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Team USA Shows Mettle, Goes for Medal

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
It’s Not a Miracle, But This U.S. Hockey Team is Turning Heads

Raise your hand if you had the United States winning its pool in the 2007 World Championships. This was supposed to be a transitional tournament for Team USA, the one in which staples of the future gained valuable if painful experience in the present. Instead of Rick DiPietro in net the U.S. has John Grahame.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Monday evening in Moscow, a United States team that has suffered only a single overtime defeat to the Czechs faces the undefeated Canadians, and the winner will claim first place for the pool. Both teams struggled with an inconsistent Czech team, the Canadians prevailing Sunday in overtime while the U.S. lost in overtime late last week.

Publicly, the architects of this American team won’t admit to being surprised by the nine points the U.S. has accumulated in five games, but privately, from Ann Arbor to Colorado Springs, there has to be deep satisfaction with the present state of the top tier of American hockey.

Second Chance for Sully
There are more than a few people who believe that Team USA head coach Mike Sullivan got a raw deal from the Bruins last summer. After a very successful first season as Boston’s head coach in 2003-04, Sullivan’s team struggled mightily when NHL play resumed after the lockout in 2005-06. The face of the Bruins changed immensely in the interim, and most of the personnel changes fizzled. The Nov. 2005 trade that sent franchise center Joe Thornton to San Jose was a bust.

Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell was relieved of his duties before the end of the ’05-06 campaign. Boston hired Peter Chiarelli as his replacement, and Sullivan was left in limbo while the hiring process played itself out. By the time Chiarelli decided not to retain Sullivan behind the Boston bench, the coaching jobs around the league had already been filled.

Sullivan’s work here in Moscow may help bring him back onto the NHL radar screen. He has his team well prepared for each opponent it faces. Sullivan watched Germany’s 2-0 upset of the Czech Republic in person and later watched it again on tape. Then he imparted his wisdom to his charges.

“Germany plays a frustrating style of play,” Sullivan stated after Saturday’s game. “If you are not patient and calculated with your own game … they have beaten some very good hockey teams in this tournament for that very reason and we didn’t want that to happen with us. We certainly talked at length with our players about the type of game that was going to be played and what it was going to take from our standpoint to have success.”

Here’s Johnny!
Some believed goaltending would be a weakness for Team USA, but Grahame has rebounded from two successive difficult seasons in the NHL to play very well in the nets here in Moscow.

“Johnny has been very strong for us,” says Sullivan, who was an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins during Grahame’s days as a netminder in Beantown. “I think he is excited to play here. He has made timely saves for us in every game. From my experience in this game, it doesn’t matter what league you’re in. If you don’t get a timely save, it’s difficult to win. The higher the stakes [of] the games are, the more competitive they are, the more you need those saves in order to have success. So far in this tournament he has really been a backbone of our hockey team that has been there when our team has broken down.

All The Young Dudes
The top two scorers for the Americans are Lee Stempniak (seven points in five games) 24, and Paul Stastny, 23 (six points in five games). That this team would be led by youth is no surprise – USA Hockey is recharging with youth with this roster. But there is equally impressive savvy and calm regularly displayed by the kiddie blueline corps. Matt Greene, Ryan Suter, Andrew Alberts, and Keith Ballard are regular rearguards for Sullivan in penalty killing and shutdown situations.  

Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier is the greybeard of the blueline bunch at the age of 30. When Pothier’s former Ottawa teammate Brian Bochenski met up with him here at the World Championships, he greeted his new Team USA teammate thusly:

“Hey, what happened to you? When we were in Ottawa, you were our sixth defenseman. Now you go to Washington, and you’re this cagey veteran!”

A year ago, who would have thought about the likes of Stastny and Stempniak as key offensive contributors on a 2010 U.S. Olympic team? Both enjoyed breakout NHL seasons, and with their early play in this World Championships, they are making strong auditions for top-line roles in Vancouver.

“I thought his line had their best game of the tournament so far,” said Sullivan after Stastny’s two-goal, three-point performance against Germany earned him the “best player of the game” designation. “Obviously they’re a very talented group. Paul is a big part of that. He is a guy that we go to in every facet of our game whether it is offensively or defensively or big face-offs where we need a guy to win a face-off for us.

“For a player as young as he is, I think he has experience beyond his years. He certainly plays with so much poise and composure out there. I think he will continue to be a significant part of our team. Tonight he was deserving of the best player for our team because of his performance not only with the puck but [also] without it.”

Of Stempniak, U.S. advisory GM Brian Burke said, “He’s kind of a Swiss Army knife kind of player in that he can play on the power play and kill penalties and other useful things. He’s a versatile guy.”

Dangerously Deep
Of the 20 skaters on the Team USA roster, 17 have recorded at least a point in the five games of the tournament to date. Eleven of them have scored at least one goal, and five different players have contributed power play markers. Sullivan can roll four lines with the confidence that any of the four can create scoring chances.

“I think it is important that you have a balanced attack,” says Sullivan. “If you get all of your production off one line, I think you’re easier to play against. I think this group has found ways to score, and on any given night any line can be the line that steps up and gets a big goal for us.

