- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

TURIN, Italy — The U.S. men’s hockey team is assured of advancing to the Olympic quarterfinals regardless of what happens today against Russia, even though it has scored just two goals in its last two games.

See whether you can guess the primary explanation for its struggling offense from the following quotes:

Forward Bill Guerin: “We feel we’ve out-chanced our opponents. We’ve just come up a little bit short.”

Forward Brian Rolston: “We feel we’ve played very well, and we’ve out-chanced teams. The scores just haven’t been in our favor.”

Defenseman and captain Chris Chelios: “We’ve improved every game. We’ve out-chanced all the teams we’ve played as far as scoring opportunities are concerned.”

No doubt about it. These guys are speaking the same language. What they’re saying is that the opportunities are there. But so is a losing record. The United States is 1-2-1 after getting out-victoried by Slovakia and Sweden in its last two games by 2-1 scores.

Yet no one seems concerned about the overall quality of play even though the Americans had back-to-back 5-on-3 power-play opportunities against Sweden and came up empty.

“Going back and looking at it, the last couple of games we lose 2-1 [and] the only thing we didn’t like was the scoreboard,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “It sounds like I’m making an excuse, but I’m not. The chances are there in the videotape. They were there in the game.

“Can we look at something else [tonight]? Sure. Maybe there’s a combination that can get hot or somebody else that plays with a different centerman and they have a little fire together. But I think the team’s gonna bust out with some goals. I don’t think there’s a lack of talent or a lack of offense.”

The United States isn’t the only team having trouble finding the net. Canada, the favorite going in, has lost back-to-back 2-0 games. Did Canada also out-chance its opponents? Not according to its captain, Joe Sakic.

“There’s no excuse,” he said. “We have to find a way.”

So the United States isn’t the only team struggling. The 35-year-old Guerin, who has 11 goals and 21 assists for the Dallas Stars, said the bigger rink used in the Olympics has limited the offense.

“With the big ice surface, everybody sort of comes to the middle and sinks down toward the net,” he said. “Even though there’s bigger ice, there’s a lot more bodies in front.”

Also, the goaltending has been excellent. That was supposed to be a weakness for the U.S. team, but Rick DiPietro, who plays for the New York Islanders, has silenced the doubters.

Yet Laviolette offered up a mild surprise yesterday when he named Robert Esche, the No. 3 goaltender, as the starter against Russia — his first start in the tournament.

It was Esche himself who broke the news, which came as a surprise to Laviolette. When a reporter questioned the coach about the move, Laviolette asked, “How do you know that?”

It came from Esche, he was told. Laviolette didn’t say anything, but the look on his face indicated that a little chat with his goalie might ensue.

Laviolette’s explanation for the switch was that he has three good goalies and all deserve a chance to play (John Grahame started the opener, a 3-3 tie with Latvia). But when it was suggested the decision had more to do with resting DiPietro before the quarterfinals, Laviolette did not disagree.

“Yeah, it’s a chance to rest other people,” he said.

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