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Olympic Watch: Questions remain for Canada, USA after pre-Olympic tournament struggles

Jared Clinton
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Olympic Watch: Questions remain for Canada, USA after pre-Olympic tournament struggles

Gilbert Brule and Matt Ellison Image by: Jussi Nukari/AFP/Getty Images

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Olympic Watch: Questions remain for Canada, USA after pre-Olympic tournament struggles

Jared Clinton
By:

Canada managed just one win in three games at the Karjala Cup, while USA went winless at the Deutschland Cup. After the first taste of pre-Olympic competition, who stood out and what will need to be addressed?

The first real taste of pre-Olympic competition for Team Canada and Team USA came to a close over the weekend, but if their respective finishes at the Karjala Cup and Deutschland Cup are any indication, don’t be expecting to see either North American club step foot on the podium in Pyeongchang.

At the Karjala Cup in Finland, a tournament featuring six national squads, the Canadian team escaped with a single victory in three outings. 

After opening the tournament with a 3-2 victory, in which Ben Scrivens stopped 19 of the 21 shots he faced, the Canadian side went on to drop each of its next two contests. The first defeat came 2-0 at the hands of a Swedish team that was led by projected first-overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin and exceptional goaltending from Magnus Hellberg. In their final outing of the tournament, Canada fell 4-3 to the host Finns, twice taking the lead only to surrender it roughly 10 minutes later each time. Early in the third, Miro Heiskanen gave Finland a 3-2 lead which was later nullified by a Christian Thomas tally, but Eeli Tolvanen fired home a power play goal seconds into a Rene Bourque penalty to give Finland the win and clinch first place in the tournament.

The Canadian team’s struggles in Finland, however, were nothing compared to the difficulties the American squad faced in Germany. After a narrow defeat in the opening contest of the Deutschland Cup, a 2-1 loss at the hands of Slovakia, Team USA proceeded to drop its final two contests, first dropping a 5-2 game to Russia’s so-called B-team before suffering a 5-1 defeat at the hands of the host Germans. Following the winless tournament, USA coach Tony Granato said the on-ice results disappointing, but added that the tournament “has been a real positive in terms of the evaluation process as we head toward the Olympics.” And, if nothing else, that’s what these tournaments were supposed to be for both North American nations.

When it comes to evaluating those talents, though, who stood out and improved their chances of appearing on the Olympic squad when all is said and done?

TEAM CANADA

Gilbert Brule’s performance in the KHL, where he has nine goals and 21 points in his past 22 games with Kunlun Red Star, was more than enough to have him front and center on Canada’s radar for the tournament and chances are Brule was going to be included on the Olympic squad. His performance across the Karjala Cup all but guarantees he’ll be included on the roster, though. He’s now suited up in four international games for Canada across two pre-Olympic tournaments and he banged home two goals in three games at the Finnish tournament.

Matt Ellison likely also turned some heads with his performance. Another KHL standout — he has seven goals and 21 points in 28 outings — Ellison registered a goal and assist in three games and earned top-six looks throughout the competition, and his two points tied him with Brule for the team scoring lead.

One of the more disappointing performances up front, however, was that of Bourque. With more than 700 NHL games to his name and a handful of 20-goal seasons, the belief was he could bring scoring punch to the club. Instead, he was held off the scoresheet entirely and took two costly penalties in the outing against Finland. The first, a cross check, resulted in Finland’s second goal. The second, a high stick, led to the game-winning goal by Tolvanen. Canada hanging on to win that outing may have moved them into third place.

The offense wasn’t really the bright spot for Canada in the competition, though. Instead, it was the defensive effort that was most promising, and it goes beyond Maxim Noreau, Simon Despres, Chay Genoway, Zach Whitecloud and Karl Stollery chipping in with points. Rather, what impressed most was the blueline’s ability to limit shots against. All told, Canada allowed only 72 shots against in the entire tournament and only twice did the defense break down enough to allow 10 or more shots against in a single frame. This was even despite the fact Canada was shorthanded 15 times in three games, too.

In goal, there’s almost no doubt now that Ben Scrivens will be the one to get the call when the Olympics rolls around as coach Willie Desjardins didn’t stray from the netminder once in the three-game tournament. It’d be difficult to fault Desjardins for that, either. Even if he wasn’t tested as often as his counterparts in the meetings with Switzerland and Sweden, Scrivens played well, surrendering only four goals against on 42 shots and posting a decent .905 save percentage through the two opening contests. Against the Finns, Scrivens surrendered four goals on 30 shots, but two of those markers came while Canada was shorthanded.

TEAM USA

Three consecutive defeats — to two nations that aren’t exactly considered hockey powerhouses and a Russian B-team, no less — won’t inspire much confidence in what the American team can do when the Olympics rolls around. Granato is right in saying this was a great chance to evaluate the lineup, however, and there are a few takeaways even in a tournament in which very little went right for Team USA, one of which is that USA may need to inject more scoring into the lineup in whatever way possible.

While each of Mark Arcobello, Chad Kolarik and Garrett Roe were able to slot home two points apiece, only nine players in all were able to find the scoresheet in a tournament where USA managed four goals across three outings. The good news, though, is that the American team can still scour the college ranks and pluck a player or two from the AHL to potentially bolster their offense before the big tournaments happen. For instance, Troy Terry, who has put up five goals and 18 points in 10 games with the University of Denver, could be an option come the Olympics, as could AHL scorers such as Chris Bourque (five goals and 21 points in 15 games with the Hershey Bears) and Chris Conner (four goals and 13 points in 15 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms).

That’s not to say the offense needs to be entirely rebuilt, however. Acrobello and Roe, especially, stood out both in creating opportunities and on the dot, while Ryan Stoa, who registered one assist in the tournament, was all over the ice. He put 14 shots on goal in three games, including seven in the outing against Slovakia. The defense also had its chances, with Matt Gilory and Matt Donovan leading the way despite failing to register a point between them. Bobby Sanguinetti, Jon Blum and Ryan Gunderson were the only American defensemen to register a point.

Arguably the biggest concern for Team USA after the Deutschland Cup, however, is what they do in goal. Heading into the tournament, Ryan Zapolski was considered a lock for the starting job given his outstanding play in the KHL, where he’s sporting a .945 SP and 1.42 goals-against average in 24 games. However, Zapolski struggled, allowing five goals against on 23 shots spread across nearly 80 minutes of work, good for a meager .783 SP. Meanwhile, Leggio stopped 10 of the 11 shots he faced in 40 minutes against Slovakia and Maxwell turned aside 20 of 24 shots against the Russian side. Of course, if Zapolski keeps up his play in the KHL, he’s going to be given another chance to prove himself on the big stage, but the one position it seemed Team USA was set at heading into the tournament may now offer as much of a question as the rest of the roster.

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Olympic Watch: Questions remain for Canada, USA after pre-Olympic tournament struggles