SOCHI, Russia -- If you talk to folks around the Olympic hockey tournament, there is a consensus that the U.S. squad is the most fully formed of the gold-medal hopefuls as we head into elimination play this week.
The Americans won their pool for the second straight Olympics, and they won all three preliminary-round games for the second straight Games. They will enter Wednesday's quarterfinal as the second seed behind Sweden, which earned an extra point by winning all three of its games in regulation.
All of this means exactly what?
Um. That would be nothing.
The tournament begins in earnest Tuesday with the four qualifying games. The tension then ramps up Wednesday with the quarterfinal games. On both days, the reality is harshly simple: Win or go home.
Here are five things about Team USA heading into the meat of what has been a terrific tournament thus far.
1. Four years makes a difference
Is this team better than the team that came within a goal of winning gold four years ago in Vancouver?
"I hope not," Canadian forward Rick Nash said Monday. "They were pretty strong in 2010.
"They're a good team. They've got hard-nosed guys, guys that play the right way, don't cut corners. They had that in 2010, too, and you wouldn't expect anything different from Team USA."
The simple answer to that question is yes, though. The forward group is more mature than four years ago and brings a ton of experience both in terms of the Olympics (nine returning forwards from the '10 team) and beyond. Since that beautiful Sunday in Vancouver, guys such as Patrick Kane (twice) and Dustin Brown have won Stanley Cups, while Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler both went to Stanley Cup finals in the intervening years.
The blue line is young, yes, but it's also faster and more skilled. Guys such as Ryan Suter, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik provide a nice veteran counterbalance. While it doesn't have a scoring machine like Canada's Drew Doughty, the American defense has been active and has chipped in with timely goals thus far.
2. Goaltenders in a groove
We will admit to some surprise that the U.S. coaching staff decided to start Jonathan Quick against Slovakia in the team's first round-robin game. But the choice was the right one, as Quick followed up a strong opening-game performance with a dominating performance against Russia in what has been rightly described as an instant classic. His save on Evgeni Malkin's one-timer from the circle during a Russian power play stands out as maybe the save of the tournament thus far.
Watching Quick in that game reminded us a bit of Ryan Miller's turn four years ago in the preliminary round against Canada as the U.S. hung on for an important win that allowed it to finish at the top of the group standings. Quick's regular season in Los Angeles has been marred by injury, and there was some concern about where his game would be coming back at the end of the calendar year. But he has been terrific here, and we assume he'll get the starting nod Wednesday. He has moved seamlessly from third goaltender in Vancouver to "the man" here in Sochi.
3. Kessel is feeling it
Is there anyone in the world who looks more uncomfortable entering the mixed zone to face the international media than Phil Kessel? Um. In a word, no. Is there anyone in the world as hot as Kessel is right now when it comes to producing points and goals? Ditto. Kessel leads all Olympic scorers at the break with seven points in three games. The line of Kessel, Joe Pavelski and Kessel's Toronto linemate James van Riemsdyk has produced five goals and 10 assists.
"We are having fun out there, and [van Riemsdyk] and him have good chemistry," Pavelski said. "I just try to get them the puck when I can. It's good he's on our side right now."
Kessel has found the transition from the NHL, in which he was smoking hot before the break, to the Olympics to be a seamless one. Right now he is having an MVP-type of tournament. Let's see whether that continues Wednesday.
4. Counting on Kane
As was the case four years ago, it's been a bit of a slow start for Kane. For our money, we thought he might have been the best U.S. player in the 7-1 win over Slovakia, but he admitted he wasn't quite as good against Russia. Nothing much was happening for him, center Kesler and winger Brown against Slovenia, although to be fair, the emotional letdown after the Russia game was pretty widespread. Head coach Dan Bylsma did juggle his lines around a bit.
But as this tournament moves along, and if a possible showdown with Canada in the semifinals comes to fruition, the U.S. will need to have all hands on deck offensively. If there is a guy who has the potential to burn bright when the games are at their most critical, though, it's Kane. During last year's Stanley Cup playoffs, Kane struggled through the early parts of the Chicago Blackhawks' playoff run, but by the end, he was dominant and rightly named playoff MVP.
5. A ride on the freight train
We never tire of watching David Backes, Ryan Callahan and Parise maul opposing teams' players. They did a terrific job helping to neutralize the Russian stars in the Americans' thrilling 3-2 shootout win. That line will be counted on to disrupt their opponents' skill players starting Wednesday.
The media seats in the press tribune provide an excellent vantage point to sense the speed and physicality of the game, and this line for the U.S. has been like a freight train. We recall one moment during the Russia game in which a play ended with what appeared as though Backes had both hands wrapped around defenseman Fedor Tyutin's throat.
Sustaining that level of mayhem will also be a key factor moving forward, especially against deeper offensive teams. The key will be in bringing that intensity without having it cross over to penalty trouble. Brown caught Russian winger Vladimir Tarasenko with a knee in the Russia game that earned him a minor penalty but could have been more serious. This will be especially true in the quarterfinals against a team that won't be as deep, but spending too much time on the penalty kill is a recipe for disaster.