TORONTO – Team Canada and Team USA finally play their World Cup of Hockey preliminary showdown on Tuesday night, having been placed in the same group for the benefit of ESPN. Oh, and pre-tournament seeding or something.
The two hockey rivals are in familiar positions: Canada, majestically striding through a tournament that seems to be held in its honor, looking infallible; the United States, being relegated to further underdog status after an opening-game loss to recently invented Team Europe, attempting to overcome long odds (and their hated rival) and survive in this tournament.
Basically, the Americans need regulation wins vs. Canada and then against the Czech Republic on Thursday night. That’s the clearest path to the semifinal round.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that the U.S. does that. If Team Europe beats Canada in regulation or loses in overtime to the Canadians on Wednesday, the Canadians and Americans would finish with four points each, and Team USA would hold the head-to-head tie-breaker. Europe advances. Team USA advances. Canada would be out of their own tournament.
If Canada beats Europe in regulation, all three teams would have four points; Canada advances, and the Americans would advance for having two regulation wins to Europe’s one.
There are other scenarios, including a wacky one that would get the winless Czechs into the semifinals, but that’s the clearest path for the Americans. And, as you can see, the riskiest for the Canadians.
So on top of the rivalry, this game will determine plenty about the way the World Cup plays out.
Here are five keys in Team USA’s showdown with Canada.
1 – The Crosby Line
From top to bottom, every line on Team Canada could easily be a top line for an NHL team. But the top line of Sidney Crosby with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron is something special.
They clicked for three goals and four assists in the 6-0 opening-game humbling of the Czechs. “I think the chemistry clicked right away, the three of us from day one,” said Bergeron. “I’m just trying to read off what he’s going to do, and he’s usually always a step ahead of everyone, so it’s about reading that, and making sure I’m in position to help him.”
Said Marchand on Crosby: “I think we both enjoy the play in the offensive zone down low, control the puck, play hard and forecheck and support each other. I think we kind of were able to see that a bit in a game in the summertime. He’s obviously an incredible player and he’s very easy to play with.”
So the Americans will need an answer for this trio. It could come in a power vs. power battle with Ryan Kesler’s line featuring Zach Parise and Blake Wheeler. It won’t feature Crosby’s NHL tormentor Brandon Dubinsky, who was scratched by coach John Tortorella for the Canada game.
2 – Roving Kane
On a team that left a lot of offense back home in the name of “grit” and “sandpaper” and whatever — hi, Phil Kessel and Tyler Johnson — Patrick Kane is Team USA’s most lethal offensive weapon.
Coach John Tortorella said he plans on using Kane as a “rover” through the team’s lines, trying to get him ice time and favorable matchups.
“We used him the last game. Yeah, I’m going to bounce him around and it could be on a lot of different lines. This is a tough tournament to get your guys the ice time that they’re used to. I’ve gotta pick certain guys in my lineup that I’m going to find them ice time no matter what and Kaner is one of those guys. I’ll put it to you that way,” said Tortorella.
Kane should begin the game with Derek Stepan as his center and Justin Abdelkader on the other wing.
3 – Perfect Quick
If history repeats itself, this is not going to be a high-scoring affair.
Canada goalie Carey Price hasn’t allowed a goal in almost four games, going back to the Sochi Olympics.
“We play very good defensive hockey. We make it really difficult to score goals. Look at the roster and how many championship players are on this team and there’s a reason why they’re champions,” he said. “They play the game the right way, they’re on the right side of the puck at the right time. It’s a Hockey Canada staple to make it difficult to score. It’s a real pleasure to play behind them.”
The Americans, meanwhile, haven’t scored a goal in their last three “best on best” international tournament games, including the 1-0 loss to Canada in Sochi. With the margin that small, they’re going to need starting goalie Jonathan Quick to be practically flawless.
What’s the key to beating Quick?
“Well, we’ve got a couple of his teammates on our team, so definitely we want to pre-scout and then have a good idea how we can be productive on him,” said Canada John Tavares in reference to Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin of the Los Angeles Kings. “Obviously score on our opportunities. Obviously a world-class goalie, he’s won two Stanley Cups, so he’s very proven. He played very well against us in that first exhibition game.”
He’ll need to be even better on Tuesday night.
4 – The Forecheck Game
Pace will be key in this game. Canada will likely control it. What the Americans have to do is make sure that those waves of Canadian forecheckers don’t create havoc in the attacking zone, while getting their own forwards skating north to south and creating chances.
In other words: The Team USA defensemen are going to be under the microscope.
“Canada loves to be in your face. You’re going to have two, three seconds and then move it out of your end. You can’t screw around with it, and try to make that perfect play. It might just be a simply D-to-D play. Canada’s on you so quick,” said defenseman Erik Johnson.
He said it’s on the defense to generate offense, but be smart about it.
“Our forwards coming with speed is a much more intimidating group than chasing the play,” he said. “But we gave up odd-man rushes [against Team Europe]. The ‘D’ want to be up in the play, be active, but you gotta have a little bit of self-restraint. There’s a difference between in the play and reckless.”
Speaking of which…
5- Knowing Where The Edge Is
The Americans have to pay with an edge. They have to get physical with Canada and try their best to agitate them. But, to a man, they said the key is not crossing that line.
“We’re coming. We’re going to come. That’s no secret,” said Tortorella. “We’re going to play the game the right way. It’s not about yapping after the whistle. I think we need to have just a business look. I don’t think there should be any talking, I think you just play between the whistles and play the right way, the way we’re supposed to play for us to get an opportunity to win.”
For better or worse, it comes down to what American center David Backes described: The ‘gritty’ Team USA against the more talented Team Canada.
“We’ve got a blue collar team that works hard and has to stick to that to have success against them. If we get in a track meet, it favors them. If we get into a grind game and use our size and physicality, we might be able to tilt the scales in our direction,” he said.
“That’s what we’re looking to do right from puck drop.”
The puck drops at 8 p.m. from Toronto.
Prediction: Team USA wins. Because that’s what they do, before eventually losing to Canada in a more meaningful game. Such is life.
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