United States vs. Slovakia (Group A)
Game time: 7:30 a.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. Sochi time
TV: NBCSN (USA), TSN (Canada)
Streaming: NBCOlympics.com (USA), Olympics.CBC.ca (Canada)
Coming off of a silver medal performance at the 2010 games in Vancouver, the United States is sending what might be one of the best collections of talent (and in many cases, young talent that is still in the prime of its career) it's ever had to Olympic competition. With that level of talent, as well as the success of the program four years ago, comes big expectations.
The roster boasts the past two Conn Smythe winners with Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick getting the start in net on Thursday against Slovakia, and Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane manning one of the top forward spots.
The biggest challenge for the U.S. on Thursday is going to be which line is going to get the daunting task of going up against Chara, one of the NHL's top blue liners and a guy that is capable of making even the best offensive stars in the league look rather pedestrian. Even if Chara is able to do his thing (and there is no reason to believe he won't), the U.S. should have enough depth and firepower throughout its lineup to make up for it.
Along with Kane, who is fifth in the NHL points race, the U.S. also has the league's fourth-leading point-getter in Toronto's Phil Kessel, as well as five of the top-20 goal-scorers (Kessel, Kane, Joe Pavelski, Max Pacioretty, and James van Riemsdyk).
If there is a question mark on this team it's going to be on its blue line. Ryan Suter is rock that will play as many minutes as needed and in every situation. Once you get past him the expected pairing of Pittsburgh teammates Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin is starting to get a little long in the tooth and has shown signs of slowing down this season. With Hossa, Tomas Jurco, and Tomas Tatar Slovakia has some NHL talent up front, but it's not one of the deeper offensive teams at the tournament. This is where the absence of injured Columbus Blue Jackets forward Marian Gaborik will really sting.
Slovakia will be going with St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak in net, and if anybody is aware of his ability to steal a game for an undermanned roster, it's most certainly Bylsma given what happened during the 2010 playoffs when Halak led the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Final, including a second-round win over the Penguins that he pretty much stole.
Slovakia is probably going to need a similar effort from Halak on Thursday as well as the tournament to have a chance of playing for a medal.