ADLER, Russia -- Patrick Marleau spent some free time Thursday strolling to the speedskating rink and watching some Olympics action. Marleau said he failed to pick up any tips on technique.

Could have fooled me.

Marleau's speed has always been one of his prime assets as a member of the Sharks. But it was even more noticeable while playing for Team Canada on the larger international ice surface Thursday in a 3-1 victory over a scrappy outfit from Norway in both teams' Olympic opener.

"We're all here on this team because we can contribute in some way," Marleau said. "The big ice is interesting. You're looking and expecting the boards to be in one place and then ... they're just that much farther away. And because the neutral zone is wider, the blue line is also closer to the top of the circle."

International rinks have 15 feet in extra width. Marleau took to the extra space like a fish to the Black Sea, which is right outside the Bolshoy Ice Dome. His wheels could cover more ground when necessary. And it often was necessary.

In fact, Canada coach Mike Babcock gave Marleau more ice time Thursday than any forward on the team except for Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. Marleau played key roles on the penalty kill, led Canada with five shots on net and earned an assist on the team's third (and clinching) goal in the third period by Drew Doughty.

All of this was just one of the fascinating developments on the first complete day of hockey at the Sochi Games. Canada's victory was tighter than expected. But the USA's 7-1 rout of Slovakia was stunning.


Advertisement

Slovakia is no slouch at international hockey, with NHL stars such as defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Marian Hossa providing firepower. But after a close first period, the USA blew open the game with six goals in the second and never looked back. Joe Pavelski, meanwhile, never lost a faceoff.

Well, almost. As the Sharks' representative on the USA roster, Pavelski took 13 draws and won 12.

"I lost the first one I took and they whipped it back to Chara for a shot," Pavelski said. "So I thought, 'OK ... I'd better get going and get better at this.' ''

The whole USA team didn't need much of a kick-start. A decision by coach Dan Bylsma to give his players a full day off on Wednesday paid off with fresh legs. Pavelski failed to get on the score sheet only because he jumped onto the bench on a change just seconds before linemate Phil Kessel scored.

"This is a good start, a surprising score," Pavelski said. "Slovakia's a good team. We're learning."

Learning fast, it would seem. Thursday's rout by the USA only lends greater anticipation to its next game -- against Russia, in what will be the showcase game of the tournament's preliminary round and is being hyped as a 1980 "Miracle On Ice" revenge game by some in the Russian media.

Off the first game, the USA appears to be the superior team. As the Americans were romping at cozy Shayba Arena (capacity 4,500), Russia was having a comparatively harder struggle across the street at the bigger Bolshoy building (capacity 10,500).

The Russians would wind up beating an overmatched Slovenia team 5-2. However, the final score was deceptive. Slovenia trailed by just 3-2 after the second period. Were the Russian players gripping their sticks a little tight before the home crowd?

Throughout the day, the mostly Russian crowd soaked up all the action. Not many Canadian or American fans have made it to Sochi -- perhaps reluctant to come because of terrorist threats -- but every seat has been full at every game, and the crowds were appreciatively loud. This, after all, was their rare chance to see the NHL's biggest stars.

And for what it's worth, even Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic thinks the show is even better on the big ice. Defensemen are supposed to hate the larger surface because it gives forwards more room to evade and get past the likes of Vlasic. But he looked comfortable playing the angles in Thursday's game.

"I don't mind it at all," the Canadian said. "I like it because as a defenseman, you're not getting hit as much because there's so much more room out there."

And we're just getting started. There's room for a lot more intrigue before the tournament is done.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.

inside
A look how the four Sharks fared in their first games in Sochi. PAGE 5

Men's super combined skiing NBC, 8-11:30 p.m. Friday (tape delayed)
The past two Olympic gold medalists in the event -- Americans Ted Ligety (right) in 2006 and Bode Miller (left) in 2010 -- should get a run from Austria's Matthias Mayer, who won gold in the downhill earlier in these games.

Men's figure skating Free program NBCSN, 7 a.m. Friday (live)
The competition concludes with Americans Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott, who took a hard fall in the short program, sitting in sixth and 15th place, respectively. Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu (shown) is in first. (Also shown delayed Friday on NBC, 8-11:30 p.m.)