WASHINGTON, DC – On Sept. 20, the United States will play a World Cup of Hockey preliminary group play game against Canada. The game will be in Toronto. The world will be watching.
“Canada’s the best right now. They’ve proven that the last couple of years. If you want to win the tournament, you have to go through them,” said Team USA goalie Ben Bishop.
“To be the best, you gotta beat the best.”
The Canadians and Americans split their World Cup exhibition games in Columbus over the weekend, combining for an uncharacteristic 13 goals in the games. They’re grouped together in the World Cup, and bracketed to meet in the best-of-three championship round should they both advance.
Canada is mentioned with frequency in the American locker room, sometimes unprompted. They’re the measuring stick, to the point where Team USA’s very construction is by design to beat Canada. They’re the bullying older brother. They’re the architects of anguish for the veteran American players that have suffered through two medal-round defeats to the Canadians in the Olympics.
The players we spoke to wouldn’t go as far as to say that defeating Canada on its home ice in either the first round or in the semifinals would be as important, or more important, than winning the World Cup of Hockey. But beating Canada is certainly front of mind.
“It’s about winning a tournament. We want to get to that level with this group, and it’s about going through a lot of good teams to get to that level,” said Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks.
“Obviously it’s not just about beating Canada. But obviously it’s nice if you beat them along the way.”
So how does one beat Canada, if one is Team USA?
“We’re pretty familiar with their talent level and what they bring. The first game was pretty up-tempo. The second was a little more sluggish, as you’d expect in a back-to-back. Playing against the best prepares you the best,” said goalie Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils.
Playing the best allowed the Team USA coaches to get a handle on the team’s weaknesses’ before the tournament.
“Yeah, we’ve got some work to do,” said coach John Tortorella. “I thought Canada, as far as time of possession and end zone play, the two games they played against us they spent a lot of time in our end zone. I think one of our biggest weaknesses in the two games, and I’m glad we played Canada because they are a really good team, probably the best team in the tournament right now and you’d have to say that, I think it really gave us a focus on that we just weren’t close enough to the puck on our breakout, so we didn’t come out clean. We just weren’t supporting enough and we certainly weren’t close enough, or really even gave ourselves a chance to forecheck because we got stubborn at the blue line in trying to make too many plays instead of putting it behind them.
“Everybody talks about puck possession but sometimes puck possession is you don’t have the puck, you put it into an area to get it back and I don’t think we did a good enough job there,”said Tortorella. “When we did, I just think we need to be closer there. We need to support and outnumber people there also. That’s our biggest weaknesses in the two games, so we have a little bit of work to do as we go through and prepare for the start of the tournament.”
Of course, Canada can exploit many weaknesses while not offering many to exploit. As Schneider said, they’re not going to help you out much with their own miscues.
“You have to be smart about it. You have to play the right way. They don’t have a lot of guys who cheat or give you free offense too often. For us, it’s about establishing our speed and getting pucks behind them. I know it’s a little cliché,” he said.
The exhibition games showed that the Americans have plenty of speed and some offensive pop if the World Cup contests are played a little loosely.
“With how the NHL is trending, and how fast teams are getting and how fast teams are trying to play, I think it’s bringing a little bit more offense [to the tournament],” said forward and Sochi hero T.J. Oshie. “It’s also the first time the goalies are really seeing any action this year.”
Of course, when Team USA was built, the initial reaction was that the team left goals sitting back home – hello, Phil Kessel – to try and get more physicality, grit and “sandpaper” on the roster. Especially when Tortorella and his shot-blocking defense and offensively conservative approach was the one picked to coach that group.
“I don’t think we are [the most skilled team],” said Tortorella. “We’re playing in a National Hockey League rink and I think that comes into our play as far as how we’re thinking how we’re going to build the teams. I think we need a blend. The way we’ve gone about it, the word we use is ‘identity’ and I felt we made strides with our identity against Canada, but we have some work to do before we start the real stuff.”
Oshie thinks that the team can win in a variety of ways, even if Canada dictates the pace.
“You look around this locker room, and you have a lot of hard-working, blue-collar players. If that’s the way the games go, we’re going to feel comfortable there. But we also have guys that play on both sides of the puck and can put the puck in the net. I think this team is really built to play the way we want to dictate, and which ever way the game goes,” he said.
Canada matters, and thus, beating Canada matters.
It matters to the players who have been thwarted by their neighbors to the north – and, yes, by their own NHL teammates playing for their home nation – in major tournaments. And it matters to their friends, family and fans back home – many of whom, said Bishop, are going to be watching the game simply because of the network carrying it in the U.S.
“I think it’s been way too long. Everyone watches ESPN. It’s going to be good to get back on it,” he said. “Obviously you’re playing them on ESPN, in primetime, all your friends and family back home and watching, your country is watching … it’s kind of a big deal.”
There are bigger deals, of course. Like the Olympics, where Canada has handed the Americans crushing defeats for the gold medal in 2010 and in the semifinals in 2014.
If Team USA beats Canada in Canada and then wins the World Cup, is that finally getting one over on them?
“They’re a great team. It’ll be a challenge to beat them,” said Schneider.
I put it him another way: As a Mets fan, I relish whenever the team defeats the Yankees. I relish when they fare better than the Yankees in any given season. And yet, at the end of the day, the Yankees still defeated the Mets in the World Series, and until they do the same, Yankee fans will always hang that fact over the heads of Mets fans.
Is it kind of like that with Team USA and Canada, where even a World Cup win won’t soothe that itch after the Olympic defeats.
“I don’t know,” said Schneider. “I don’t have an answer for you.”
And there’s only one way to find out …
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