If this tournament is a sprint, Team USA got left at the starting line.
In the opening game of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, John Tortorella’s curious lineup decisions did not disappoint. Unless he’s injured, sitting Dustin Byfuglien was baffling, and that wasn’t the only blunder to haunt Team USA.
A defensive gaffe a little under five minutes into the first led to a European 2-on-1, and Marian Gaborik converted Frans Nielsen’s picture-perfect pass into the first goal of the tournament. Things never really got better for USA.
Nielsen to Gaborik. Europe goes up 1-0 over the USA pic.twitter.com/S0vdqlEXaA— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 17, 2016
The cohesion Team Europe showed in their decisive victory over Sweden was once again on display, and the supposed greater speed of Team USA was in no way evident as they struggled to get their game going; the passion demonstrated against Canada all but forgotten.
Team Europe also drew the tournament’s first power play, as Ryan Kesler went off for slashing against Anze Kopitar.
In the dying minutes of the first, USA finally got some sustained offensive-zone time, but the period would end in their own end, decidedly advantage Europe after one.
The second period opened with a good deal more speed, as the Americans had a bit more jump in their step, but only the excellent defensive stick work of Matt Niskanen halted yet another European 2-on-1.
Mere minutes later, it looked like Patrick Kane was finally going to get the USA going, but he was stripped of the puck, and Leon Draisaitl led Europe on a 3-on-0 charge on Jonathan Quick and put them up 2-0.
After that defensive disaster, Tortorella started mixing and matching his lines, and playing Kane on every other shift with little success, as Team Europe continued to press their advantage.
The USA tried to get something going on a too-many-men call against Europe, and it seemed like it might have worked as the puck went in off JVR’s chest and Derek Stepan’s head. However, review would determine that it was an illegal goal, and Europe escaped unscathed.
The no-goal definitely woke the USA up, and the intensity of the game kicked up by several notches. Team USA got a do-over a few minutes later, as Erhoff went off for tripping. Although Kane did an excellent job setting up his teammates, as the USA hemmed Europe in their own zone, the penalty kill was able to snuff them out harmlessly.
Moreover, any momentum the strong power play might have generated was rapidly extinguished as France’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare pulled a fast one on Jonathan Quick, and the second period ended with Europe up by three.
2 angles of Bellemare's goal pic.twitter.com/8IvkRa07nc— Stephanie (@myregularface) September 17, 2016
At about the three-minute mark of the third, Brandon Dubinsky took a four-minute penalty on Chara, but though Europe got a few good chances, including yet another by Frans Nielsen, and several point-blank chances from Tomas Tatar, the American penalty kill fought them off.
The Americans got a few more shots at the power play, but Halak remained well up to the challenge, and fought off some of the best chances USA had all game, including a couple from Max Pacioretty.
Barely had Europe escaped one penalty kill than they wound up on another, but were able to likewise kill it off, preserving Jaroslav Halak’s stellar 35-save shutout.
Team Europe did an excellent job of stifling USA’s speed and taking advantage of their own, pouncing mercilessly on turnovers throughout. Similarly, any time the USA made it into the offensive zone, they were met by a swarm of blue jerseys. The line of Gaborik, Zuccarello, and Nielsen started out hot, and was easily Team Europe’s best line, but they were backed by a strong, team-oriented game. Moreover, Halak showed without a doubt that he’s still the Halak that Canadiens fans remember.
Max Pacioretty, playing for the most part with T.J. Oshie and Ryan Kesler, saw 13:33 of ice time including 2:21 on the power play, registering three shots and a hit.
Team USA’s next game is against Canada on September 20th, and is a must win if they hope to remain in the tournament. Team Europe will face Tomas Plekanec and the Czech Republic on the 19th.