COLOGNE – It’s ironic that Team USA defenceman Jack Johnson idolized Russian sniper Alexei Kovalev when he was growing up because the Americans sure could use Kovalev’s scoring touch at the IIHF World Championship.
The United States is heading to the relegation round simply for the fact that they could not score. Four goals in three games do not cut it at a pressure-packed tournament where shocking results have become the norm.
“It is a tough one to swallow. I wish I had a good answer for why this happened but I really don't,’’ Johnson said after the USA lost 3-2 to Finland on Wednesday and were dispatched to the relegation round.
“The obvious things are there. We had trouble generating offence and scoring goals. But it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. It is just that thing have not worked out the way we wanted it.”
The Americans, with many of their stars declining invitations to play, must finish in the top two in the relegation pool to avoid losing their eligibility for the 2011 World Championship.
The bottom two finishers in the relegation pool would compete in on of two Division I groups in 2011 and would need a first-place finish in that tournament to be eligible for the World Championship in 2012.
Johnson is the veteran on the U.S. team. He has played in the past three World Championship tournaments, along with the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. When you add in his games at the Under-18 and Under-20 level along with the games in Germany in the last week, Johnson has represented the USA 51 times internationally.
That helps explain why he had a hard time grasping the not so brave new world the U.S. was headed to.
“It is hard to fathom for us. I don't think I have ever played in a losing bracket in international hockey,” he said. “We have to win our next three games and that is all to make sure next year’s team has a shot.”
As much as people like to make reference to how the United States is the Olympic silver medalist, it is a completely different team at the IIHF’s annual showcase event. Johnson is the only player in Germany who was in Vancouver. Russia, by comparison, has 12 players who bombed in Vancouver.
Team USA’s entry in the 2010 Worlds was young and short on scoring. There wasn’t a 20-goal scorer in the NHL on the roster and many of the forwards had single-digit goal production in the NHL this season.
That’s where Johnson’s leadership is key going into the relegation round, and it is not by mistake that he is captain.
“He is the whole package, there is no doubt about it, as far as the skill set coupled with physicality and truculence,” said Team USA general manager Brian Burke. “He has all those things and he has leadership skills too. He is a good guy and he is an important player for us.”
“He certainly is an accomplished player already in a short time in our league,’’ continued Burke. “He is physical, he makes good passes and he has a hard shot. He does just about everything well that a defenceman needs to do and he is a real good player, a smart player. He is a warrior.”
Burke had more than a handful of players who refused an invitation to play in the World Championship and there is little doubt the U.S: could have benefited from some goal-support. And there were scorers that Burke wanted to invite but they were injured.
Johnson jumped at the chance to wear his country’s colours on the world stage.
“Every opportunity I get to play for your country might be your last so you should take advantage of it,” he said.
Johnson represents the new wave of elite players for the United States. He is part of a generation that was hugely influenced by Chris Chelios, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk and Brian Leetch.
Now the job is to make sure Team USA stays in the IIHF’s elite division.
“We are not where we want to be but what is done is done and we have to find a way to win our next three,” said Johnson.