There is a temptation to turn the results of any short international hockey tournament into a referendum on the state of the game.
We do that in Canada all the time, though the need hasn’t been nearly as acute lately, not with Canada reeling off 12 consecutive victories now in best-on-best competition dating back to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The latest came Tuesday, a poised, decisive 4-2 win over the United States that moved Canada into the World Cup semi-final this coming weekend and eliminated the Americans.
Canada will be joined in the playoff round by Team Europe; the two teams will meet Wednesday to decide the winner of Group A.
The Americans, meanwhile, are 0-2 and out – the memories of their 1996 victory in this tournament growing ever faint.
It was considered something of a coup when ESPN, the U.S. cable and satellite giant, secured the rights to the World Cup, outbidding NBC, the NHL’s American national television partner. ESPN isn’t just the worldwide leader in sports; it is also the worldwide leader in promoting its own television product – and up until this point, it had shown little interest in hockey since losing the NHL contract.
This event was considered a significant opportunity – for the network and for the league – to showcase the changes and improvements in the NHL product, since ESPN last broadcast hockey.
Instead, you can comfortably predict how the American pratfall will diminish ratings for an event that still has up to 12 days to run.
Just as the Canadian team under coach Mike Babcock coolly dismissed the Americans with another efficient performance, it was clear things were never really right with this U.S. team, almost right from the get-go. The U.S. team was built to emphasize old-school hockey values – grit, physical play – in an era when skill and speed are in ascendancy.
Undeterred, the Americans left off their roster the speed of Phil Kessel and the skill of Tyler Johnson and the smarts of Paul Stastny. It didn’t help that established NHL scoring stars such as Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski and Max Pacioretty had relatively quiet tournaments. The net effect was they couldn’t score nearly enough to stay with the Canadians. With about 12 minutes to go, the Americans held a 35-11 edge in the body check department. That will likely be small comfort when they cue the Royal Commission – or whatever the U.S. equivalent of a Royal Commission is.
What the investigation will discover is that the American development program is actually as good as it’s ever been.
The problem is that two of its rising stars, Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau, are playing for the North American under-24 team. If they were in the mix; if they’d made a few different calls in selecting their the roster; and if Kane and Co. could have gotten untracked a little earlier, maybe you’d have a different result.
But that’s something for them to ponder next time.
The Americans tried to talk up their edge in the grit department. Forward T.J. Oshie had noted that if the game was decided by skill, Canada wins, but if it’s through effort and try, the Americans wind up on top. It’s not exactly bulletin board and not exactly the truth either.
No one who isn’t out there competing hard is going to play long for a Babcock-coached team.
The fact is, the Americans actually got the start they wanted – Ryan McDonough opening the scoring against goaltender Carey Price just over four minutes into play, knocking down Marc-Éduard Vlasic at the edge of the crease and then jamming in a rebound.
Not too long later, Vlasic – on what looked like a set play – set up the first of two goals by Matt Duchene, by taking a slap shot from the left point that he aimed deliberately wide of goaltender Jonathan Quick. Duchene, anticipating the carom off the boards, deftly tucked a backhander in. Fourteen seconds later, Corey Perry put Canada ahead, driving hard to the net, giving Canada a lead they would never relinquish.
Duchene scored again, slipping behind an overly aggressive U.S. defence to score with a clever deke between Quick’s pads; and then Patrice Bergeron scored the only goal of the second period to put the game out of reach.
Duchene spent the early part of his professional life playing with Ryan O’Reilly for the Colorado Avalanche. The two, along with the ageless Joe Thornton, form Canada’s nominal fourth line. That’s the part of the Canadian equation that’s so hard to defence, the skill from the top of the line-up to the bottom.
One night, it’s Sidney Crosby’s line putting on a show. The next, it’s the Ryan O’Reilly’s. In a tournament with no weak entries, Canada has outscored the opposition 10-2 through the first two games. They have been scary good.Report Typo/Error