Jason Brough

Despite ‘sour feeling,’ Sochi not complete bust for U.S men’s hockey

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SOCHI, Russia — It’s hard to look at the positives. Really hard, right now.

So soon after such an embarrassing defeat for the United States men’s hockey team, it’s easier to focus on, say, the comments of Jonathan Quick and agree there was “no reason” for the Americans to “show up and not piss a drop” against Finland.

Except, of course, for the fact there totally was a reason. That being last night’s devastating 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals — a loss that meant there would be no revenge for 2010 and no match-up with Sweden for gold. For a team that came halfway around the world expressly for just that — a shot at gold — can anyone be surprised that, when mere bronze was on the line, the effort wasn’t there?

“Losing that game (to Canada), it took a lot out of us,” said coach Dan Bylsma, admitting what was so obvious to anyone watching today’s contest at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

No, Quick’s not wrong that the professionals on the U.S. team “play back-to-backs all year long” in the NHL. However, we’re not talking about a loss in New Jersey, with a chance to regroup the next night on Long Island. This is the Olympics, and these guys are only human. They wanted gold so badly, and they felt they had the team to get it.

Maybe nobody wants to hear it right now, but despite the way the Games ended, there were positives for the Americans to take out of them.

Take Cam Fowler. Just 22 years old, he got his first taste of Olympic experience, on a blue line that also featured youngsters Kevin Shattenkirk, 25, John Carlson, 24, Ryan McDonagh, 24, and Justin Faulk, 21.

“Personally, as a player it can only help for me,” said Fowler. “I proved to myself that I can play and I can compete with the best hockey players in the world, and that’s good for me going on in my career.”

And that wasn’t all he picked up.

“I think I’ve learned a lot too about disappointment, and just the overall feeling you have when you let a lot of people down,” he said. “That’s a tough thing to take.”

Veteran Finnish defenseman Sami Salo was asked how his team was able to get motivated for the bronze-medal game after losing in the semis to a fierce rival, just like the Americans did.

Salo said it was all about what had happened in previous Olympics, and the wisdom gained.

“We had a similar situation in Vancouver,” he said. “Losing to the U.S. in the semifinal by big numbers (6-1), then coming back strong against the Slovaks in the bronze game. We were really looking forward to giving something back after losing to the U.S. in Vancouver.”

He added: “It’s just the experience of this group. We had a brief meeting after [losing to Sweden) that you can’t worry about that. Our goal coming to this competition was to get a medal. We still had one game left, one chance to get that medal, and we just regrouped and…unbelievable.”

There is still hope for U.S. hockey at the world’s highest level. Great hope, in fact. If the NHL commits to South Korea in 2018, just think of the blue-liners the Americans could roll out. Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba are only 19. If all goes to plan, both should be ready for the big time by then, joining Ryan Suter and some or all of the guys mentioned above, plus other strong candidates.

At the moment, Canada and Sweden have the best collection of defensemen on the planet. It’s no coincidence those two countries will be meeting Sunday for gold. The blue line matters. A lot.

For now, though, what happened the past two nights is tough to accept.

“If we’re honest about this, these last two games, we’ve had better performances in the tank and it didn’t come to the forefront,” said forward David Backes.

“That’s the disappointing thing. If we played our butts off and were ousted, or had better teams best us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less than stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this, it is going to be a sour, sour feeling.”

Five key quotes from Canada’s 1-0 win vs. U.S.

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“We capitalized on that one chance. I think both goalies were definitely the stars of the game.” — Rick Nash

Hands up if you predicted Jay Bouwmeester would start the key offensive play today. Just a perfect pass to Jamie Benn for the tip home. Jonathan Quick couldn’t be faulted on that one, and was otherwise brilliant in stopping 36 of the 37 Canadian shots. Meanwhile, Carey Price stopped all 31 shots he faced, earning a shutout in the biggest game he’s ever played.

VIDEO: Sidney Crosby on pressure entering Sunday

“I’m just trying to make my way to the dressing room here.” — Jamie Benn

In response to a question about what was going through his mind after scoring such a huge goal. Not surprisingly, there were one or two cameras and microphones in Benn’s face once he got off the ice and entered the media gauntlet. Only 24 years old, it’s fair to assume the Dallas Stars winger has never received so much attention. Remember when he wasn’t even selected to Team Canada’s summer orientation camp?

“It wasn’t that good a game. It was a sleeper, one nothing. Couldn’t really generate anything, they couldn’t generate anything.” — Ryan Kesler

Many will disagree, given the quality of the hockey we saw today. But, in fairness, Kesler was responding to the assertion that it was a “great” game. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t an all-timer. Besides, has anyone lost bigger games than Kesler since 2010? An Olympic gold-medal final. Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Now another disappointment. Imagine the frustration.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s thrilling win

“I think it was a good game. Two good teams out there that were skating well. Didn’t give up a whole lot of chances on both sides. I think that’s a sign of well-coached teams, good skaters, smart hockey players.” — Patrick Sharp

The perspective from the winning side. Even though they didn’t fill the net (again), this was the kind of game the Canadians wanted to play. Tough defensively, fast, and with minimal mistakes. Yes, the Americans had their chances to beat Price, but you could probably count the number of those on one hand.

“It seems like we had a tough time sustaining any pressure in their end. They outnumbered us in their zone, came up with it quick and, as we expected, they were quick on transition.” — Ryan Callahan

In a related story, Canada’s blue line is the best in the tournament. The only team that comes close to matching it is Sweden, and — hey, wouldn’t you know it — the Swedes are in the gold-medal game, too. Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty don’t have Stanley Cup rings and gold medals by accident. These guys are unbelievable puck movers who set the pace and rarely make mistakes. When a team’s got those two playing over 20 minutes, and it’s also got Shea Weber and Alex Pietrangelo playing over 20 minutes, well, Callahan’s quote says it all.

