TORONTO — What began as Team USA’s “championship game” against Team Canada on Tuesday night has morphed into much more than that. It’s also their worst nightmare.
Thanks to Team Europe’s overtime win over the Czech Republic on Monday afternoon, Tuesday’s showdown against their cross-border neighbour is their entire tournament.
The United States will be eliminated from the World Cup of Hockey on Day 4 of the tournament with anything short of a win against Canada at Air Canada Centre.
This three-game round robin format has created the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up theatre for a proud world hockey power that supposedly constructed its roster based solely on the idea of taking down Canada.
“It’s a great spot for the Americans to be in that type of situation, in that type of atmosphere, in the situation we’re in,” Team USA coach John Tortorella said. “If you can’t get motivated to do your best in this type of situation with the environment that’s going to be there Tuesday night, there’s something the matter with you; we’ve got the wrong guy. And I don’t think we’ve got the wrong guys.”
It has also created a rather strange juxtaposition between the archrivals. It is just the second game of the tournament for Team Canada, who isn’t facing the same pressure after a dominating opening win over the Czech Republic.
“This is just another game,” Canadian goaltender Carey Price said.
That isn’t hyperbole from Price, either. Matt Duchene, just 23 in 2014, said he was nervous before the gold-medal game at the Sochi Olympics until he looked around the locker room and realized he was the only one. With eight players remaining from the 2010 gold-medal game in Vancouver, Team Canada won’t blink at an early round matchup.
A loss for the Americans, on the other hand, would mean they’d become the first USA Hockey team to fail to advance past the preliminary round in a best-on-best competition since the 1987 Canada Cup. It would break a streak of eight tournaments where the U.S. had something to play for, spanning a few generations of talent.
Team USA players didn’t want to hear that on Monday.
“If we start trying to carry the weight of generations of hockey players and defining moments or ends of tournaments, I think that starts to paralyze you and starts to make you more hesitant,” David Backes said. “We split with them in the exhibition. We know that we can play with them when we play our game, and we’ve got to get to that game right from the puck drop and stay with it until the horn blows.”
Backes and other Americans played down the thought that this game didn’t mean as much for Canada, particularly since it is on Canadian soil.
“I mean, it’s Canada/U.S.,” Erik Johnson said. “There’s always a lot of buzz about it.”
The United States wants to drown out the home crowd, which was much tamer on Saturday against the Czech Republic than it will be on Tuesday.
“There’s one sound better than your home crowd cheering loud after a goal and that’s the silence of a road crowd—when you can hear a pin drop and hear each other screaming when you score a goal,” Backes said. “We’re looking to have a few of those moments [Tuesday] night.”
Deep down, though, the United States is fully aware of the potential consequences. Questions of a regime change are on the table, not to mention a burgeoning class of young stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel waiting to take the reins.
A loss could mean the end of the national team careers for a number of players, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding NHL players participating in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
“It’s kind of weird to think about that it could be some of the guys’ last kick at the can,” Johnson said. “I’m 28. Ten years in the league goes by faster than you think. Guys want to really relish this moment because it could be really the last time we get that opportunity to win one of these international tournaments.”
It would be even more stunning considering everything about the 2016 World Cup of Hockey was made-for-TV to pit the U.S. and Canada in a three-game final. Their Group A was the decidedly easier group, or at least it was until the Americans lost focus against Team Europe.
They have a chance to atone for that on Tuesday in a big way, or be forever remembered as the upset story of the tournament, no matter who wins it all.
“It’s going to be a blast,” Tortorella said. “Playing [in Canada], against them. Everybody wants us knocked out. Let’s just play. We’ve practised enough. We’ve talked enough. We’ve gone through all that process. Let’s play the damn game.”
Frank Seravalli, tsn.ca | Photo: tsn
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