Canada’s Facing a Team Built to Beat Them

Team USA’s flat, lifeless effort against Europe may have been a combination of underestimating that roster, and not being able to muster enough emotion for an opponent with which they have no history. The loss was about Europe’s ability to play a defensive trap, and make the most of their opportunities, and the US not being able to transition the puck effectively from the blue line to their forwards. There were already questions about the American roster decisions going into this tournament, and even more now after that first game. But is that because their goal in this World Cup of Hockey was a little singular in focus?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The USA Built Their Team to Beat Canada

It’s no secret (because they’ve admitted it many times), that the Americans constructed their team in a way that they felt would be the most effective against Canada. Rather than bringing Tyler Johnson, Justin Faulk, Kyle Okposo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Phil Kessel (who is injured anyway), management elected to go with guys like Justin Abdelkader, David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson.

Hockey is one of those sports where you simply can’t overreact after just one game. But this is such a short tournament, and after having three tune-up games, the Americans should have been ready to go. Were they looking past Team Europe? It’s possible. Although, another win by the Europeans suggests that they may be a lot better than everyone expected. Had Derek Stepan’s goal stood, the score would have been 2-1 and the end result perhaps different.

In any case, head coach John Tortorella has been talking about beating Canada since before this tournament even started. Is it simply gamesmanship? Is he giving the Canadians back-handed compliments by suggesting they’re the benchmark? Could be, but I suspect Mike Babcock and his men won’t be suckered into mind games. In Canada’s first pre-tournament contest against the States, Jonathan Quick stole the show, though the Americans might believe their physicality helped them to victory. It didn’t work in the second game. A team with the likes of Shea Weber, Brad Marchand, and Logan Couture isn’t going to be easily intimidated.

Joe McDonald of ESPN summed up the USA’s strategy like this:

The American roster was built to slow down Canada. Every team has some level of depth in this tournament, but Team USA has the right kind of depth. The vision of Team USA’s management group, including coach John Tortorella, has built a team that can beat Canada. I polled players from other teams in this tournament, and the majority believe Team USA will beat Team Canada. [ESPN]

Are we talking about one game here? Are the players being polled assuming that the US can get to the final in which they’ll have a best of three? (Not a given that Canada makes it there as well.) They couldn’t beat Europe. Could you imagine the US facing the North Americans and all that speed? They’ll get eaten up. (Although since that team is half Canadian maybe the intensity level will be higher).

(Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports)

Isn’t Winning the World Cup the Goal?

I suspect that the US believed they would beat Europe, and go into their match-up with Canada on a high. There is no room for error now because even if they do beat the Canadians, their ticket to the next round still isn’t booked. Will they be able to muster enough to finish strong after their “championship” game? Yes, those are their words, not mine.

“That’s our championship game. Tuesday is our championship game. We knew we’d have to go through Canada. That’s the way we’re approaching it. If we are fortunate enough to get through, hopefully we can get another one. When we play our next opponent, I don’t think there’s going to be any problem as far as our emotion. [Toronto Sun]

I know that Team Canada loves to beat the US. But they rarely talk about it, because they have loftier goals in mind. Dustin Byfuglien, who figures to draw into the lineup for the game, described facing Canada this way: “It’s everything”. (Actually winning the World Cup would be everything, but I digress). I tend to believe there is a lot of gamesmanship going on here, especially by Tortorella, publically giving Canada all this respect. It’s a neat concept, but as I said before, it’s not going to rattle the Canadians.

Will the physical play get under their skin? It might, and Canada is already struggling to stay out of the penalty box. There are no guarantees that Canada even gets out of the group stage. So if the US does what they set out to do, what next? Sean Harnett of CBS had these thoughts on the situation:

What it boils down to is a team that is short of firepower, and proof of Tortorella’s obsession with cookie cutter players who fit his yearnings for “grit” and “jam. Tortorella got what he wanted — a roster full of grinding forwards and a heavy group of blueliners who can handle the punishment of playing a collapsing defensive system and are willing to block an unholy amount of shots. It’s pretty much grab a lead and defend for your life. [CBS Local]

(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)
(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

The philosophy of having “checking” lines works wonders in the NHL. But against the best players in the world all on the ice at the same time? It remains to be seen if that will result in a top two finish. Canada has players who can battle in the corners and grind the opposition down. They also happened to be highly skilled. When Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Corey Perry and Joe Thornton are counted upon to play bottom six roles, you have to like your chances. Canada isn’t built to beat one team. They’re built to beat all the teams.

Team USA might end up beating Canada in their round robin game on sheer emotion alone. They’re going to be so amped up they may be unstoppable, and if their goaltending is strong, look out. If the Americans get the win, they could carry that momentum deep into the tournament. On the flip side, they could exude so much energy into one rivalry game that they’ll have nothing left to compete against anyone else. If Team USA’s goal at this World Cup is to beat Canada, they may very well achieve it. But that might be all they accomplish at this tournament.

The Hockey Writers coverage of the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is being brought to you by PrimeSport, the official Fan Travel & Hospitality Package Partner of the World Cup of Hockey 2016.