HELSINKI – “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” said Forrest Gump's mother. Team USA is a little like a box of chocolates, too.
In the last 10 years, the Americans have ended up in the relegation round twice, most recently in 2010. They also have a bronze medal from 2004 but mostly - six times in the last ten tournaments - the U.S. plays just fine and heads home after the quarter-finals. They haven’t finished higher than bronze since 1950.
It’s confusing just because obviously they have the skills and the players to do even better. Since 2002, they’ve also won two Olympic silver medals, finished fourth in the World Cup, but also because they’ve won the World Juniors twice, and added two bronze medals, they’ve won the under-18 World Championship so many times since 2002 (six) that they don’t even count other medals anymore.
“We don’t get a month to prepare for this, and you don’t know what you’re going to get, who’s going to buy in, and how quickly. Before you know it, the tournament can be over, the team never came together as a team, and you don’t know what’s happened,” says coach Scott Gordon, back in his third straight tournament.
In Gordon’s first year, in Cologne, the U.S. Team, captained by Jack Johnson who’s the captain on this team as well, ended up in the regulation round, which it won.
Last year, the U.S. was back in the playoff stage, but lost its quarter-final to the Czechs, 4-0.
Now Gordon seems to have collected a group of players that have come together as a team, who play for each other, while still having a lot of top-end talent on all positions, starting from goaltender Jimmy Howard.
“We have a young and fast team. We have a great group of guys in the dressing room, everybody gets along with each other, we gelled fast and I think that’s helped,” says Howard who’s posted a 91.19 save percentage in the six games he’s played here. He’s also faced more shots that any other goalie in the quarter-finals.
“It’s just a matter of getting together before we got here, we spent a couple of days together in Sweden [playing exhibition games], there wasn’t much else [to do] around, so we got to know each other pretty well,” he adds.
A good dressing room chemistry has surely only got better with the wins - USA has lost only once, to Slovakia - which also helps with the buy-in process. And suddenly Team USA is just that. Team USA.
“One of the things we stress is what we’re doing on the forecheck to wear down the opposition, to then get that great play that looks like all about individual skill, as opposed to what preceded it,” Gordon says.
“Our defencemen move the puck very well, and sometimes they can, on their own, start a breakout without having to use their partner, and then make a pass to put it on a forward’s stick in a good position,” he adds.
The U.S. now has two players in the top ten in tournament scoring. Max Pacioretty leads the team with 12 points in seven games and is fourth, Paul Stastny has nine in six games for tenth in tournament scoring. Bobby Ryan, a four-time 30-goal scorer in the NHL, leads the team in goal scoring with four in seven games. Of the forwards that have played all seven games, only Joey Crabb hasn’t scored a goal (but he has two assists).
Defenceman Justin Faulk has scored four goals, another defenceman Jack Johnson has three, so Team USA is now a team firing with all cylinders.
“One of the things that has been our identity is what we do in the offensive zone as a collective. Everybody’s in the right positions and that’s led to opportunities that look very similar no matter who’s on the ice. As a coach it’s nice to know that you can put any line out on the ice and they can score,” Gordon says.
Their quarter-final opponent, Finland, has only one player, Valtteri Filppula with 9 points, in the top ten of tournament scoring and the team as a whole scored just 21 goals in seven games, just like Slovakia and France. The U.S. has scored 32, Canada 34.
Finland’s Jarkko Immonen, the leading goal scorer of the 2011 tournament with 9 goals in nine games, now has three in seven. His linemate Mikael Granlund was a point-a-game player in 2011, but now has four assists in seven games. The potential is there, but they also need to realize it now.
In the preliminary game between the two teams, Team USA steamrolled over Finland, 5-0, but everybody agrees on one thing: that game doesn’t matter one bit tonight. Finland may even thrive being the underdog, playing in front of its home crowd.
A wild card in the game is goaltender Petri Vehanen who played only 7:36 in the game against the U.S., taking over when Kari Lehtonen got injured. Vehanen posted the best save percentage in 2011, and has the best save percentage, 96.83, in the games he’s played (against Slovakia, France, and Kazakhstan).
“We’re going to play a completely different team. I’m sure they’ve watched [Sunday’s] game again and they know what to do to make it a tighter game. The building’s going to be loud, it’s going to be emotional,” says Ryan.
“I’m not expecting it to be like the first game. It’s going to be a dog fight. We know their style from playing against them and watching video, so we know their tendencies, but it’s going to be one of those games when it comes down to who wants it more,” adds Howard.