GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- When it came time this winter for USA Hockey to build an Olympic roster without NHL players for the first time since 1994, general manager Jim Johannson faced an important decision: Where would his players come from?
Was it best to pick the 25 top Americans playing in Europe? The 25 best American minor league players? The 25 best college players? A combination of all three? If he did plan to mix Americans from different ages and backgrounds, what was the perfect recipe, the one that would help the U.S. reach the semifinals for the fourth time in the past five Olympics?
Johannson ended up picking four college kids to join his roster of 17 European professionals and four players from the AHL. So far in the Olympic hockey tournament, the move looks like a stroke of genius.
In Tuesday's qualification match against Slovakia, Harvard's Ryan Donato scored his third and fourth goals of the Olympics, and his fellow 22-year-old linemate Troy Terry added a trio of assists to lead the U.S. to a dominating 5-1 win. The Americans will face the 3-0 Czech Republic on Wednesday with another trip to the Olympic semifinals on the line.
"All the college kids have been huge for us," said 31-year-old goalie Ryan Zapolski, who plays professionally in Finland. "Those kids are special players, and they bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy. They're fun to be around. They're not overtaken by this moment, and it's good to see."
The Americans took control of the game early in the second period Tuesday, and smack in the middle of the action were Donato, a second-round draft pick by the Boston Bruins, and Terry, a fifth-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks. Ninety-six seconds into the period, Matt Gilroy caught a rebound from a Terry shot and backhanded it to Donato, who buried it for a 1-0 U.S. lead. Twenty-six seconds later, Donato was charging with the puck down the ice when he took an elbow to the head from Slovakia's Michal Cajkovsky. Officials called Cajkovsky with a major penalty, a check to the head and neck area, and he was sent off.
"I just dropped my head for a second, and I looked up and had an elbow in my mouth," Donato said. "It felt not too great."
At the same time, Slovakia's Ladislav Nagy was charged with running into Zapolski at the other end of the ice, and just like that, the Americans were on a 5-on-3 power play. Eighteen seconds into the two-man advantage, Terry found James Wisniewski, who fired a slap shot into the back of the net: 2-0 USA. Eleven minutes later, Terry dug a puck out from behind the net and found Mark Arcobello to give the U.S. a 3-0 lead.
"For a young kid, he has such poise with the puck and understands the soft areas," Wisniewski said of Terry. "He's great at finding guys in soft areas of the ice for good scoring opportunities. It's so fun to watch these kids."
Added Zapolski: "They are fearless. They are just kids having fun. A lot of guys are 12-13 years older than them, and when you see the fun and the attitude they play with, it rubs off on a lot of us."
Donato's father, Ted, played on the last U.S. team without NHL players in 1994. On Monday, he sat in the front row, smiling and celebrating each of his son's goals.
Ryan Donato admits that it was initially challenging to fit in with a group of established professionals, many of whom are married with kids. But he said the veterans have included the college group in everything they do, building comfort and confidence on and off the ice. Now comes the challenge of building off of Monday's success and applying it against the Czechs, who have yet to lose in these Olympics.
"We've kind of embraced them like you would a younger brother," Wisniewski said. "They're great kids. All four of them.
"I hope they score 100 goals and I can get a gold medal out of it."