By Sean Hartnett
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USA Hockey went all-in on grit, toughness, nastiness and jam – but that’s not a recipe that wins games against the world’s elite.
If the Americans don’t know that by now, when will they ever learn?
Canada outclassed a poorly-constructed United States roster on Tuesday night, finishing off a bewildered bunch that looked devoid of belief after being shut out by Team Europe three days earlier.
So much for all the talk of this roster being specifically designed to beat Canada. A 4-2 final scoreline doesn’t properly illustrate how easily the Canadians pushed the Americans aside. Canada shrugged off the U.S. crosschecking, penchant for mixing it up between the whistles and running of goaltender Carey Price by simply skating away from the scrums and playing its own game.
While Canada turned on its “A” game and played with desperation, the Americans played like a beaten team without a Plan B in what was a must-win game. The Americans spent the whole night chasing. A stat that sticks out is USA outhitting Canada, 38-14. The hosts controlled the puck and controlled the game. When the Americans lead in hits by such a wide margin, it’s not a stat to be proud of. It means they were playing without the puck and chasing.
United States head coach John Tortorella and general manger Dean Lombardi left offense-producing stars Phil Kessel and Tyler Johnson off the initial 16-man roster that was revealed on March 2. They had a chance to correct that mistake when the final seven players were named on May 27, but Kessel and Johnson were again bypassed. And it happened a day after Kessel led the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final by eliminating Johnson’s Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Kessel would finish the playoffs with 22 points in 24 playoff games, while Johnson proved indispensable to the Tampa Bay’s run, finishing with 17 points in 17 games.
Kessel and Johnson weren’t the only big-game players to be left off the U.S. roster. Kyle Okposo, who registered 64 points during the regular season before collecting seven in eight playoff games for the Islanders, was also a notable omission.
How about this for an idea – what about not just taking Kessel to the tournament, but also his linemate Nick Bonino? The duo developed excellent chemistry during the final two months of the regular season and excelled under the playoff spotlight. Bonino finished the playoffs with 18 points in 24 games.
The deft puck-moving and creativity of Justin Faulk, Kevin Shattenkirk and Keith Yandle was left at home in favor of brawny, slow-skating defensmen. Any one of that trio would have offered a spark to a USA power play that is 0-for-7 in Toronto. Instead, Tortorella opted for heavyweight blue liners, but those guys couldn’t even get basic fundamentals right in the defensive end. Bad clears, bad pinches, being on the wrong side of the puck, and getting beat to precious real estate have been recurring themes for this group.
Not only does USA Hockey need its best possible lineup on the ice, it needs a total re-evaluation of the minds running the show. Lombardi’s Los Angeles Kings have won one playoff game in the past two seasons and Tortorella’s last playoff victory came on May 23, 2013. These two men placed a high importance on intangible qualities over pure skill, and that’s simply not a winning formula in today’s day and age.
This tournament was all about best-on-best. Had USA Hockey brought its best collection of talent and its brightest minds, the embarrassment of being eliminated in two games and being toyed with by Canada could have been avoided.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey