No NHL stars, but plenty of drama for Team USA men's hockey

Team USA hockey defeats China easily in tournament opener

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Team USA got off to a fast start with an easy win over China.
Team USA got off to a fast start with an easy win over China.
Image: Getty Images

It’s obvious that the inclusion of the NHL at the 2022 Winter Olympics would’ve given a facelift to the United States men’s hockey roster competing in Beijing. Leaving Auston Matthews, Connor Hellebuyck and plenty of others at home takes away some of the best in the world. The Americans are far from the only ones with that problem. We’ll see a Connor McDavid-less Canada and a Russian team without Alex Ovechkin to name a pair.

Yet, the United States blasted host China 8-0 in its Olympic opener on Thursday, a team it should’ve shellacked. The Chinese only qualified for the 12-team tournament by being the host nation. Its team is ranked No. 32 in International Ice Hockey Federation Rankings. This collective of Americans have only known for about a month they’d be donning the red, white and blue nearly 7,000 miles from the East Coast. The ragtag nature of the Olympic team has brought together more than a dozen playing college hockey, several playing in a European professional league, a few from the American Hockey League, the NHL’s equivalent to Triple-A baseball, and one with previous Olympic experience in Brian O’Neill.

Call Thursday a confidence-builder for all involved before any real adversity hits the Americans. Their Olympic opener had a slow start, scoring one first-period goal off the stick of Brendan Brisson, who plays at Michigan. Add three goals in the second and four in the final frame the U.S. found itself done with likely it’s easiest game in China. Despite the secondary nature of the American roster, this is a quality team. Many of the college athletes taking part are high-rated professional prospects.

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Matty Beniers, the youngest player on the U.S., was the second overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft by the Seattle Kraken and will have a big say in whether the USA medals in Beijing. A teammate of Brisson’s with the Wolverines, he didn’t commit a penalty as a freshman and added 34 points in 24 games. Before heading to the Olympics, Beniers had 36 points in 28 games for Michigan this season. His third-period snap-shot goal looked NHL-ready as it sailed over the left shoulder of China’s goalie and under the crossbar. In the opposite net was 19-year-old Drew Commesso, a Chicago Blackhawks draft pick and sophomore at Boston University who got the starting job over 34-year-old Pat Nagle, the second-oldest American on the team who has several years of professional experience and Michigan goaltender Strauss Mann. Commesso stopped all 29 shots he faced.

Several Americans in Beijing have NHL experience, including Steven Kampfer, Aaron Ness and Kenny Agostino, who all most recently played in the league last season. None are marquee names, nor have they ever been core guys on an NHL franchise, except longtime Detroit Red Wing Justin Abdelkader. None of that matters for the next two weeks, as a solid effort on the world stage could springboard their careers. Same goes for the younger talent on the team, who will try to impress to have longer-standing NHL careers than most of their veteran teammates.

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Things will quickly pick up for the Americans however, as shorthanded IIHF No. 1 Canada is their next challenge in the preliminary round. That game starts late Friday night in the United States. The Canadians scored three goals in the first 11 minutes in their Olympic opener against Germany and won 5-1. Canada is relying less on NCAA talent and more on professionals from non-NHL leagues to win gold. They have arguably the biggest star in the tournament in five-time NHL All-Star Eric Staal, who is currently a free agent and therefore eligible for the tournament.

The “Miracle On Ice” team of 1980 was the last time the American men won Olympic Gold in hockey. They’ve actually never won it off home soil, with their other triumph coming in the 1960 Winter Olympics from Squaw Valley, California, near Lake Tahoe. The U.S. hasn’t medaled since the last Winter games held in North America, a silver due to an overtime defeat in the gold-medal game against host Canada. This American squad should no doubt finish better than the seventh-place outing from PyeongChang. Despite their limited time together, they have a ton of upside, even if their professional experience lacks behind other highly ranked teams.