Despite a dominant run through the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds, Team USA's offense came sputtering to a halt when it mattered most in this morning's semifinal matchup with Canada. It's more than a little odd the storyline of the Americans' 1-0 loss to their northern archrivals revolves around Team Canada, stocked with offensive weapons, executing a near-flawless performance defensively while Team USA, whose calling card going into the Olympics was purportedly their defense, surrendered scoring chance after scoring chance. But anything can happen over the course of a short tournament like this, which is part of what makes it so entertaining.
And, on days like today, so devastating.
There are a million ways to analyze every last blown coverage, missed scoring chance and misguided coaching decision but it bears mentioning, before digging into any of that, Team Canada is good. Scary good. Greatest-collection-of-hockey-talent-ever-assembled good. The final score here is a Jonathan Quick-fueled mirage; the Canadians started out strong and only got better from there, at times controlling this game from a territorial perspective like they were facing Latvia or Norway rather than a legitimate medal contender.
So even if the USA brass had done the rational thing and sent an elite puck-mover like Keith Yandle to Sochi, whose game is far more suited to any ice surface but particularly a larger one than that of immobile pylon Brooks Orpik, who was so dreadful in his 16:04 tonight he made me miss watching Brad Stuart, it's likely Canada still wins this.
Even if Bobby Ryan, who was inexplicably deemed incapable of cracking either unit of an American power play that never once looked dangerous in this tournament outside of the win over Russia, had made the team over a glorified grinder like Ryan Callahan or Dustin Brown, it's likely Canada still wins this.
Even if Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk, far superior to the likes of Orpik and Cam Fowler who were consistently receiving more minutes than them, were used more frequently, even if Dustin Byfuglien had claimed his rightful spot on this team, even if Dan Bylsma had opted to utilize last change for something other than hard-matching a line that contained some of the least talented forwards on his team against the best player on the planet...it's likely Canada still wins this.
But those moves would have improved Team USA's odds at pulling off the upset and that's the most you can do if you're on a management team or coaching staff. It's hard to say the players picked for the team and inserted into the lineup didn't play to their fullest potential. Granted, captain Zach Parise was largely M.I.A. prior to an impressive eight-shot performance today but that largely comes down to coaching as well; why wasn't he on a line with Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane to start the tournament? Ultimately, the failure of this team falls at the feet of the suits running it. USA Hockey has done a fantastic job growing the sport across the country and cultivating elite athletes; it's a shame David Poile, Brian Burke and company couldn't properly select the best ones to compete on the biggest stage.
What's so frustrating about this is it may have been the last chance for this group, many of whom tasted even more bitter defeat at the hands of Canada four years ago, to win Olympic gold. Even if the NHL heads to Pyeongchang in 2018, which itself is dubious, key Americans like Parise, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler, David Backes and Ryan Suter will all be on the wrong side of 30 and likely far less effective players than they are now. Outside Alex Galchenyuk and Seth Jones, it isn't like there's a new wave of young American stars to take their place.
Even more frustrating, or perhaps ironic, is that this team was supposedly constructed to win grinding, hard-fought 1-0 games like this one. The people who designed it worship at the altar of 1980 and believe every version of Team USA should live up (or, more accurately, down) to the underdog mentality of that squad even though there's enough American talent at the NHL level these days to legitimately compete against the likes of Canada. Ultimately, all the grit in the world can't translate into offense; Team USA learned that the hard way today.