“Up to this point in the tournament we’ve had a balanced attack where all four of the lines and even the defensemen [produce offense]. We’re generating a lot of offense from our defensemen, whether it is a transition pass or those guys joining the rush and being a second wave of attack. I believe that is a strength of our team and that makes us more difficult to play against.”

The Killers
Team USA has the best penalty killing numbers of any team in the tournament, by far. The Americans have killed off 28 of 29 shorthanded situations for a kill rate of 96.55%. Team USA has scored two shorthanded goals of its own, giving it a net shorthanded gain over its opponents.

Sullivan preaches aggressiveness and doesn’t mind seeing it even if the team is down a man, but only if the risk/reward ratio is properly assessed.

“We want to play to our strengths,” Sullivan said. “We feel like our mobility is one of them and [also] our ability to transition the puck. We have some players that can really skate and when they see an opportunity to try to take advantage of an offensive situation, whether it be on a penalty kill or five-on-five, we certainly have encouraged our players to look for it. Having said that, I think they’ve done a great job at picking their spots in when they jump. They’re thinking defense first out there, especially on the penalty kill.  Their calculation of risk is the right choice and we’ve been able to create some offensive chances from defensive situations.”

Ailing Captain
Team USA captain Chris Clark left Saturday’s 3-0 win over Team Germany after taking a hit along the wall in the offensive zone. He did not return.

“He bruised his leg,” said Sullivan. “He kind of took that bang against the boards. We felt for precautionary reasons it was the wise thing to hold him out.”

With a comfortable lead over Germany, it was definitely wise to hold Clark out.

Then came the follow-up question.

“If you had to play [Sunday], would he play?”

“I don’t know the answer to that. We’ll probably know more [Sunday].”

Not to put any undue pressure on Clark, but we in Washington may know “more” already. We watched Clark stay out on the ice to finish his shift after a puck had already knocked out a pair of his teeth and crushed his palate. He wanted to play in the next scheduled Capitals game after he sustained that injury, but cooler management heads prevailed.

We’re guessing a bruised leg isn’t going to keep Clark from playing in Team USA’s biggest game of the tournament to date, Monday night’s match against Team Canada will determine the top seeding in Group F for the quarterfinals play that begins on Wednesday. Unless Sullivan was covering up a much more serious ailment (and we doubt it), we expect No. 17 to be sporting the red, white and blue on Monday.

To Tinker or Not to Tinker
Early on in his press conference after Saturday’s win over Germany, Sullivan was asked about the two open roster spots that USA Hockey has yet to fill for the team. Saturday night the Ottawa Senators eliminated the New Jersey Devils from the NHL postseason, and the Devils have at least three high-profile Americans now seemingly available for Team USA: Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, and Brian Gionta. All bring the explosive speed that Sullivan’s team has been lauded for to date in the Worlds. Gomez and Rafalski in particular bring international experience on the Olympic-sized sheets as well.

Here’s what we’re able to bring to the fascinating speculation about what if anything USA Hockey will do with those available roster spots: a real-life appreciation for the ardor that extraordinary travel and dramatic time change for work place on the body. If this tournament were being contested in western Canada or even Eastern Europe, Gomez and Rafalski may already have been on an airplane to it before they’d finished toweling off in the Devils’ dressing room Saturday night, but flying nearly 5,000 miles for what could be less than a single night of skating for their country may make USA Hockey think twice about tinkering with a roster that is having success here.

Perhaps there is a clue as to what the American hockey brass will do from Brian Burke’s pre-tournament reflections on the roster: “We are going with the best team that we can put together to win the tournament in Moscow, but we are also looking to 2010 in Vancouver.”  

Through five games, the U.S. power play ranks a mediocre seventh in efficiency in the tournament. Gomez and Rafalski are high voltage power for any power play. While there is always a risk in tinkering substantively with any successful roster in a short tournament, it’s hard to imagine that additions on the order of Gomez and Rafalski wouldn’t boost the U.S.’ medal chances.    

“Those spots have been left open consciously in case there is a possibility that one of our players that is competing in the NHL playoffs could potentially join our hockey team,” Sullivan declared. “Whether or not that will become a reality, I’m not sure. But certainly our management group watches that closely and will make decisions accordingly.”

What Others Are Saying
Opposing coaches are generally gracious in defeat, especially in international tournaments. But Team Germany coach Uwe Krupp was extremely impressed by many aspects of Team USA’s play.

“We knew going in that we were going up against the team that was – at least in our bracket here – the fastest team and the best skating team that we would be up against, said Krupp. “They have a very excellent transition game and they have great individual skills. We knew they would be tough to beat in front of the net.

“Their defense is extremely mobile and they get involved in the offense and the cycling. We were really on our heels for a lot of this game. I thought the result was absolutely okay the way it played out. It could have been also been a 4-1 or 4-2 or 5-2 or 5-3 game but the U.S. goaltender played very well.”

Before the tournament got underway, Team USA defeated Team Sweden by a 5-2 count in an exhibition game at Stockholm’s Globe Arena.

“They’ve really been playing well,” said Team Sweden head coach and former Caps great Bengt Gustafsson. “We talked about it a couple days ago. They’re a scary team. They play very disciplined and they’re very intense, too. They have some good quality players and they can be scary for anybody.”

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