When a collection of some of the best Americans ever assembled won the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, it was still considered a pretty monumental upset. Led by Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Mike Richter, that team had to go into Montreal and win two in a row against a Canadian roster that featured 10 future Hall of Famers including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and a cast of many others.
Aside from Jeremy Roenick, who skipped the tournament due to his being between contracts, that U.S. roster had pretty much the best players available at that time. It just so happened that some of those players also were among the grittiest in the league at a time where clutch-and-grab hockey was the name of the game.
Fast forward to 2016 and the style of team Dean Lombardi built is not much different than the one that Lou Lamoriello put together in 1996. The American outfit is going to be among the toughest in the tournament, with a similar mix of blue collar players and some of the highly-skilled variety. Lombardi chose not to bring the best available players in order to build this kind of team. Now we will see if it pays off.
Many have already written Team USA off because of what is perceived to be an overreliance on grit, which may sacrifice puck possession and scoring depth as a result. Not many will pick them to win (this writer included, as you can see here). But it’s not an impossible task for this team to raise the World Cup trophy at the end of this tournament. Unlikely? Sure, but this is a short tournament where the style the Americans are playing could potentially work if they play it perfectly.
There are several factors that are going to be extremely important for the U.S. over the course of the next week if they’re going to have any chance of making a run at the title.
1. Jonathan Quick has to be in game-stealing mode
The decision to start Quick was not necessarily the obvious choice. Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider have had the better stretches over the last two years, but Quick’s recent international and Stanley Cup experience are highly valued.
Beyond that, he also looked the sharpest of the three goaltenders in the pre-tournament, which probably matters more for a goalie than it does any other player on the roster. Being ready right away is of paramount importance when a mistake in the preliminary round could mean your tournament is over right away.
Quick saw a lot of pucks in those two exhibition games, too. He stopped 32 of 33 over just two periods against Canada in a win, then stopped 30 of 32 against Finland while playing the full 60 minutes. For the most part, he looked to be in mid-season form.
We know that Bishop and Schneider have put up better numbers over the last two seasons, but when Quick runs hot, he is as good as any goalie in the league. The problem is that his unconventional style can lead to erratic swings in performance. You’re never quite sure what you’ll get.
That said, if Quick is on his game, Team USA becomes a whole lot tougher to beat. And we don’t have to go back that far to see what he’s capable of. His performance during the 2014 Olympics, up until the bronze medal game, was some of his best work in net. He kept the U.S. in that semifinal against Canada despite the eventual gold medalists dominating that game. Quick made 36 saves and got no scoring support. He gave them a chance and can do at least that much again.
The good news for Team USA is that if he does struggle, they have two great goalies to go to. Tortorella can’t be shy about giving Quick the hook if he doesn’t have his best.
2. Spreading out the scoring
Having three pre-tournament games to work out the kinks was important. In the early games, Team USA had overloaded its top line with Max Pacioretty, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Kane. They had good flashes and some goals in the first game against Canada, but got absolutely shut down in the second game. Now none of those three players are together.
If we’re going off of the latest practice lines, Pavelski is centering the top line with Zach Parise and Blake Wheeler, while Kane moved down to play alongside Derek Stepan and James van Riemsdyk. Pacioretty went to the third line to play alongside Ryan Kesler and T.J. Oshie and as of Team USA’s last practice before the opener, their fourth line now includes Brandon Dubinsky, David Backes and Kyle Palmieri. There is one 30-goal scorer from last season on every line.
If this is the setup they stick with, this makes Team USA a lot harder to match up against defensively. These short tournaments can all come down to adjustments. They don’t have much time to experiment, but on paper, this would be the best forward configuration they’ve had yet.
3. Patrick Kane continuing his career-best play
As important as scoring depth is, you need to have your best players contributing. Coming off of one of the best seasons ever by an American player in the NHL, Kane will be looked to, to carry Team USA offensively.
The reigning Hart Trophy winner had a pretty disappointing Olympics in 2014 with just four assists. If that happens again, there’s a good chance the Americans are going to experience similar results.
However, as teammate Max Pacioretty put it, this tournament is coming at the perfect time for Kane.
“I’d go as far to say our team has a good chance because Patrick Kane is in his prime,” Pacioretty said. “I feel like he’s the best player in the game.
“This tournament sets up perfectly for him. A guy like that can change a game in one shift. I think for the rest of the team, our identity is to be hard to play against, make life difficult for the other team, but Kaner, let him do his thing. He’s the best in the world at it and it’s going to be fun to watch.”
It can be so important to have a player that the head coach can throw over the boards in those key situations, knowing he gives them the best chance to score. Kane should be that guy for Tortorella.
4. Dominating the net-front
Knowing that Quick is going to be the No. 1 guy in net, the way Team USA plays in the several feet around him is going to be its most important defensive task. This isn’t some secret code. Every team has to be good in front of their own net, but that’s particularly true for the U.S. given Quick’s style of play.
The Kings goalie is extremely aggressive and sometimes that leads to erratic performances, with some rebounds and him being out of position at times. Few goalies are able to recover as quickly as Team USA’s No. 1 and he may be one of the fastest post-to-post in the league, but he’ll be more effective if his defense is clearing bodies and pucks regularly.
The U.S. is going to give up a lot of shots. It’s just a fact of their style. It’s going to be limiting the second-chance opportunities and high-quality scoring chances that will make the biggest difference.
That’s one of the things to Tortorella teams typically do well — his Rangers squads, in particular. Watching the exhibition games, the U.S. was very good at collapsing down to their net, clogging passing lanes, getting sticks on pucks and blocking shots. Ryan Kesler even saved a goal by jumping into the net with Quick. There often seemed to be four USA jerseys in the slot making sure nothing got through.
The other important element of that is getting the puck back, obviously. They can protect Quick with good zone exits and using their net-front play to trigger their transition game.
Team USA has a lot of speedy forwards. The quicker the defensemen can get them the puck, the better the Americans will be at keeping their zone clear.
5. Maintaining abrasive identity without getting into penalty trouble
The grinding style Team USA wants to play could wither against the more skilled teams, but they can’t change the roster now. They’re going to go in with the style they think can work. It might put them at an overall disadvantage against the best, but the way it really cooks them is if it gets them into penalty trouble.
Special teams are often so crucial in these tournaments and every power-play unit is going to be loaded with some of the best offensive talents in the world. Handing those other teams more opportunities to get those power-play units on the ice is going to negate any value of the abrasiveness they want to play with.
Team USA opens tournament play Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET against Team Europe.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / How Team USA could pull off the upset and win the World Cup of Hockey: 5 keys