Five questions ahead of U.S.-Canada hockey showdown

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1. Will the revenge factor work in the Americans’ favor?

“Everyone knows the history of the two teams in Vancouver,” said Sidney Crosby, referring to the 2010 Olympics when the U.S. beat Canada in the preliminary round, only to lose in the gold-medal game. “They’ll be motivated.”

It was the Canadians who were especially motivated four years ago, with all the pressure of hosting the Games on their home ice. Anything less than gold and they’d have experienced something similar to what the Russians are experiencing right now.

According to American forward David Backes, beating the Canadians was “something that was on our list” coming into Sochi.

“We’ve got 13 returners, which are guys really on a mission to avenge our loss in Vancouver in the gold-medal game,” he said.

WATCH THE GAME ONLINE HERE

While Backes didn’t want to overstate things — “the team that loses this isn’t shamed out of the tournament,  or anything like that” — he clearly hasn’t forgotten the disappointment he felt when Crosby scored the golden goal.

2. Will the Canadian forwards start scoring?

Given the depth of talent up front, it’s somewhat extraordinary that only four Canadian forwards have managed to score in four games. Crosby remains goalless, as does Corey Perry, Chris Kunitz, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews, and Patrice Bergeron — all of whom have received a considerable amount of ice time from coach Mike Babcock.

Not that they haven’t had their chances.

“I mean, we were all over them,” Crosby said after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Latvia. “To get that many shots and that many good quality chances, it was tough to not see it go in.”

The next day, Crosby was again forced to answer questions about his lack of statistical production.

VIDEO: Will Canada raise its level pf play vs. U.S.?

“If the chances are there, you can’t really do much besides make sure you focus on putting them in. I don’t think I’m second guessing anything,” he said.

“I’m playing and reacting, trusting that it’s going to go in and sometimes it feels like it’s not going in very easily, but usually it takes one and they all start going in. I think that’s kind of been the theme with our entire team. We’ve been right around there, doing a lot of good things and we just have to trust and keep doing that until eventually the pucks start going in in bunches.”

There also seems to be a sense among the Canadians that playing the U.S. — as opposed to European sides like Norway, Finland, and Latvia — will be a better fit, style wise.

“Looking at some of the teams we played, they focused first and foremost on checking us and making our lives miserable in the offensive zone,” said Toews. “It just seems like you need one, two or three plays to go right for things to work against those teams. Tomorrow, I think we can check well, we can concentrate on our defensive game and try to make them make mistakes.”

3. Will the American forwards keep scoring?

“I think the Americans have scored really easy in the tournament,” said Babcock. “The puck just seems to go in the net for them, so they’ve been a good team. I don’t think they’ve had a match-up, besides the Russians, where they were beat at all. They’ve just beat everyone big time.”

Phil Kessel has led the way for the U.S., with five goals in four games. Backes has three goals. Dustin Brown and Paul Stastny have two each.

Against Canada, however, the Americans will face a team that’s surrendered just three goals all tournament long, and one that features arguably the best blue line in the world as well as two of the most celebrated defensive forwards, Toews and Bergeron, in the sport.

VIDEO: Highlights from U.S. win vs. Czech Republic

“We are not going to try to outshoot a team like Canada,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma. “We are going in with a blue-collar mentality, to outwork them. We want to win a low-scoring game, a 2-1 game.”

4. How will the American defense hold up?

Against the Russians, Ryan Suter was on the ice for almost 30 minutes, with Bylsma shortening his bench to defend a team with a dangerous top six.

Well, the Canadians not only have a dangerous top six, they have a dangerous top 12. Even after losing John Tavares, all four lines are still filled with NHL all-stars, and that can’t be said for any of the teams the U.S. has faced so far.

Suter should play a ton again Friday, as should Ryan McDonagh. But the difference may be in the performance of a youngster like Cam Fowler or Kevin Shattenkirk, or a veteran like Brooks Orpik or Paul Martin.

If the Americans were going to have an Achilles’ heel in Sochi, a lot of people thought it would be the blue line. So far, that hasn’t been the case. But the U.S. hasn’t seen anything like Canada.

5. How will the goaltending story play out?

Because, really, what big hockey game doesn’t end with at least some talk about the goaltenders? Jonathan Quick and Carey Price have both been solid so far. The former has a .935 save percentage in three games; the latter has a .941 save percentage, also in three games.

“When I’ve seen Quick make some big saves early, he seems to become unbeatable,” said Drew Doughty of Quick, his teammate in L.A. “That’s why we’ve got to get one early on him. The only way we’re going to score on him is that we’ve got to get pucks up high, and we’ve got to get screens in front, and tips. He’s going to make the easy saves every time. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s win vs. Latvia

As for Price? “He’s an unbelievable goalie, so skilled. He’s awesome, and he’s come up big when we needed him. And it’s tough for a goalie to play with only 15, 16 shots. It’s not easy, and he’s done an unbelievable job.”

Still, both Bylsma and Babcock have left themselves open to considerable second-guessing given the guys they relegated to the bench. Ryan Miller was brilliant for the U.S. four years ago in Vancouver, and his numbers this season in Buffalo are better than Quick’s in Los Angeles. Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, won gold for Canada in 2010, and he’s got far more big-game experience than Price, even if all those big games haven’t gone particularly well.

Bylsma and Babcock would’ve been left open to second-guessing whichever goalie they went with, but that won’t make the debate any less heated should one of Quick or Price perform poorly on Friday.