Solid U.S. men defeat Switzerland in hockey opener

When David Backes is playing well, his nose tells the story. On Tuesday it was plugged with gauze to stem blood from a stick that hit him early in Team USA’s Olympic hockey opener, symbolic of the brawny forward’s bang-and-crash style.

“I’ll probably end up bleeding during the game and getting my face dirty,” said Backes, who plays for the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. “But you know it’s all for a good cause: winning as a team.”

His bloody nose was no surprise, but his terrific, end-to-end goal in a 3-1 victory over Switzerland was a revelation for a young U.S. team that figures to have trouble scoring.

Backes’ goal at 5:52 of the second period, sandwiched between an opportunistic wrist shot late in the first period by Bobby Ryan of the Ducks and a power-play rebound by Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8:25 of the middle period, proved the difference in launching the U.S. to a reassuring triumph over the physical but overwhelmed Swiss at Canada Hockey Place.

“We’ll save that video,” Team USA General Manager Brian Burke said of Backes’ goal. “When you get unexpected sources to chip in, that’s a very important part of being successful in a tournament.”

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound right wing from Blaine, Minn., gathered up the rebound of a shot by Ivo Ruthemann that had been saved by U.S. goalie Ryan Miller and dashed up the left side. He cut toward the middle and embarrassed defenseman Yannick Weber before shifting from his backhand to his forehand and slipping the puck past goalie Jonas Hiller.

It surprised the Swiss defense. “I surprised myself,” Backes said.

But not Burke, who hoped his players’ youthful enthusiasm and size would compensate for their offensive shortcomings.

“He does a lot of pick-and-shovel jobs on a team well,” Burke said. “He’s going to have to shut down people and bang later in the tournament. Tonight he chipped in with a little offense.”

Everyone on the U.S. team chipped in, whether on the power play -- Joe Pavelski was also screening Hiller when Malone rebounded Ryan Suter’s shot from the blue line -- or in killing two penalties in the third when Switzerland, which has only two NHL regulars and a handful of players with NHL experience, was surging.

“It’s rough to win against such a skilled team,” Hiller said. “You need to play a perfect game and this was definitely not a perfect game from the Swiss team.”

Ryan shed his nerves after he found the net. U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik had taken a shot that the Swiss defense couldn’t clear, and Ryan swooped in to snap a wrist shot past Hiller, his Anaheim teammate, at 18:59 of the first period.

“I don’t think Jonas had a chance, just because of the screen the four guys put in, but I certainly knew where I was shooting, based on playing with him for so long,” Ryan said. “But he played a great game.”

Backes’ goal put the U.S. up 2-0, and Malone made it 3-0 after Suter’s shot from the blue line landed in front of the net. “Get pucks on net with traffic and crash the net. It’s not rocket science,” Malone said.

Switzerland ended Miller’s shutout bid at 9:45 of the third, when Roman Wick’s centering pass glanced in off the goalie’s stick and thigh. It was a minor disappointment for Miller, who had won a major battle with International Ice Hockey Federation officials earlier in the day.

He had inscribed the words “Matt Man” on his mask in tribute to his cousin, Matt Schoals, who died in 2007 from complications of leukemia treatments, but IIHF demanded he remove the phrase. He protested and won, though he did have to cover the phrase “Miller Time” because it was considered too close to a commercial endorsement

There are moral victories and victories that boost morale, and Team USA can savor that two-in-one gain until it plays Norway here Thursday.

“This is a fairly quiet team, which kind of surprises me,” U.S. Coach Ron Wilson said. “But quietly confident.”