Team USA Fans: Put Away the Panic Button

Patrick Kane, Captain for Team USA in the IIHF World Championship Tournament in 2019, shaking hands with Liksa from Slovakia.
Patrick Kane, Captain for Team USA in the IIHF World Championship Tournament in 2019, shaking hands with Liksa from Slovakia. (Photo Credit: Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Writer’s Twitter: @ChrisMottHockey

Team USA played their first game of the IIHF World Championship against Slovakia and lost by a final score of 4 to 1. The U.S. is looked at as having one of the better rosters in this tournament with one rival, Russia, boasting stars such as Evgeni Malkin and Nikita Kucherov with Andrei Vasilevsky in net; while Canada received a major blow after losing John Tavares for the tournament due to an oblique injury.

Now many analysts and fans, myself included, expected the United States to win against Slovakia. Not blow them out but emerge with the win in a competitive game. Obviously, that did not happen but there is no need to start worrying about team USA yet. There were some factors I noticed watching the game that seemed to play into the result and they are easily correctable for the most part. With that said, the results yesterday showed that the Americans will have to fight to earn the championship and that no matter what analysts say, anything can happen. I’ll also touch upon Jack Hughes’ performance in his first official professional IIHF Men’s Tournament game. Remember though, “the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back”.

Team USA Looked Rusty

Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane celebrate scoring a power play goal to tie the game against Slovakia.
Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane celebrate scoring a power play goal to tie the game against Slovakia. (Photo Credit: Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The first thing to notice about Team USA is that a lot of the players have not really played meaningful competitive hockey at a high level in about a month since the NHL regular season ended, with players such as Johnny Gaudreau and Noah Hanifin having less of a layoff since they were eliminated from the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The main point is that with a lot of players on this team, there may be a little rust that needs to be shaken off, and it was apparent at certain points during the game.

There were evident moments of rust, with mistakes in defensive coverage and giving Slovakia solid chances on the power play. There were also moments where team USA looked good, but the back and forth between these two was the rust that kept Team USA from having played a consistent game. There were also a few moments where Devils’ goaltender Cory Schneider did give up some not so great rebounds, which helped Slovakia. Overall, there were a good amount of moments where it looked like Slovakia had the wheels going and the United States not so much.

Adapting to Olympic Ice

Almost every player on Team USA is coming from playing a whole season in the NHL and running systems and plays on an NHL-style rink. The game completely changes, though, with the differences between an NHL-style rink and an international rink. Small things such as angles and spacing are played completely differently, with the sizes of the neutral and offensive and defensive zones different from what NHL players are used to from playing an entire season in the NHL. Below are two images to help breakdown the difference between rink styles.

Now that the difference is clearly evident, the next fact would surely be that Team USA should have been able to adapt to the rink difference. And they will as this tournament goes on, but the key to keep in mind is that almost all the other teams in the tournament do not need to adapt to the difference in rink size as the Olympic rink is used by the International Ice Hockey Federation for international play. It’s also the rink style of choice for almost all leagues and rinks in Europe. Team USA will adapt to the rink style, but speaking from personal experience of playing on both, there is always a cautious element to the game when going from an NHL rink to an international one, as the way one would play on an NHL rink could lead to them being burned and giving up a good scoring chance to the opposition due to the difference in rink size and angles.

Developing Chemistry Between Players is Fickle

One reality that needs to be remembered is that although most of the players on Team USA are from the NHL, they did not play together for extended periods of time like they may have with others in the regular season. The United States looked good on the power play, with their lone goal coming from it. But more specifically, a beautiful soft saucer pass from Patrick Kane to Alex DeBrincat as he slid back a little bit to create space. The Chicago Blackhawks connection clicked, helping team USA tie the game at 1 apiece at that point in the game.

Chemistry does not always happen right away like the depiction of the “Cone Head Line” in the movie, Miracle. Sometimes it takes time to learn the tendencies of the line-mates you are playing with to where players are on the same page without having to communicate a whole lot. That does not change between bantam hockey players and NHL players, chemistry needs time to develop. Sometimes it happens quickly, other times it requires more patience. The need to develop stronger chemistry, I believe, helped play into their rust and looking like they were being beaten to puck battles on the ice. In fact, all the points I have mentioned so far have factored into Team USA dropping the first game of the tournament. Fortunately, there is time to turn it around and for Team USA.

Jack Hughes Impressed

The entire hockey world has their eyes on this tournament not just because it is the IIHF Championship, but because the presumed top-two picks in the NHL Entry Draft are playing with NHL stars and other fully grown men from other professional leagues. On top of that, Devils’ head coach John Hynes is an assistant coach for Team USA and has a front-row seat to not only talk to Jack Hughes but watch him play and see how he ticks.

Hughes was a bright spot for Team USA as unlike some of his NHL counterparts who may not have played a meaningful game in some time. Hughes (Jack, not Quinn) is coming off the IIHF U18 Tournament and playing phenomenally in that tournament while breaking records for the USA Development Program and IIHF U18 tournaments. Hughes was all over the ice and his speed, hand-eye, and hockey sense were so impressive to watch and had me smiling while watching him perform among professionals and not fellow prospects in that way.

I even noticed Hughes directing traffic and communicating with his teammates in certain situations as if he were an experienced veteran who knew not only where he needed to be, but where his teammates needed to be. While Hughes had no points, he was impressive in terms of his speed and positioning. He generated some chances, the United States just never capitalized on them. Many saw Kaapo Kakko’s phenomenal goal to start his part of the tournament, but Hughes was not far off from making some fantastic plays himself on more than one occasion.

I do not believe any American hockey fan is happy with the result of the first game against Slovakia. But the combination of what appeared to be rust from a lot of the players, adjusting to the international-sized rink, and the chemistry that seemed to not be there yet was the downfall for Team USA in this first game. When the United States gets their game going, though, it will be fun to watch. And especially seeing Jack Hughes perform with good chemistry as well. Until then, take your hands off the panic buttons and put them away for now.

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