By Sean Hartnett
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The cards are heavily stacked against the United States staying alive at the World Cup of Hockey.
Only victory over powerhouse Canada on Tuesday will keep the Americans in contention for the semifinal round. A loss will doom them to a disappointing, albeit not shocking, preliminary round exit.
While the merits of John Tortorella’s defense-first system and questionable player usage can be debated, the fiery head coach will ensure that each of his players will compete with a physical edge or they will be benched. There cannot be a repeat of the passive effort shown throughout Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Team Europe.
That said, it will take more than rugged physicality to pull off an upset victory over a Canadian team loaded with speed and skill across four forward lines and three defensive pairs. The United States struggled to transition quickly from defense to offense against Team Europe. This has to change. Clean exits and controlled entries will be key.
Of crucial importance is the need to crash the net on offense. There wasn’t much of it going on against the Europeans, as most of USA’s shots came from the perimeter, with second-chance efforts almost nonexistent. Eleven skaters on the U.S. roster are 6-foot-2 or taller and 14 weigh over 200 pounds. The Americans need to use their strength to outmuscle the Canadians to prized real estate and effectively screen goaltender Carey Price.
On the other end of the ice, any repeat of the frequent breakdowns committed in Saturday’s opener will spell doom for the United States. You cannot gift Grade-A chances to the creative and scoring-rich Canadians. Even a superhuman effort from Johnathan Quick won’t be enough to keep the U.S. alive if the turnovers pile-up and coverage leaves large seams for Canada to exploit.
From the look of Monday’s practice lines and defensive pairs, it’s likely that two difference-makers could be set to enter the U.S. lineup. Tortorella’s decision to scratch Dustin Byfuglien on Saturday was equally head-scratching and inexplicable. Having “Big Buff” on the ice gives the Americans a big-bodied, intimidating defenseman who can set an early physical tone and whose powerful shot from the point can result in second-chance opportunities. Jack Johnson reportedly did not take d-pair rushes.
It’s probable that 57-point Devils winger Kyle Palmieri will dress in place of David Backes or Brandon Dubinsky. Backes saw just 6:35 of total ice time on Saturday. Palmieri could provide a much-desired offensive boost. The 25-year-old possesses razor-sharp instincts and is one of only four players selected to the U.S. roster to collect 30 goals last season. He scored 11 power play goals and recorded 23 power play points, good for 19th-best among NHL forwards.
For the Americans, everything will have to break right for them to stay alive beyond Tuesday night. It’s going to take the perfect game, total discipline and 60 minutes of pure effort.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey