UPDATE: The U.S. Men’s National Team will take on the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals Wednesday at 10:15 a.m. EDT. The game will be carried live on VERSUS.
Knowing its fate may have been a big reason for the U.S. Men’s National Team’s lackluster effort against Switzerland, a team with next to nothing to play for. Coming into today’s contest, the U.S. had already clinched a spot in the quarterfinals, however its seeding would be determined by the outcome of its game. A 5-3 loss to the Swiss today means Team USA finished fourth in Group F and will have to take on Group E’s top seed and tournament favorite Czech Republic on Wednesday
Coming up after the jump, a USA-SUI recap and a look ahead to the quarterfinal.
There’s really not much to recap, as the U.S. just didn’t seem to have it today against Switzerland. Despite scoring first and looking good for the first 10 minutes of the game, Team USA couldn’t maintain that high-level of play for most of the contest. Bad turnovers, an anemic offense, and a less-than-exemplary effort from Ty Conklin made for a rough game.
One of the running themes of this tournament has been the inconsistency from the forwards and that was a continuing trend in today’s game. The Wheeler-Stepan-Smith line has been the go-to scoring unit for Scott Gordon and has been the most consistent, but aside from the game’s first goal (scored by Craig Smith on a great feed from Clay Wilson), was largely a non-factor. There were a few shifts here and there where they generated chances, but had even more missed opportunities.
I think this game was a little more important than the U.S. let on. It never had that feel of desperation. Having already clinched a spot, perhaps Team USA was content to sit back a little bit in this one. I don’t know if one could outright question the effort of the American side today, but it just felt kind of uninspired. The U.S. just never seemed to match Switzerland’s intensity. The Swiss, already eliminated from medal contention, just competed all game. That was the difference.
New addition James van Riemsdyk hopped right into the lineup and, considering he’s basically right off the plane, played pretty well. He skated mainly with Ryan Shannon and Andy Miele and for much of the game that was Team USA’s best line. Anyone that’s ever traveled to Europe knows that sometimes it take a few days to get your bearings. Lucky for the U.S., van Riemsdyk showed no signs of jet lag on the ice. He’ll get at least one day off to rest up and get ready for the Czechs. JVR had Team USA’s third goal, coming on as an extra attacker. So he also payed immediate dividends on the score sheet.
Cam Fowler had another pretty solid effort and his patience and creativity directly led to van Riemsdyk’s goal. It’s just one of those plays where you shake your head. To think he’s only a rookie. This kid’s going to be a dynamite player for the U.S. throughout his career.
Andy Miele has some pretty good offensive tools. His brilliant stretch pass to Ryan Shannon on Team USA’s second goal was a thing of beauty. It was actually a really smart pass, too. You’d normally see a player send it directly to a teammate, but Miele instead passed it to the inside of the defenseman, allowing Shannon time to beat the defender to the outside and catch the pass in stride. That’s pretty tough to defend when you’ve got the puck on one side and a hard-charging forward on the other. Just a heady play by the Hobey Baker winner.
Al Montoya was pretty good in relief of Conklin. It just looked like Conklin was out of sorts from the get go. I think it was an off-day more than anything for Conklin. Montoya came in and kept his team in the game and allowed the opportunity for a come back. As Zach Parise mentioned in the post-game, he feels Conklin will still get the nod against the Czechs, and despite today’s effort, I have to agree with that thought. Conklin might be more battle tested.
Clay Wilson had a solid effort today, getting more minutes against the Swiss than I remember seeing in previous tournament games. He showed off some good offensive instincts and kept things pretty simple out there. His pass to Craig Smith on the first U.S. goal capped off a really great effort by Wilson to give himself more time with the puck.
The lack of depth at the forward position, even now with van Riemsdyk added, has been obvious throughout the tournament. The U.S. is getting literally nothing out of its bottom six forwards.
The thing is, when these lines aren’t scoring, they’ve got to be doing something else and they really aren’t right now. When you can’t get much of anything out of your bottom six (or seven), you’re going to struggle. Especially against a team as offensively gifted as the Czechs.
Which leads me to my next point… defensive zone turnovers. There have been a lot of them in this tournament for Team USA. Mental mistakes like we’ve seen for much of the tournament will destroy the U.S. against a highly-skilled Czech team.
There have been turnovers of all kinds in the D-zone. Some have been from goaltenders misplaying the puck, which seems to have happened at least once per game for the U.S. Some have been thanks to ill-advised passes from defensemen to the middle of the ice. Some have been thanks to forwards botching the breakout along the wall, as happened on Switzerland’s first goal today.
I think the most frustrating thing about these turnovers is that the U.S. is clearly not learning from their mistakes. These are mistakes that are coming due to players just forcing it. Instead of making the simple play, the U.S. is forcing plays that aren’t there. I’m sure there’s a video reel on the coaches’ laptops of these mistakes. It grows by the game and it doesn’t have to.
If the U.S. commits those kind of mistakes against the Czechs, its going to get real ugly, real fast.
Looking at the Czech Republic:
The U.S. could not have asked for a tougher draw, which makes today’s loss more frustrating. Avoiding the Czechs for as long as possible would have been the path of least resistance, though Finland and/or Germany would have offered difficult challenges as well. There’s no doubt, that the Czech Republic is the team to beat at the 2011 IIHF World Men’s Championship.
The Czechs will be heavily favored, as they should be, against the U.S.. With the likes of Martin Havlat, Milan Michalek, Patrick Elias, Tomas Plekanec, and an aging, but still viable Jaromir Jagr, the mismatch at forward is immense. Top that with an NHL-player-laden defensive corps that has been outstanding for this Czech squad (not a single minus player on the team) and the tournament’s best goaltender in Ondrej Pavelec (5-0, 1.40 GAA, .945 SV%), no one will be picking Team USA to come out on top.
That said, the U.S. took a vastly more talented Team Canada to a shootout and will have the added pressure of an elimination game for motivation. How it all plays out should be fun to watch, but I’d think the U.S. is going to have to play near-perfect hockey to beat a team as talented as the Czech Republic.
So the U.S. will play the Czechs either Wednesday or Thursday. We’ll have to wait until the qualification games are complete and the directorate sets the quarterfinal times. I’ll have an update on this post when that gets taken care of. I have not been able to confirm whether or not VERSUS will be televising the quarterfinal game live. Hope to get that updated soon, as well.
Also, we jump back into the Pee Wee checking debate tomorrow. I’ll be featuring some new information and new resources to help you further understand the reasoning behind the potential rule change as we’re just about a month away from the all-important vote at USA Hockey’s Annual Congress.