Kovacevic: For U.S., a self-inflicted step back

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 12:12 p.m.

SOCHI, Russia — Ryan Kesler had the No. 6 sized up, dead to rights. The American forward was locked and loaded against the Canadian defenseman, Shea Weber, and it would take no more than a split-second before Weber would be plastered against the plexiglass.

Skate stop.

That's what came next. Couldn't believe it, but there it was.

Kesler, one of the fiercest competitors on a U.S. roster stacked with the stuff, came to a full-on, stop-on-a-dime skate stop. Then backtracked. Then wiggled his stick and waited to see what Weber would do.

Canada 1, United States 0.

Don't fault the national team for losing.

Fault them for not competing.

Fault them for not sticking by the same approach that had them in that Olympic semifinal Friday night at Bolshoy Ice Dome, that had observers casually describing them as gold-medal favorites, that had a nation back home shut down on the lunch hour to watch.

Fault them for watching just like everyone else.

“Terrible,” Ryan Suter called it. “We sat back. We were passive.”

“We talked about pushing it. We did,” Brooks Orpik said. “We didn't want to sit back, but …”

“They probably played the way we wanted to,” Patrick Kane said. “That's what hurts.”

That's what should hurt.

Let's stop here a moment: Toques off to the Canadians. Not at all beaten down by the relentless and often ridiculous criticism back home, not demoralized by having a half-dozen forwards still without a goal — Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz among them — they played brilliant defense. And on the few leaks, Carey Price smothered pucks like a sponge.

The Canadians were smarter, faster, better. And they didn't abandon their identity.

The U.S. roster, as has been exhaustively documented during the exhilarating 4-0 run to get this far, was built to be “the toughest team to play against” in this tournament. It was built to be “in your face.” It was built to be “abrasive.”

Not my words. Those were Dan Bylsma's, repeated several times since arriving.

What happened to all that?

The most obvious finger gets pointed at Bylsma going with that passive 1-2-2 system — Kesler was the “1” in that sequence, to give you some idea of how passive — that flies in the face of everything he and Ray Shero and David Poile and all the team's architects believed when finding their 25 guys.

The Americans used the 1-2-2 at other points of the tournament, too, to protect the many quick leads they got. Canada used it in this game, as well. The Finns and victorious Swedes in the earlier semifinal used the even more conservative 1-4. Heck, the Swiss and Latvians might as well have crammed six bodies in the crease. The bigger international ice, combined with Slovakia's early collapse while trying to go all-attack, had coaches running scared.

Yet the American 1-2-2 on this night stands out. Because they didn't have the lead. And they were facing an opponent with an immobile defense that could have been worn down with a heavy forecheck. And, to repeat, because they were built for exactly that.

I asked Bylsma why the team never had that abrasive edge or that forecheck, and his initial reply was that the game was “the fastest I'd ever seen.” Mike Babcock, his counterpart, agreed it was “really fast.” That's a fair point to raise. You can't hit what you can't catch, as youth hockey coaches teach. The Americans spent much of the time chasing.

“We didn't generate that speed we needed,” Bylsma continued. “And we didn't take that opportunity to maybe get pucks into areas where we could go to work and be that type of team. I thought our guys battled extremely hard in this game. Guys laid it on the line. Our goaltender was our best player.”

That's Jonathan Quick, and he was indeed sharp with 36 saves.

“We just weren't able to turn that back the other way and get forward with our game,” Bylsma said.

Maybe if they hadn't been skating backward so much, that wouldn't have been a problem.

Bylsma had a good tournament, and I'm not taking that away. Nor am I, as I'm sure many are back in Pittsburgh, comparing it to anything related to the Penguins. These are the Olympics. Different team. Different game. But adjustments are mandatory anytime the competition level rises, and that wasn't made here.

Also, let's not let everyone else off. When powerful voices such as Suter and David Backes question effort in a game this big — “I don't think we laid it all on the line,” Backes said — something's amiss. Maybe the passive style sucked away their energy. Maybe Canada's speed. Maybe both. It's unconscionable in any case.

This game, this loss, won't resonate with me. I'll forget that Jamie Benn scored the only goal if it's asked someday as trivia. I might even forget who takes bronze Saturday between the U.S. and Finland.

But I won't soon forget seeing an American program that's taken such great strides willingly take a step back.

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