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Team USA finds formula for success

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika / Chicago Blackhawks

The first four days of training camp for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, Team USA coach John Tortorella talked about the honor of playing for your country, of being inspired by the military and playing for the people who do "the real stuff."

He talked about establishing an identity as a fast, physical, straight-ahead hockey team, about imposing your will on your opponent.

In the first pretournament game at Nationwide Arena on Friday, Tortorella had a special guest standing next to him in a suit behind the bench: an unidentified member of the Army who had spoken to the team earlier in the week.

Team USA and Team Canada went at it as if it were a playoff game instead of an exhibition, and Team USA established enough of its identity in a 4-2 victory to show it could compete with its big rival and the heavy favorite at the World Cup, which begins in Toronto on Sept. 17.

It weathered an early storm thanks to great goaltending by Jonathan Quick, surged to take the lead and held on in the end, while throwing hit after hit and engaging in scrum after scrum.

Team USA defenseman Jack Johnson said he couldn't think of another exhibition that was even close. Forward David Backes said it was one of the quicker games he had ever played, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Olympics.

"It's a pretty good rivalry, U.S.-Canada," Tortorella said. "It kind of just lights itself up. It was a little bit different game than the games I watched last night on TV, and I think tomorrow night's game is going to be the same thing."

Team USA and Team Canada play again Saturday at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa (7 p.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports).

"Can you just imagine they got to play tomorrow?" Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said.

Can you just imagine what it will be like when they play in the preliminary round at Air Canada Centre on Sept. 20 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVA Sports)?

Can you just imagine if they play in the best-of-3 final?

Team USA can. The last time it won a best-on-best tournament was the World Cup of Hockey 1996, when Keith Tkachuk got tossed for swinging his stick, Mike Richter was incredible in goal and the final game came down to a dramatic third-period rally in a 5-2 win for the United States on Canadian soil in Montreal.

The management group sent the players USB drives with the TV broadcast of the final game in July, hoping for a repeat performance. The players seem to have studied it well.

T.J. Oshie drilled Logan Couture into the side boards, sending Couture off for a while. Ryan Kesler drilled Shea Weber from behind into the end boards, sparking a scrum and drawing a major for boarding and a game misconduct. Joe Pavelski hit Claude Giroux into the end boards, sending Giroux off for a while. Those were just the big ones.

Quick did his Richter impression, allowing one goal on 33 shots through two periods -- with help from Kesler, who dropped to his knees to block a shot in the crease -- before Ben Bishop came in for the third.

Team USA found a way to win, taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Zach Parise and Patrick Kane in a span of 1:05 late in the first period and playing from ahead the rest of the game.

"It was funny," Kane said. "I was talking before about the '96 game, how there were a bunch of scrums after the whistles and everything, and it was kind of reminiscent of that game. They probably had more chances and dictated the pace of play a little bit more, but we hung in there, got a good lead there and ended up winning the hockey game. That's what it's all about.

"It's important for us to play physical, especially given not only the roster we have in here but the roster we're playing against. Try to make it hard on them."

The good news for Team USA: This can be a formula for success.

The World Cup is not an 82-game regular season or a four-round playoffs of seven-game series. This is a short tournament. Team USA needs to finish in the top two of a group that includes Team Canada, Team Czech Republic and Team Europe, a team of Europeans from outside the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and Russia. Then it needs to win a single-elimination semifinal and the best-of-3 final.

Be physical, be opportunistic, get great goaltending over two weeks, and you can win.

The bad news: You can read only so much into this pretournament game because it meant so much more to Team USA than it did to Team Canada. Team USA was inspired and looking to establish something. Team Canada still outshot Team USA 43-25.

"I thought we had lots of play in their zone and on top of their [defense] and around their net, lots of jams," Babcock said. "I thought they scored some goals and got on our D for five minutes there, six minutes, in that first period.

"Other than that, it was an exhibition game."

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