For the first time since 2004, the World Cup of Hockey will take place, which means another golden opportunity for Canada to add to its impressive run in international tournaments.
The last time the Canadians lost a major tournament was the 2014 World Championships, where they finished 5th as the
Soviets Russians took home the Gold Medal. Since 2014, Team Canada has won the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, the World Championships in 2015 and 2016. Canada also won the last World Cup of Hockey way back in 2004.
Canada, per usual, is stocked with All-World talent. Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), John Tavares (New York Islanders), Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks), Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings) and Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens) are only some of the names assembled on this years squad. The talent level runs so deep in Canada that when All-Star sniper Tyler Seguin (Dallas Stars) gets injured, they can call up Ryan O’Reilly (Buffalo Sabres) to step right in and take his place.
While O’Reilly won’t give Canada the scoring that Seguin will, he is a solid two-way player. He joins a good list of two-way forwards that includes Toews, Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins) and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks).
For Team USA, they are led by Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), 2014 Sochi Olympic hero T.J. Oshie (Washington Capitals), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets) and Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings). While Kane may be the only true sniper present on the Team U.S.A. roster, they are stuffed full with two-way, big bodied forwards that can wear down a team with their physicality. David Backes (Boston Bruins), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets) and Ryan Kesler (Anaheim Ducks) headline the big boys up front for Team USA.
Much like the 1980 Olympic team that won Gold over the Soviet Union, this team is built more by chemistry than getting the highest skilled players. Notably left off this roster were Tyler Johnson (Tampa Bay Lightning), Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes), Phil Kessel (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues). It’s clear to see that this team is going for defense and grind it out games rather than flashy high scoring affairs, which plays right into U.S.A.’s strength.
In the pre-tournament, Team Canada, coached by Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs, went 1-1 against the United States.
The first meeting against Team USA and Canada was a win for the Americans by a score of 4-2. Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist while Derek Stepan (New York Rangers) iced the game with an unassisted goal with under two minutes left. Quick was outstanding in net coming on in relief of Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay Lightning) and stopped 32/33 shots he faced. The Americans showed off their physicality with 29 hits and the penalty kill was perfect going 3/3 against a deadly Canadian attack.
The next night, Team Canada bounced back for a 5-2 drubbing of the States. Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), Corey Perry (Anaheim Ducks) and Doughty all had two assists while Tavares had two goals to lead Canada. The Canadians put the game away with three goals in a span of five minutes with two of those goals coming on the power play. Corey Schneider (New Jersey Devils) was shaky in net allowing four goals on 24 shots. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers) and John Carlson (Washington Capitals) found the net for the U.S.
In the actual tournament, both teams will be in Group A, along with Team Czech Republic and Team Europe. Both squads are heavily favored to advance beyond group play and meet in the championship round. But what will it take to knock off Team Canada if the opportunity presents itself?
As previously mentioned, Team USA is built on size and strength, not speed and finesse. Head Coach John Tortorella will likely have a heavy forecheck against Canada to prevent quick breakouts where Canada can use their speed to create odd man rushes. Justin Abdelkader (Detroit Red Wings), Backes and Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild) are some of the best forechecking forwards in the NHL and if they can take away the space of crafty defensemen like Doughty, Brent Burns (San Jose Sharks) and Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues), they can force turnovers and odd man rushes for themselves.
If Canada does get rushes, the physical games of Wheeler, Kesler, Kyle Palmieri (New Jersey Devils) and Backes can punish puck carriers coming through the neutral zone. Once again, preventing Canada from using their speed will be key in all three zones.
Once Canada enters the offensive zone, it will be up to the big-bodied (see a pattern here) defenseman to limit space to create and clear the front of the net for Jonathan Quick to see shots easily. Byfuglien, Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild), McDonagh and the other defensemen will have their hands full every time Canada gets across the blue line.
Another key for the U.S.A squad will be to stay out of the penalty box. In two games against the Canadians, Team U.S.A. was called for 11 penalties, leading to three team Canada goals. If it wasn’t for the stellar play of Jonathan Quick in the first matchup, that mark could be worse. Quick, even after a down year, is still probably the best goaltender in the world and always shows up big when the lights are brightest (e.g. 2014 Sochi Olympics, two Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe).
On the other side of the puck, the offensive side, the game plan should be simple. Get the puck in deep, work the boards and get bodies in front of Carey Price. Price is still working his way back from a season-ending MCL Sprain. Once again, using size to their advantage should be the go-to plan for Torts. Working the points isn’t too bad of an idea either, where, Byfuglien and Carlson have cannons for shots. Mix in a little creativity and speed from Kane, Oshie and Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens), and you have a team that can hurt you in a multitude of ways.
This team has been built from back-to-front. It will rely on its goaltending and defense, and its offense will have to make the most out of their opportunities. If the U.S. can keep the game at a slow, grind it out pace instead of an up-and-down the ice affair, they should have a good shot at knocking Canada off in the best of three final. Canada is the more talented team on paper, but this Team U.S.A. roster was built to beat Canada, and that’s what they’ll have to do to capture the championship for the first time since 1996.
Cover Photo via GonePuckWild