Entering the round of World Cup exhibition contests, nobody was really sure what to expect. Would we see the sleepwalking, no-contact world of the 2015 All Star Game, or would national pride overcome the fact that these exhibition games held little meaning in an absolute sense? Although the early contests elsewhere suggested that the pace would be respectable, nothing really prepared us for the thinly veiled animosity that was on display at Nationwide Arena Friday night.
The atmosphere did nothing to suggest exhibition game. A crowd of over 17,700 was fully engaged from the outset, with chants of "USA, USA" starting early, and ramping up as the evening progressed. Sub-plots included the coaching match-up between John Tortorella and Mike Babcock, and the return of Carey Price to the pipes after almost a year on the shelf.
On paper, this one should not have been close, as the match-ups distinctly favored the club donning the Maple Leaf, particularly up front. However, the game is not played on paper, and Tortorella had consistently suggested that strategy was going to play a big role in neutralizing the Canadian advantage in terms of pure skill.
In the early going, it appeared that the advantage on paper was going to be realized on the ice. The U.S. squad did not register its first shot until almost halfway through the period (courtesy of Brandon Dubinsky), and Canada held a 13 - 1 shot advantage at one point in the period. It could have been really ugly, but for the play of Jonathan Quick. Quick was in mid-season form, showing range, vision and reflexes while keeping Team Canada off the board.
Suddenly, the American team seemed to find its legs and the ability to get the puck off its sticks quickly. The ice tilted in the other direction, and before you realized that the momentum was shifting, the shot totals were tied at 13. With their 14th shot, the U.S. took the lead, courtesy of a persistent possession shift capped by Zach Parise's deflection of a Ryan Suter point shot. Derek Stepan picked up the second assist, and the Canadians were left scratching their heads.
While they were scratching, the U.S. kept coming, scoring again on their 16th shot — just 1:05 later — when Patrick Kane took the puck along the goal line to Price's left, and fired a bad angle shot. Proving that there are no bad shots in hockey, the puck caromed off Price's chest, and fell to the ice. Kane, following his shot, tucked the puck inside the near post, and the U.S. had a two goal advantage. Joe Pavelski notched the only assist on the play.
That sequence got the already high emotions to boil over. Late in the period, a series of muggings took place near the center ice boards, featuring a blatant cross-check by Sidney Crosby — beautifully captured on the center ice scoreboard. Somehow, Crosby escaped the penalty, prompting a rousing "Crosby Sucks!" cheer through the crowd. However, Shea Weber and Brad Marchand earned roughing penalties against Kyle Palmieri, while Dubinsky sat for roughing against Weber. The net result was a U.S. power play, which went for naught. The clubs went to the locker room with the U.S. holding a 2 - 0 advantage, and a 17 - 15 shot advantage.
The second period started as a reprise of the first. Canada came out mad, and again took the play to the American squad. Again, Quick came to the rescue, making some stellar saves, and buying time for his skaters. However, the Canadians got on the board seat the 13:24 mark, courtesy of Patrice Bergeron and Dustin Byfuglien. The puck went in off of Bergeron's stick, but Byfuglien materially assisted. When Crosby had the temerity to set up in front of the net, Byfuglien took exception. As Crosby dished the puck, Byfuglien leveled Crosby — sending him sliding to the boards. However, in the process he also took out his own goaltender, and Bergeron slid the puck neatly past the sprawled Quick. Crosby and Marchand garnered the helpers.
Despite being badly outshot (18 - 6 for the period), the U.S. was quick to respond. At 15:54, Jack Johnson took the puck into the zone high on the left, and spotted a streaking Joe Pavelski. The puck found Pavelski's stick on Price's doorstep, and the puck slipped neatly into the back of the net, restoring the two goal lead. Johnson and Kane were credited with the assists.
At this point, the chippy play on the ice escalated. There were massive scrums in the crease on almost every rush, and it seemed that the net spent more time off the pegs than on. At 17:05, it again boiled over when Ryan Kesler committed a blatant boarding violation against Shea Weber. Jonathan Toews and Weber took exception, and the melee was on. When the dust settled, Kesler had a five minute boarding major and a game misconduct. Toews and Weber each had roughing minors, so you had the unusual situation where the U.S. incurred the major, but had a 4-3 advantage for two minutes.
The U.S. could not take advantage of the extra man situation, and its situation was complicated when Byfuglien took a questionable roughing call at the 18:18 mark. Fortunately for the U.S., a couple of clears and the end of the period saved the day, and they were able to kill off the remainder of the major after the period break. The numbers were ugly for the U.S., but Quick's play and some opportunistic play on offense allowed them to preserve the lead.
Ben Bishop assumed the goaltending duties for the U.S. in the third period, in which they again did their best impersonation of the Witness Protection Program. Shots were 10 - 2 in favor of Canada for the period, but that only tells part of the story. The U.S. scored on its first shot of the period — at the 18:39 mark -- when Derek Stepan converted an empty netter. Other than that, the U.S. strategy was closer to the late Muhammed Ali's "rope a dope" tactic against George Foreman than anything else. However, like Ali, it worked. Drew Doughty converted a filthy wrister at the 5:21 mark (assists to Ryan Getzlaf and Jake Muzzin), but could not narrow the gap any further.
In truth, there was a fair amount of sloppiness in this one, with some very ragged neutral zone play and some missed opportunities on both sides. To his credit, Tortorella used a pressing defense and some physical play to throw the Canadians off of their skill game, and the U.S. managed some opportunistic scoring chances. Will Tortorella be pleased with the effort? Clearly not, but results matter, and in a short tournament, a hot goaltender and opportunistic scoring can be enough.
Columbus clearly made a good show of things, between the praise for the facilities, the enthusiasm of the crowd, and the ubiquitous Cannon — which have players sharply divided. T.J. Oshie thinks it's the "worst thing in hockey", while captain Joe Pavelski lauded everything about the Columbus experience . . .including The Cannon.
The intensity level was truly surprising, considering that the tournament remains several days away. I suspect things will be ramped up even more tonight, when the two clubs square off at the Canadian Tire Center in Ottawa. It bodes well for the World Cup as a whole. Stay tuned.