Did North America coaches fail their players?

Todd McLellan at the World Cup of Hockey. (Getty Images)
Todd McLellan at the World Cup of Hockey. (Getty Images)

TORONTO – The sad coda to Team North America’s overtime win over Sweden on Wednesday night was that the players thought that had clinched a spot in the semifinals.

“When I scored, I thought we were in,” said Nathan MacKinnon, who scored the game-winner to bring the ACC house down with the 4-3 victory. “Maybe we shouldn’t have celly’d that hard.”

Or maybe their coaches should have been more candid with them.

That’s the bone that Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star picks with Todd McLellan and his staff: That they didn’t share the details of Team North America’s clinching scenarios, and therefore did them wrong by not having them put the pedal down in regulation. “The coaches knew what they needed to advance. They just didn’t tell the players,” he wrote.

From Arthur:

North America played a risk-reward scenario: They would rather try to win playing straight hockey against a Sweden team playing for overtime rather than tell the players, we need this. Go for it.

The problem with that is twofold. One, North America actually could have lost in regulation and advanced: a Finland win over Russia in regulation by anything less than a pile of goals would have created a three-way tiebreak that North America would have won. The risk was not absolute.

Two, the players weren’t allowed to throw off the reins and just press like hell without fear, and as a result the most exciting team in 30 years now needs Finland to win or this thing is over. They would have played Canada in the semi, after Canada beat Team Europe 4-1 Wednesday night. What looks like the least conservative collection of great talent we’ve seen in generations might have been undone by a little too much conservatism. That would be maddening.

What did McLellan have to say about this approach?

“Well, we had talked as a staff. Management, coaching, we went through basically every scenario we possibly could, and we had a goal spread that we knew we basically had to stay in,” he said. “We knew that winning would do wonders for us. We knew that getting into the situation we ended in we would still need help. But as we went down the stretch, we played to win there. And certainly in overtime I think both teams were playing to win. It was like ‘oh, no, and go,’ one after another. So very exciting, but we played to win. We played to win down the stretch.”

At the risk of not offering a smoldering take here: We sorta see both sides of this.

Yes, a regulation win would have clinched it. It would have meant a tiebreaker that would have involved at least Sweden and potentially Sweden and Russia. In either scenario, Team North America advances.

Yes, a loss in regulation would have not been their death knell, either. It would have left them with two points, and a Finland win in regulation would have meant a three-way tie that North America wins on tiebreakers.

An overtime loss would have left them with three points, and they’d still need a Finland regulation win over Russia. If Russia earned a charity point in an overtime loss, they finish with three points and win the head-to-head tie-breaker with North America.

But a win in overtime – and let’s face it, TNA was going to run game in the 3-on-3 – is better than a loss in regulation. It gives them four points in the group. It still means they need a Finland win to advance, but that win can occur in either regulation or overtime. If Russia loses in OT, they finish with three points. They’re out, TNA moves on.

So essentially, North America’s coaches had to make the call: Attempt to control their destiny with a stones-to-the-wall blitz in the latter part of the third period, risking a regulation loss; or don’t open it up and just try to win the game on the speed and skill you know would be on display in overtime against a team playing its second game in two days.

What would you have done?

(One final note: Isn’t it fun to actually have some tangible hockey thing to debate in this silly tournament?)

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.