After a poor showing against Slovakia which resulted in a 2-4 loss, Team USA bounced back to win its next two games, beating Belarus 5-3 and Kazakhstan 3-2 in overtime. As of May 11th, the Americans currently sit 3rd in the Helsinki group and will have to finish in the top four of the group in order to advance to the quarterfinals. However, although the U.S. would advance if the tournament ended today, it has put itself in a precarious position by losing to Slovakia and only gaining two out of a possible three points against a weak Kazakhstan team.
At the time of this article being written, Slovakia and Switzerland both sit behind the U.S. in the standings with 6 points, whereas the U.S. has 10. Both Slovakia and Switzerland, however, have a game in hand on the Americans and are almost sure bets to pick up three points each May 12th, as Slovakia plays Belarus and Switzerland plays France. While nothing is guaranteed in a tournament like the World Championships, it would appear that Slovakia will finish with no less than 12 points, since they also play France, and Switzerland will finish with no less than 9 points. The saving grace for Team USA may end up being that Slovakia and Switzerland play each other on May 13th, limiting the amount of points that both teams can reach.
So what’s the problem, then? Team USA already has 10 points and it was just stated that Switzerland will finish with no less than 9. Well, Team USA will next play the defending champions in Finland, followed by Switzerland. The worst case scenario for the Americans would be to lose to the Finns and have the Swiss beat Slovakia.
If this takes place and the Swiss beat France as expected, the U.S. will enter its final game of the preliminary round with 10 points, the Swiss will have 12, and, as previously stated, the Slovaks are almost guaranteed to finish with at least 12 points. This will force Team USA to beat a strong Swiss squad in order to advance to the quarterfinals. Now, there’s no reason the U.S. couldn’t accomplish this feat, but, at the same time, it’s not a position they want to put themselves into.
So yes, this is a lot of conjecture about things that might happen but aren’t necessarily guaranteed to take place. Yet, it’s hard to argue after looking at the remaining schedule and the current standings that this scenario is far-fetched. Team USA can put all this to rest by beating Finland on May 13th, but this is proving to be no easy task. So far, Finland has only lost once, a 3-5 defeat to Canada. By beating Finland, the Americans would all but guarantee themselves a spot in the quarterfinals.
To do so, though, the U.S. will have to cut out much of the sloppy play that has crept into its game since defeating Canada 5-4 in overtime. In the three games since, the defensemen have turned the puck over regularly, often without being pressured, which has resulted in scoring chances for the opposition. Players like Cam Fowler and Jeff Petry need to pick up their play in order to solidify the blueline for Team USA.
In addition, the U.S. must continue to improve and adjust in other aspects of their game. Recently, the Americans have struggled against the strategy of their past three opponents. Slovakia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan all slowed the game down by using a trapping system, neutralizing Team USA’s speed and creativity.
To combat this, Team USA needs to forget about trying to stick handle at the blue line and simply dump the puck in the offensive zone and pick up the forecheck. If the opposition tries to limit speed through the neutral zone, then the U.S. must use their speed within the offensive zone to attack the opposing defensemen. Along with picking up the forecheck, the Americans need to raise their level of physicality. Although the international ice surface makes it difficult to do so at times, too often Team USA has neglected to finish their checks, which makes them an easier team to play against.
If they are to recapture the form they showed versus Team Canada against Finland and Switzerland, the U.S. will also have to find its scoring touch. After scoring 12 goals in the first two games of the tournament, Team USA only scored 10 goals in its next three games (with five coming in one game). The U.S. desperately needs the second line of Kyle Okposo, Craig Smith, and Ryan Lasch to take some of the pressure off the first line.
Although the U.S. was able to avoid a serious embarrassment by salvaging a win against Kazakhstan, that point lost could prove crucial later on in the tournament. There’s no doubt that when they play their strongest, the Americans are a formidable force in this tournament. The problem, at least lately, has been that Team USA hasn’t played its best hockey.
In a few days, the U.S. will know how important that point lost to Kazakhstan was. At this point, though, all they can do is refocus and move on. They will have to find their game quickly because their upcoming opponents won’t get any easier, and Justin Faulk won’t be able to save them every game. The game against Switzerland looms.