WASHINGTON — John Tortorella stood in the middle of the ice and bellowed at the top of his lungs: “Too slow! We’re too slow. Move the puck and skate.”
Tortorella was imploring Team USA to practice the way he wants them to play at the World Cup of Hockey. The U.S. was built to be big, strong and physical in hopes of beating up a favorite like, say Canada. But to win the tournament, the Americans will need to mix speed, skill and scoring with the old-school Tortorella hockey principles of grinding it out and blocking shots.
The team’s identity is in-your-face aggressive, while NHL MVP Patrick Kane and talented winger Zach Parise and others will bring the flash and flair as the Americans attempt to avenge a disappointing finish at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I think a big part of our team and our makeup is our willingness and our physicality, but we also have some skill,” Tortorella said. “There’s going to be some fast teams here and we do have speed. I think people have kind of got locked in because the way we’ve gone with our team, yeah, we have some grind to it, but we still have a very quick hockey club here and that has to play into it.”
Tortorella earned acclaim in 2004 when he coached the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup with the mantra of “safe is death.” In subsequent stops with the New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and now the Columbus Blue Jackets, the firebrand coach has tried to win by clogging up the middle and demanding players sacrifice their bodies to get in front of pucks.
In a best-on-best tournament with star players, Tortorella still wants a buy-in, a commitment to team hockey. The U.S. goal is to be difficult to play against by dictating tempo up the ice and cashing in on the scoring ability of Kane, Pavelski, Max Pacioretty and captain Joe Pavelski.
Pavelski believes playing on NHL-size ice in Toronto benefits the U.S., which could get lost on the outside of a wider international rink. It also makes speed imperative.
“You can’t just play a gritty game,” said Kane, the Hart Trophy winner with a league-best 106 points last season. “With the team in here, the players we have, we want to play a little bit more a physical brand and make it harder on teams to have the puck and when they don’t have it, keep it from them and make it harder to get it back. We feel we have all those ingredients in here.”
U.S. general manager Dean Lombardi didn’t want to make an all-star team, either. He wanted to recapture the magic of the 1996 World Cup champions, who beat Canada to win that tournament 20 years ago. He chose gritty players like Detroit Red Wings winger Justin Abdelkader at the expense of better scorers.
Like legendary coach Herb Brooks said at the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. doesn’t have enough talent to win on talent alone. But it has more than most NHL teams, which presents a challenge on how to handle a group of stars.
Tortorella has to “manage how much rope he gives those guys,” said forward Brandon Dubinsky, who has played for him in New York and Columbus. “Kaner’s not going to play (Tortorella’s) type of crash-and-bang game, and he goes out and plays 100 points a year. You’ve just got to let that guy play. … It’s just finding a balance but at the same time trying to have an identity as a whole of guys that are just going to go out there and grind away.”
Even if Jonathan Quick, who will start in goal in the opening game Saturday against Team Europe, is at his best, the Americans need to produce goals. They’ll look to Kane, Parise, Pavelski and Sochi shootout hero T.J Oshie for that but also muck and grind and try to dredge up offense.
“There’s a time and a place for all of that and establishing ourselves early in games of our physical presence and getting in on the forecheck and our territorial game,” center David Backes said. “Once we do that, you can let the skill take place when we’re in the zone and occupying for extended periods of time.”
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