SOCHI, Russia — With just one game to prepare for its Olympic showdown with Russia, the United States men’s hockey team decided to cram an entire tournament’s worth of hard work and highlights into one spectacular opener.
Paul Stastny scored twice during a six-goal barrage in the second period, and the Americans got off to a roaring start in Sochi with a 7-1 victory over Slovakia in preliminary-round play Thursday.
Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Phil Kessel and Dustin Brown also scored as the U.S. battered Slovakia for six consecutive goals in a 13:51 span, turning what was expected to be a tough matchup into a laugher with their relentless offense.
“I guess you never really expect to beat a team like that 7-1, and you never do it in a tournament like this,” captain Zach Parise said. “We just capitalized on the chances we had, moved the puck well and used our speed.”
Although their goal celebrations declined from elation to excitement to sheepishness while the score skyrocketed, the Americans answered any lingering questions about their offensive abilities and their aptitude on the big Olympic ice by decimating a Slovak roster studded with NHL players.
“You have to do a lot of skating out there on the big ice, but I think we handled it all right,” said Kesler, who led the U.S. with two goals and an assist.
Jonathan Quick made 22 saves in his Olympic debut for the U.S., which hopes to improve on its silver-medal finish in Vancouver despite a roster that isn’t thought to have the offensive power of Canada, Russia or Sweden.
In their only warmup for Saturday’s game against Alex Ovechkin and the host Russians, the Americans had more than enough potency to leave Slovakia’s two goalies battered.
“For the first time on the big ice for most of us, I thought we did pretty well,” Stastny said. “Our strengths are our puck possession and our speed, and we were really able to use both of them. All four lines just kind of clicked, and so did our D-men.”
Jaroslav Halak stopped 20 shots before getting pulled when Stastny tipped home Kevin Shattenkirk’s pass to put the Americans up, 5-1, with their fourth goal in 12:04. Peter Budaj replaced Halak, but Kessel and Brown piled on goals in the next 1:47.
Tomas Tatar scored for Slovakia, which traveled to Sochi without high-scoring Marian Gaborik and veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky due to injury. Nobody anticipated such a defensive collapse by a talented roster anchored by Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Slovakia’s last two Olympic appearances have been humiliations: The Slovaks blew a third-period lead and lost to Finland in the bronze-medal game in Vancouver, depriving them of their nation’s first Olympic hockey medals.
“We’re going to be better,” said Tatar, the Detroit Red Wings’ young forward. “We had a solid first period, and then tied it. We’ve just got to play way better in our defensive zone. I think we’re going to be ready to play the next game. We have a lot of talent in our locker room, and we’re going to sort it out.”
John Carlson opened the scoring for the U.S. in the first period, and Tatar tied it with a nasty wrist shot in the opening minute of the second. Kessel put the Americans back ahead 1:02 later with a one-timer through Brown’s screen, and Stastny scored 1:06 later on a fat rebound of Max Pacioretty’s shot.
The hits just kept coming, and the U.S. didn’t let up until Brown redirected Carlson’s pass to make it 7-1, sending the once-boisterous Slovak crowd into frustrated silence at Shayba Arena.
Patrick Kane, T.J. Oshie and James van Riemsdyk added two assists apiece, with the speedy Kane looking particularly comfortable on the wide Olympic ice.
The U.S. had lost to Slovakia in each of the teams’ two previous Olympic meetings, giving the game special meaning to Stastny. The two-time U.S. Olympian has a famous Slovak father: Hall of Famer Peter Stastny played extensively for the Czechoslovakian and Slovak national teams alongside his lengthy NHL career.
“It was good to finally get it on the third try,” Stastny said.
From wild cheers to stunned silence, the Sochi Olympics said goodbye to one of figure skating’s all-time greats.
Evgeni Plushenko, the first figure skater in the modern era to win medals in four Olympics, retired from competitive figure skating shortly after withdrawing from the men’s competition for medical reasons. The Russian said he injured himself during practice on Wednesday, then fell on a triple axel during warmups Thursday.
When Plushenko limped out of the arena, the cheering stopped, eventually turning into mild applause.
Plushenko’s announcement came hours after an Olympic worker was injured when he was hit by a bobsled near the finish line at the Sanki Sliding Center. He was taken by helicopter to a local hospital.
In the first final of the day, the U.S. freestyle skiers swept the podium in slopestyle, with Joss Christensen leading the way in his Olympic debut. Germany completed a sweep of the four luge events by winning the team relay; Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, skiing with a fractured foot, won gold in the women’s cross-country 10-kilometer classical race; and Li Jianrou of China won gold in 500-meter short track speedskating after all three of her opponents in the final fell.
For only the third time in Winter Games history, a U.S. team swept the podium. Christensen led the way with a dominating performance that featured four near-perfect runs over the rails and jumps at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper captured the silver and bronze, as the U.S. skiers matched the country’s previous sweeps in men’s figure skating in 1956 and men’s halfpipe snowboarding in 2002.
Kowalczyk led virtually all the way, finishing in 28 minutes, 17.8 seconds and beating silver medalist Charlotte Kalla of Sweden by 18.4 seconds. Therese Johaug of Norway took bronze, 28.3 seconds behind.
Li’s win in the 500 keeps the Olympic title with China.
Injured teammate Wang Meng couldn’t defend the title she has won at every Winter Games since 2002.
Arianna Fontana of Italy took the silver and Park Seung-hi of South Korea earned the bronze. Elise Christie of Britain caused the first crash of the wild final, and was disqualified.
In the women’s 1,000-meter race, Zhang Hong pulled off a stunning victory to give China its first gold ever in Olympic speedskating. Her time of one minute, 14.02 seconds, broke the track record and just missed the Olympic mark set by Chris Witty at the 2002 Games.
Ireen Wust took the silver and Margo Boer the bronze, giving the Dutch a dozen speedskating medals.
Martin Fourcade of France earned his second gold of the Sochi Games with a victory in the men’s biathlon 20-kilometer individual race. Fourcade, who won the 12.5K pursuit on Monday, finished 12.2 seconds ahead of silver medalist Erik Lesser of Germany. Yevgeny Garanichev of Russia won the bronze.
Gold-medal favorites Canada, Sweden and Britain posted wins in the men’s curling tournament, keeping the pressure on undefeated China, which had a bye.
In the women’s competition, Canada swept away its fifth straight opponent, while Sweden knocked Switzerland from the ranks of the undefeated. Britain revived its chances of making the semifinals with a win over China.
Lizzy Yarnold of Britain and Noelle Pinkus-Pace grabbed the top two spots midway through the women’s skeleton competition. The final two runs for the gold are today.