Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Team USA falters again

Clearly out of gas and unable to match their opponents' skill or physicality, Team USA was again bounced from gold-medal contention at the World Junior Championships by Team Russia. The Russians ran roughshod in a four-goal third period to key a 5-1 win on Tuesday night, and they knocked off the Americans in the semifinals for a second straight year.

In the process, the Americans were made to look sluggish and, to a certain extent, soft. The Russians, I thought, really pushed Team USA around during the game, with the Americans only playing well in small spurts. The telling point to me was an early second-period power play where Team USA failed to even get set up in the Russians' zone, as Russia was able to beat the Americans to almost every loose puck, and the dump-and-chase game was missing a key element for the Americans: Chase. Team USA would dump the puck and charge after it, only to be beaten badly to the loose puck by a Russian player, who would clear the zone or, worse, make a pass to start a scoring chance. The Russian team had more, and better, scoring chances than the Americans did. On a Team USA power play.

Even though it was only 1-0 at the time, you got a sick feeling about the game. And when the Americans ran out of gas in the third, the sick feeling grew and grew. They'll have to play for bronze Thursday against Finland, while Russia and Canada battle for the gold.

Last year, EJ Hradek of ESPN Magazine posted a piece on about the problems Team USA had at the World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, ND. He made some legitimate points, but was widely ripped by those who follow USA Hockey for being too harsh on the program just one year after a gold-medal performance in Finland.

Until USA Hockey changes the way it prepares for the World Junior Championship, Team USA will not be a consistent contender. And with the number of good, well-meaning, passionate hockey people and talented young players in the United States, that is simply a shame.

The point of the article was to show a lack of organization at the top of USA Hockey. It's something that really hasn't changed in the past year. No one doubts that the people at the top mean well and want the US teams to do well, but it seems like there is a lot of head-butting and polticking going on at the top, and it doesn't have to be that way.

Please note that the point of this is not to lay blame at the feet of Walt Kyle or Scott Sandelin. Kyle (Northern Michigan) and Sandelin (UMD) are accomplished college coaches who were awarded the difficult assignment of coaching Team USA's entries in the last two WJCs. Sandelin got the job late in the game, as he was originally supposed to be an assistant to Dean Blais, who took himself out of the gig after he got a job in the NHL.

I still think we need a full-time coach at the World Juniors, and I still think, as I pointed out last year in agreeing with many of Hradek's sentiments, that we need to look at how we pick the players who end up on the team. Not only that, but was it wise to continue to run a kid like Jack Johnson into the ground by playing him insane numbers of minutes when it was clear (at least to me) that his play was starting to tail off after the Canada game? He said he fed off the venomous boos from the Norwegian Finland Swiss Czech Russian Canadian fans, but it really looked like he was gassed the last two games. There had to be a better option than the Johnson boys for 30 minutes a night.

(Though the other Johnson, Erik, may have played himself into #1 pick territory. I wasn't all that impressed with one-time consensus #1 pick Phil Kessel in this year's tournament, but Erik Johnson was incredible. The draft could be very interesting this summer.)

Good luck to the Americans in the bronze medal game. I hope they can use their day of rest well and rally back with a good effort on Thursday. A medal would be nice, though it wouldn't make many of us feel great about the tournament, as it was a tournament that many of us felt the Americans had a great chance to win.

As for the gold medal game, the treatment our kids got from the "fans" in Vancouver gives me no choice but to hope that Russia wipes the ice with Team Canada tomorrow night. I have nothing against the Canadian players, who play with great class and dignity and are a lot of fun to watch compete. It's the fans in the stands who could use a reality check. Booing our national anthem and cheering when our players are bleeding is not the way to operate. I'm confident that no American fan outside of Philadelphia would pull such crap.

Then again, maybe Vancouver is Canada's answer to Philadelphia. Look how they've treated Bertuzzi since his comeback, and imagine how they would treat Steve Moore if he ever played in the NHL again.

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