TORONTO – Team USA wanted to be a group with a certain gritty identity. The Americans wanted to challenge other teams physically and emotionally in the World Cup of Hockey.
Even though Team USA had plenty of NHL goals amongst their players, they weren’t designed to play a run n’ gun style and were created to grind out wins. Ultimately, this stylistic choice haunted the U.S. in their first game of the World Cup.
Team Europe took advantage of the Americans with opportunistic scoring and suffocating defense in a 3-0 win, setting up a must-win game for Team USA against Team Canada on Tuesday. This was the third straight international ‘best-on-best’ type game where the Americans have been shut out. They didn’t score a goal in their last two games at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
“I don’t totally agree with you as far as the pressure, but developing quality scoring chances, it was a struggle for us,” coach John Tortorella said. “I think we’re going to be able to chip out some of the glorious odd-man rushes we gave them early on for a couple of freebies. I think we’ll get those chipped out, but the part of the game that bothers me most is creating some scoring chances, better quality scoring chances.”
As the Americans constructed their roster before the tournament there were a lot of questions on why they picked the types of players they selected. Pittsburgh Penguins sniper Phil Kessel was left off the team’s initial roster, though a hand injury suffered last season may have prevented him from playing anyway.
Scorers like Kyle Okposo and Tyler Johnson also weren’t picked as the group’s brain trust opted for more physical forwards like Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky. Puck-moving defensemen like Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk weren’t picked for the team.
Even for this game against Europe, Tortorella left Kyle Palmieri (30 goals last season) and Dustin Byfuglien (19 goals in 2015-16) on the bench.
It’s unclear if a different style of roster or even different lineup decisions would have helped against Team Europe, but the players in the contest struggled to find any type of scoring touch.
Forwards Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler couldn’t convert on a 2-on-1 in the second period and that was really the only solid scoring chance for the Americans while the game was still in reach.
James van Riemsdyk thought he scored with 5:50 left in the second when a puck bounced off his chest and into the net, but after a review the play was called back because a goal is disallowed when the puck is directed, batted or thrown into the net. A goal would have put the game at 2-1.
“It was more of a reactionary thing where the puck kind of hit me, and it startled me. I didn’t think I necessarily tried to direct it toward the net deliberately,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s kind of one of those gray areas. On the ice they called it a goal, so I don’t know how they could have possibly seen enough to overturn it, but that’s just how the game goes sometimes.”
Overall, Team USA outshot Europe 35-17, but they couldn’t generate much quality over quantity on goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The Americans were able to pad their shot totals with two third period power plays, but even in those situations Halak wasn’t tested much.
“I mean, I think we got better as the game went on. Our structure early probably wasn’t where it needed to be,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “We turned a few pucks over, got caught pinching. We just weren’t quite sharp enough so that was probably one of the reasons. At the end of the day, we had the power plays, we had some chances we had a few looks. We have to strike when we get those.”
If defense was supposed to be a strength of Team USA, the group didn’t get the job done in that part of the game either.
Team Europe’s first goal came on a 2-on-1 after Ryan McDonagh stepped up in the neutral zone to stop Mats Zuccarello. Frans Nielsen then slipped into the offensive zone and found Marian Gaborik on a 2-on-1.
Europe’s second goal came a little over four minutes into the second period on another busted American play. Kane turned the puck over on his own blue line, which led to a 2-on-0 between Leon Draisaitl and Nino Niederreiter.
The two forwards faked out goaltender Jonathan Quick and then Draisaitl put the puck in the net.
“On that second goal, I’ll definitely take the fault on that one,” Kane said. “That’s a play that I’ve made a million times in my career. Just kind of lost the puck and the next thing you know they go down 2-on-0. That’s unacceptable from me. But at the same time throughout the game we had chances, we had looks, just didn’t really seem to get a break in that game, which is unfortunate because that was a huge game for us.”
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s deflection goal came after Christian Ehrhoff came out of the penalty box uncovered for Europe and had a mini-breakaway. Team Europe didn’t generate much after that, but it didn’t need to either – not with the way they were able to keep the American attack to the outside.
“They were pretty aggressive and they pinched down the wall a lot and I think we did a great job of supporting each other from the D to the forwards and then the other forwards and that’s how we got odd-man rushes,” Europe defenseman Roman Josi said. “It was one of our main goals to play well defensively and it’s one thing we got better and better as training camp went on and we knew we have to play well defensively against that team because there’s so much offensive firepower and we knew we had to play well together and that’s what we did. The forwards played hard coming back and that was just a great defensive team effort.”
After the game Tortorella was asked again about his decision to scratch Byfuglien, who is one of the top offensive defensemen in hockey, and the coach didn’t back off his choice.
Especially with how the United States couldn’t get much offense it’s a decision that will be picked apart and parsed if they don’t make it out of this preliminary round, which is now a real possibility.
“I have to take someone out and Buff has been used on defense and forward along with Kyle Palmieri as a right winger too,” Tortorella said. “We made the decision for this game this was our best lineup. It’s certainly not a negative though on Buff, but we decided to go with this lineup tonight.”
Would Byfuglien specifically have changed the game? It’s unclear, but he at least could have added something different to the group’s lineup on a night where scoring was sparse.
“Buff, when he’s in there he definitely generates a little bit and he’s got a good shot and he plays hard so there’s nothing you can really decide,” Pavelski said. “There’s a lot of good players here. That’s a decision that was made and it’s up to whoever plays to get the job done.”
If the United States beats Canada with a strong offensive performance, then Saturday’s game will be chalked up to just an off night. But considering the country’s recent international history along with the look and feel of this roster, the first game of this tournament couldn’t have gone worse for the U.S.
“It was just tough to score,” forward Zach Parise said. “There are guys that have different roles and different jobs on the team. Guys that play with grit, play hard, but it was just tough to score for us tonight.”
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