Questionable decision-making puts Americans in a hole

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Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of Team Europe celebrates his second-period goal Saturday in Toronto. (Getty Images)

TORONTO — In the days leading up to the World Cup of Hockey, Team USA players couldn’t stop raving about Patrick Kane. Max Pacioretty called him “the best player in the game,” and said his mere presence gave the Americans a good chance to win. Derek Stepan talked about how he had to rein himself in as Kane’s center, and not just force-feed him the puck every chance he got.

Kane was the star, the focal point of the American offense.

Then he played just four minutes and 45 seconds in the first period of Saturday’s opener against Team Europe, eighth among the 12 American forwards. That’s not the reason the United States was stunned, 3-0, by the patchwork Europeans — a team comprising eight nationalities, thrown together because their countries weren’t deep enough to field their own teams. But it was emblematic of the baffling decision-making that has gone into this American team.

This is the team coach John Tortorella believed he needed to succeed in the World Cup. A team in which “grit” and “jam” were valued as much as — sometimes more than — talent. A team that was irritating, physical, and “hard to play against,” one of those old-school hockey tropes that sounds better in theory than it usually looks in practice. So instead of picking the likes of Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kyle Okposo and Justin Faulk to flesh out the roster, the American braintrust took the likes of Justin Abdelkader, Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson.

In a game that’s increasingly being dominated by speed and skill, Team USA brought a throwback team to Toronto. And they promptly got thrown back by the underdog Europeans.

It was an emphatic and alarming upset, pushing the Americans to the brink in the compressed, three-game group stage. The United States — which failed to medal in the Sochi Olympics and now has been shut out in three straight international games — likely has to defeat the heavily favored Canadians on Tuesday to have any hope of advancing to the semifinals.

“Developing quality scoring chances, it was a struggle for us,” Tortorella said afterward.

Tortorella didn’t do himself any favors by scratching the versatile, physical and productive Dustin Byfuglien, and by keeping Kane off the ice so much when the game was still up for grabs. After Sunday’s practice in Toronto, Tortorella was predictably prickly and secretive about any future lineup changes. But it’s almost inconceivable at this point that Byfuglien — who can play on defense or on the wing — won’t be back in the lineup.

“That’s not my decision,” said Byfuglien, who can play on defense or on the wing. “All I do is come here, put a jersey on and go to work when I’m told. I’m just waiting for an opportunity. That’s all.”

Pity poor Kane, who feels the weight of an entire team on his shoulders. Take a look at the other elite players on elite teams: Russia’s top line against Sweden was Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Nikita Kucherov. They lost 2-1 to Sweden, which rolled out Daniel and Henrik Sedin with Loui Eriksson. Canada, meanwhile, crushed the Czechs with Sidney Crosby between Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Even Team North America trotted out Connor McDavid with Auston Matthews and Mark Scheifele.

Kane, meanwhile, was skating on a line with Stepan and Abdelkader at Sunday’s practice. Oof.

Still, Kane said it was largely up to him to give his teammates the offensive boost they desperately need.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t produce anything last game so, you know, that’s my job on the team, to produce offense and scoring chances, try to help put goals on the board.”

The Americans molded this team for one purpose: To beat Canada. It worked in a surprisingly intense, borderline vicious exhibition game before the tournament. It better work again on Tuesday. And after that, it’s time to rethink this entire team, starting at the top.

“This is not a marathon, as coaches always talk about in NHL seasons,” Tortorella said. “This is a sprint. We’ve put ourselves in a spot now where we’re chasing. We’re chasing the tournament. It’s a spot we didn’t want to be in. It’s a very dangerous spot, but we are here.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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