Team USA rode the early cushion to a persuasive 5-2 victory and a semifinal date Friday with Canada, which still might be arm-weary from peppering a beleaguered Latvian goalie.
“Now we’re meeting (Canada) in the semifinals in a foreign land,” Backes said. “We travelled 5,000 miles to play each other and we share a long border. That’s the great thing about this tournament. In order to win it, you have to beat great competition.”
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But for all the post-game hurrahs given to the Slaughterhouse Three -- a far better nickname, in my humble opinion -- there is no question which player is the filet mignon on Team USA.
While Phil Kessel’s goal-a-palooza continued -- he netted his fifth goal in four games -- and the Backes line dominated and goalie Jonathan Quick again was nearly bulletproof, the fulcrum of the team is defenseman Ryan Suter.
After Vancouver 2010, Ron Wilson, then the USA coach, said he really had no idea Suter was quite this good. In the ensuing four years, that opinion has become the consensus. Today Suter is no more of a surprise than Christmas falling on Dec. 25 this year. He is not as dynamic as Canada’s Drew Doughty, but there is no defenseman at this tournament quite as solid.
“They’re both world class D,” said Brown, Doughty’s teammate with the Los Angeles Kings. “Where Drew and Ryan are probably different a little bit is Drew has the ability to get himself out of situations a little better, which is sort of a double-edge sword with (Doughty). He puts himself in a bad situation and makes a play out of it. (Suter) is probably simpler with his game, but he always makes the right play. He doesn’t put himself in situations where he gets hit.” Brown might as well be describing Nick Lidstrom, 2.0.
Like Lidstrom, Sutter is an exemplar. Unlike Lidstrom, he does not have a Norris Trophy. But there is a calming effect to Sutter’s game, something that spreads throughout a lineup. He is the most indispensible player on Team USA.
“He's obviously got great two-way skills, but what sets him apart is his poise and composure under pressure,” Blair Mackasey, director of player personnel for the Minnesota Wild, Suter’s NHL home, wrote in an email to SI.com. “His game is very similar to his personality off ice. Very composed, relaxed. Logs a ton of minutes but he's so efficient he never seems to tire. I don't know how many times I've seen him in trouble and he makes a subtle move or pass to relieve the pressure.”
Think of the second American goal as a primer in Suter-ism.
If you caught the highlights, you probably only noticed Backes, at the right half boards, dishing an exquisite cross-seam pass to Brown, who was lolling to goalie Ondrej Pavelec’s right, for a quick one-timer into a yawning net.
But run the play back in your mind. Suter has the puck at the right point and has at his disposal a simple D-to-D pass to his partner, Ryan McDonagh. But instead of making the play the Czechs seem to be anticipating, Suter, a left-handed shot, spots Backes with an ample cushion. By switching the play, Suter essentially performs major surgery on Team Czech, slicing it open to set up goal.
“It’s one of those plays where he’s got great hockey sense,” Backes said. “His hockey IQ is off the charts. He saw a lot of space down there for me. Rather than shoot into shin pads, he makes a tape-to-tape pass. And Callahan’s taking a few (defensemen with him), and Brown’s able to find the back door.”
“You’re just trying to make a play,” Suter said. “I was facing (Backes) so there wasn’t much thinking that goes into it. Get it to the open guy.”
The third American goal was less elegant but speaks to Suter’s resourcefulness. With seconds left in the first period, Suter found a way to thread the puck from the point towards Ondrej Pavelec’s net. The puck caromed off the end boards directly to Backes. Mr. Beef then redirected it past the overmatched Czech goalie, who apparently hates intimacy. On three of the four goals -- he was yanked after Zach Parise beat him on a power play midway through the second period -- he did not hug his posts.
“I was just trying to shoot to get it through, looking for a hole there,” Suter said. “Luckily it went off the backboards. I was just trying to miss the first guy, to be honest with you. I knew I was running out of time. I just didn’t want to turn the puck over at that point.”
“He might have been the best player on the ice,” Bylsma said later when asked about Suter’s impact. “He was absolutely great in this game. He was the guy who was dealing with their speed, skill and size. And he was moving the puck forward in the offensive zone. That was easily his best game of the tournament.”
Suter finished with three assists in a comfortable 22:10 on the ice, nothing like the half hour or so he spent against Team Russia in the memorable round-robin game. Suter was good then. Against the Czechs, he was superb, making the big plays, the subtle plays and holding Jagr without a sniff.
Now if another Suter is going to help win America’s first Olympic gold medal in 34 years – his father, Bob, one of the Lake Placid Miracle makers, arrived in Sochi Wednesday – he will have to be prime cut again.
We’ll take this game rare.
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