Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sport
Last night, Team North America outplayed Team Russia for 52 minutes but still lost 4-3 in regulation. The eight-minute slump that they experienced was enough to blow their lead and allow Team Russia to come back and get a quick three goal advantage.
Despite what the scoreboard said, the North Americans should have won that game, and probably would have won by a good margin had Sergei Bobrovsky not played as well as he did.
Early on in the game, it was evident that the North Americans dominated in speed and defense. They were taking care of the area in front of Matt Murray, they were able to clear their zone and break the puck out cleanly, they had many odd-man breaks down the ice, and they were making brilliant passes to each other. In fact, had John Gibson been put in after the third goal instead of the fourth, the Russians might still have no points in the prelims.
So what gives? Why are the young North Americans making a group of star players like Team Russia look so bad?
One of the biggest keys is the age similarities in Team North America. No two players are more than five years apart in age, which is actually a pretty big deal in the world of hockey. The sport of ice hockey is still evolving and improving on itself between the improved equipment and new styles of play. Younger generations will bring in better playing styles that are suited to play against what they see in the NHL growing up. Many of the North Americans grew up watching guys like Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk play, and were able to base their playing styles off of what could work against guys like that. They were also able to bring new styles of play to the game that are relatively new to the NHL, like utilizing the slingshot to enter the zone on a powerplay to set up the half-ice offense rather than relying on a dump and chase. All of these guys grew up playing the same style of hockey in about the same area, giving them a major advantage in chemistry over other teams in the tournament.
Another major advantage that the North Americans have over other teams is their plasticity, both as individuals and as a team. Young NHL players are easily molded when they hit the big leagues, partially because they have to quickly adapt, but also because they’ve been hopping leagues for the years leading up to their debut that they don’t have a set play style yet. Because nothing is set in stone with these young players, they can easily get used to each other’s playing styles as you could see in the game last night. Not all of their passes were connecting, but the players knew where each other were going to be on the ice, and because of that they were able to run a clinic on the Russian team, who for the most part, played like a bunch of individuals on the ice. It also helped with clearing their own zone, as the North American breakout looked much cleaner than Team Russia.
Last but not least would be the stacked talent that Team North America has. Thanks to the last couple of drafts being completely saturated with talent, the guys on Team North America are the same players that you will see in the Hall of Fame 20 or 25 years from now. You have players who are great with their hands and have a wonderful technical style of play like Johnny Gaudreau, players who have already had breakout years in the NHL like Shayne Gostisbehere, and players who are going to be future all-stars like Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, and Jack Eichel. It’s unfair to other teams to say that the North Americans are playing well based on technicalities alone, because their roster is absolutely stacked.
So don’t count Team North America out just because they’re a young squad. They’ve got a lot more going for them than many fans give them credit for.
By Justin Green