World Cup & Prospects Tournaments Showcase Speed, Skill

It was a frantic weekend of tournament action in Toronto and Traverse City. Let’s survey the landscape.

For true hockey fans, this weekend was a smorgasbord of delicacies.  At the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, some questions were answered, while others were created.  In the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan, two days of play resulted in a functional stalemate in the standings, though some standout talent was showcased.  Plenty of fodder for discussion here, so let’s do a quick survey of the results:

World Cup of Hockey

Europe 3  USA 0 —  A team designed to beat Team Canada forgot that there are seven other clubs in the tournament.  A European club that was allegedly too old and too slow to compete jumped on a lethargic US squad early, and never looked back.  Miscues and missed opportunities were simply the order of the day for the US squad.

The problems began early for Team USA.  Just 4:19 in, Ryan McDonagh got caught trying to lay a hit in the neutral zone, which, when combined with Derek Stepan’s hesitation getting back, created a two-on-one for Europe.  Matt Niskanen inexplicably failed to challenge Frans Nielsen as he came down the right wing, and Nielsen put a perfect pass on the stick of Marian Gaborik, who just had to nudge it by Jonathan Quick.

If you were rooting for Team USA, Europe’s second goal was nothing but a slow-motion nightmare.  Patrick Kane took the puck for an extended skate in the offensive zone, ultimately circulating back near the blue line, where Leon Draisaitl steered Kane toward Tobias Rieder.  Rieder stripped the puck from Kane, and nudged it ahead to Draisaitl.  Thanks to the USA defenders being caught deep while Kane had his skate, Draisaitl and Nino Niederreiter were all alone as they set their sights on Jonathan Quick. A couple of quick passes across the crease, and Draisaitl buried the chance.  Team Europe added their final goal on a nasty deflection by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare late in the second.

This one had all the earmarks of a team simply mailing it in, looking ahead to Canada.  The raw numbers were not bad, with the US outshooting Europe 35 - 17 and winning the face-off battle 55/45.  However, they were not physical early, and the best players were not the best players.  Kane acted as if he was the only one on the ice.  Kesler took some unnecessary penalties — again.  Zach Parise was invisible.  Derek Stepan and Ryan Suter were just bad.  David Backes was so bad that he played only 6:35.  The loss was not a structural failure, but rather a sequence of individual mental lapses.

Full marks to both goaltenders in this game.  Jonathan Quick had no chance on any of the three European markers, and Jaroslav Halak was outstanding for Team Europe.  That’s what makes short tournaments so unpredictable.

No matter the cause, the USA is now in a position where they will have to prove that the design to beat Canada works.  Lose to the Canadians, and it will be an early exit for Team USA.   Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson would then face a very, very grumpy John Tortorella for the beginning of camp.

Canada 6 Czech Republic 0 — Team Canada lived up to all of the pre-tournament hype, showing that an excess of speed and skill, properly deployed, is virtually impossible to beat.  Consider a few numbers:  50 shots on goal.  62% face-off wins.  66.7% on the power play. 100% on the PK.  You get the idea.  Michal Neuvirth, who was kept in for the duration, had to feel like a duck in a shooting gallery.  In typically courteous Canadian fashion, six different players scored.  Scary good.  To say that Team USA has its work cut out for it when the two squads meet on Tuesday would be a gross understatement.

Sweden 2 Russia 1 —  This was an entertaining affair, pitting the defense and structure of Team Sweden against the skill and physical play of the Russians.  Swedish discipline prevailed, as the Swedes were able to neutralize the Russian transition game through persistent neutral zone pressure, and generated just enough offense to prevail.

After a scoreless first period, Sweden got on the board on the power play, when Gabriel Landeskog zipped the puck past a thoroughly screened Sergei Bobrovsky.  Two minutes later, Victor Hedman found the net, with Bobrovsky again thoroughly screened.  That was all of the excitement until just 33 seconds remained in regulation.  Alex Ovechkin, who had played with undisciplined passion to this point, buried a point shot past Jacob Markstrom — a late fill-in for an ailing Henrik Lundqvist.  Why Russia had not done more shooting from the point earlier remains a mystery.

26 seconds later, Russia again put pressure on the Swedes, and a big rebound off of Markstrom caromed to Ovechkin to the right of the goal.  Ovechkin deflected the puck with his glove, and it ended up in the net.  Waved off immediately by the referee, Ovechkin protested that the puck had gone from his glove to the shaft of his stick, then into the net.  Though one view appeared to support that theory, a second angle showed no contact with the stick, and the call on the ice stood.

