Perhaps it was to Team USA’s benefit that VERSUS elected to show the game against Sweden on a tape delay as opposed to live. The U.S. Men’s National Team came into the game riding a 2-0-0-0 record and had a chance to finish group play undefeated for the first time ever. However, a lackluster effort and poor goaltending did in the U.S. as it fell to Sweden 6-2. For those of us that caught the game live, it was relatively hard to watch. The first period was promising, but everything after that wasn’t exactly inspiring.
Al Montoya had not faced more than 15 shots in either of his two previous starts. Against Sweden, he made 24 saves on 30 shots. The big question coming in was how Montoya was going to handle a more offensively gifted team. Well… I guess we got our answer. While there were a few soft goals, Montoya could have received a better effort from the guys in front of him. Still, its probably a night Montoya would just as soon forget.
The U.S. lost a valuable three points as it heads into a qualification round that should provide some major challenges. Lucky for the U.S., there wasn’t a single team in its qualification round bracket that took every available point, meaning every single game, right down to the goal should be big in the next phase of the tournament. Bruce Peter of Puck Worlds has a solid qualification round preview.
The qualification match ups are quite intriguing. It all starts Friday with USA-Canada. I’m guessing VERSUS won’t be bumping this one to tape delay.
The U.S. will also take on a very solid team from Switzerland and France during the qualification round. While these match ups bring less intrigue than USA-Canada, both should prove huge in Team USA’s quest to advance to the playoff round.
For more on the qualification round format, here is the IIHF’s explanation.
The good news about Friday’s contest against Canada, which will air at 10:15 a.m. EDT on VERSUS, is that the North American rivalry should pique interest in the tournament. Based on my previous experience, it appears that the interest is at an all-time high in the U.S. Whether it’s on Twitter or blogs, people are at least talking about it, which is good.
The bad news about Friday’s game is that Canada is fairly stacked at the forward position and, on paper, looks to have a huge advantage over the U.S. talent-wise. Even casual hockey fans will look up and down the Canadian roster and see it.
NHL stars like Rick Nash, John Tavares, Dion Phaneuf and Jason Spezza compliment budding stars like Evander Kane, Chris Stewart, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner and Luke Schenn. Additionally, Canada has a pretty solid netminder in James Reimer.
So, on paper, it looks to be a heavy mismatch, but one ever knows for sure in these international events.
The one thing I think we did see out of the U.S. against Sweden was a bit of fire. They played physical and with some heart. Unfortunately, the U.S. also played sloppy. So if they can mix that heart with some improved play in all areas, I wouldn’t be shocked if the U.S. is able to skate with Team Canada. There’s no doubt Team USA’s entire lineup will be fired up to play its North American rivals. That’s the hope at least.
Goaltending, as it pretty much always is in hockey, will be especially important for Team USA against Canada. After Montoya’s rough outing against Sweden, will Scott Gordon stick with him? Montoya has started every game so far for the U.S., however Ty Conklin is available on the bench.
Conklin has had international success before, leading the U.S. to its last medal at the IIHF World Men’s Championship, bronze in 2004. His international experience, coupled with his status as a long-time NHLer makes him an attractive Plan B.
The U.S. also has wunderkind Jack Campbell on the roster, but I have a feeling the youngster will only be called upon in an emergency situation.
My gut tells me Gordon will stick with Montoya, but will have him on a short leash. If that’s the case, Montoya’s got to forget about Sweden and focus in on making the saves he’s supposed to make.
The following players were bright spots in the Sweden game and could be keys for Team USA against Canada:
Derek Stepan has been outstanding for the U.S. as a table-setter. He’s showing a lot of poise in all areas of the ice, which you love to see out of a guy fresh off his rookie season. I had a feeling he would be a big-time player for this team and he really has been. That poise and control he’s showed throughout will need to carry over against Canada on Friday. He’ll be relied on heavily in all situations in that game and Team USA will need him to deliver.
Cam Fowler is another one of those later pick-ups that is paying off. He had a power-play goal against Sweden and has looked outstanding playing big minutes for Scott Gordon. Another NHL rookie that doesn’t look like a rookie, Fowler has been a consistent presence on the blue line. Fowler’s had success at the international level against Canada in the World Juniors and World U18s and will need to play that no-panic style against the big kids this time.
Blake Wheeler also scored for Team USA, on a bit of a soft goal, but it came at a time where Team USA needed a boost. Unfortunately, it was the last goal the U.S. scored in the game, but getting a big guy like Wheeler going offensively is going to be key for the rest of the tournament. A former 20-goal scorer at the NHL level, he’s shown he can put the puck in the net. Playing with Stepan and Craig Smith, Wheeler has been part of Team USA’s top unit. If those three can’t get it going against Canada, the U.S. will be in a world of trouble.
No matter what, the U.S. is going to need an inspired effort out of each of the 22 guys dressed Friday. Team USA has done well to get into the qualification round, but now they’ll have to do something with the opportunity. Three tough opponents stand in their way, with the toughest coming up first.
A win against Canada would be a huge accomplishment, but gaining some confidence and positive momentum regardless of the outcome may prove more important as the U.S. tries to advance to the quarterfinals.
We’ll have USA-Canada reaction Friday afternoon on USofH and a look ahead to the games against Switzerland and France.