U.S. must be wary of Swiss, neutral zone 

February, 16, 2010

VANCOUVER -- The day before the start of this Olympic hockey tournament is a big yawn. The players and coaches have been scrambling from all points in North America to get to Vancouver in time for a short practice, a few meetings and a good night sleep.

Team USA goalie Tim Thomas, for example, didn't arrive in Vancouver until well after midnight after some mechanical problems on a flight connecting through Toronto. "Better safe than sorry," Thomas said. During the Americans' media availability, Thomas looked like a guy who had a date with a pillow.

U.S. assistant coaches John Tortorella (who'll handle the team's power play) and Scott Gordon (in charge of the penalty kill) were two others who arrived late Sunday/early Monday. Like everyone else, they were trying to get their legs under them. The Americans don't have much time to do that. They open the tournament with a noon (Pacific Time) tilt against Switzerland.

The Swiss, who finished sixth, ahead of both the Americans and Canadians, at the 2006 Games, could be a pesky opponent. They figure to play a very defensive-minded game, clogging up the middle of the ice, in the hopes of frustrating an American-team full of NHLers. Canadian-born Swiss head coach Ralph Krueger has been working with his team for a few weeks. That's an advantage. And Krueger is very familiar with his players. That's another advantage.

In a preliminary round pool with Canada, Team USA can ill afford an opening-game loss to the Swiss. That would put them on a much tougher road to a medal. And, in a short tournament, when winning and losing tend to snowball, the opening game loss could prove crippling.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.