Thus, Russia finds itself in the same position as Team USA, needing a win over Team North America tonight to avoid an early trip home.  Meanwhile, Sweden faces arch-rival Finland on Tuesday.

North America 4  Finland 1 —  Entering this contest, the big question was whether the “young guns” would overwhelm the opposition with speed and skill, or succumb to emotion and the relative lack of experience on the big stage.  The answer was delivered decisively, as the North American youngsters dismantled Finland in a game that was not nearly as close as the score indicated.  Four different skaters scored goals for the North American squad, and many more could have been had.  Finland narrowly avoided another score when the puck was cleared millimeters away from crossing the line, and a second tally was disallowed for goaltender interference.  In between, Pekka Rinne made several nice stops on other opportunities that seemed to be certain goals.

Simply stated, the Finns were under siege for virtually the entire game, but certainly in the second period, when the North Americans scored three times. Only a Valtteri Filppula goal with 4:07 left prevented this from being a shutout.  The level of speed and skill demonstrated by the under-23 set was impressive, and not only on the offensive end.  Players used their speed to back check effectively, neutralize the Finnish transition game, and gain quick exits from the zone.  Matt Murray was solid in goal.

From the Blue Jackets’ perspective, both Ryan Murray and Seth Jones looked very good as the second pair for North America.  They were positionally sound, engineered quick exits, and added some good offensive support.  Brandon Saad had a few prime opportunities, and showed his speed and skill, despite playing a team low 12:12.

North America gets no rest, as they face the Russians tonight, it what should be a fascinating match-up.

Summing it Up:  The pressure is squarely on the first round losers, as each matches up against a first round winner in the next round, where a loss means elimination, and a win throws the tournament into turmoil.  It will be fun to watch.

Traverse City Prospects Tournament

While the NHL elite were battling it out in Toronto, the players desiring to become elite were squaring off in Traverse City, Michigan, where the Blue Jackets were looking for a third straight title.

Things did not start out according to plan on Friday, as the Blue Jackets dropped a rambunctious 6 - 4 decision to the Detroit Red Wings.  Free agent Lucas Perissini struggled in goal, and the club generally lacked discipline and focus.  Penalties disrupted flow and put extra pressure on skating.    Bright spots included Sonny Milano (1 goal), who drew raves for his creative play, Zach Werenski, who just continues to look solid, and Pierre-Luc Dubois (1 assist), who started nervously but gained confidence as the game went along.  Justin Scott, Kole Sherwood and Jordan Maletta had the other tallies for Columbus.  Paul Bittner also showed well, contributing an assist and leading the club in +/- with a plus-2.   Vitaly Abramov, the Blue Jackets’ 3rd round selection, showed how skilled he is, but committed some ugly turnovers, proving the “prospects” nature of the tournament.

Fortunately, the Blue Jackets did not have long to dwell on that loss, as the faced the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.  The Blues had edged the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, 3 - 2, and were looking to put an effective lock on the Howe Division.  The Blue Jackets were having none of it, however, and came away with a 4 -1 victory.  Free agent Jeremy Brodeur was amazing in goal, while his famous father (now the Assistant GM for the Blues) looked on. Justin Scott, a 20 year old undrafted free agent signed by Columbus, notched his second and third goals of the tournament, wedged between goals by Zach Werenski and Sonny Milano.  The club overall looked more settled and confident on Saturday and took only three penalties.  Vitaly Abramov rebounded from his Friday showing, demonstrating more responsibility with the puck, and some considerable skill.  Dubois had another impressive outing, showing solid play in all three zones.

As the final day of round robin competition dawns, all of the clubs in the Howe Division have 1 - 1 records.  The Blue Jackets face the Blackhawks  — the only other Howe division club with a positive goal differential — today at 3:30.  A win puts the Blue Jackets in the driver’s seat for a potential appearance in the championship game tomorrow. However, their fate won’t truly be known until the completion of the Detroit — St. Louis match later in the evening, as the winner there could claim the top spot if they end up with a better goal differential, or, in Detroit’s case, with the same goal differential, as the Red Wings won the head-to-head matchup.

In the Ted Lindsay Division, the Carolina Hurricanes hold the inside track for the championship game, having beaten both opponents on Friday and Saturday. They face Dallas (1 - 0 - 1) today.  Only the Minnesota Wild, who dropped their first two, are eliminated from championship consideration in the Lindsay Division.

Entertaining stuff, and you can watch the game on, the Fox Sports GO app, or the Blue Jackets’ app.

Oh, and by the way, training camp starts on-ice work on Friday.  Stay tuned.

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