Team USA’s Hopes Rest With Defense
Defense figures to be the chief asset of Team USA, which begins competition in the World Cup of Hockey today against Team Canada at Philadelphia’s new CoreStates Center.
And with games against Canada, Russia and Slovakia in the next four days, Coach Ron Wilson will learn quickly how far his mobile but muscular defensive corps can carry him.
“From a team point of view, I feel we can be successful, but I understand the favorites are Canada and Russia,” said Wilson, the coach of the Mighty Ducks and a strong candidate for the 1998 U.S. Olympic coaching job if he fares well in this tournament.
“Canada and Russia have had a lot of international experience. A lot of our players haven’t. We’ve got to learn from the best, and that’s how we’ve approached every [exhibition] game.”
Team USA was 2-2 in exhibitions, splitting two games with Canada, losing to Russia and routing Slovakia. Round-robin play in the four-team North American group began Thursday. The four European pool teams began play last Monday.
The top team in each pool will get a bye into the semifinals, and the second- and third-place teams will cross over to play quarterfinal games Thursday at Montreal and Friday at Ottawa. The semifinals will be played next Saturday at Philadelphia and Sept. 8 at Ottawa, with the best-of-three finals scheduled Sept. 10 at Philadelphia, Sept. 12 at Montreal and, if necessary, Sept. 14 at Montreal.
The arrival last week of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Chris Chelios, who had been hampered by a pulled groin muscle, added depth to an already formidable U.S. defense.
“We’re quite large with the Hatcher boys [Derian of the Dallas Stars and Kevin of the Pittsburgh Penguins], but at the same we’re mobile with Chris Chelios, Gary Suter and Mathieu Schneider,” Wilson said. “The one thing I have to get across to them is to move the puck a little bit quicker up ice to the forwards. We run into trouble when we don’t move it quickly. It’s not like you’re up against the third line of other NHL teams.
“Our strengths are our mobility on defense and we’ve got power forwards who can control the puck in the corners and take it to the front of the net. Sometimes we over-handle the puck, but that’s going to be a weakness of all the teams here because these guys are used to being the big guy on their teams.”
Wilson’s top two lines in exhibition games had Edmonton’s Doug Weight centering for St. Louis’ Brett Hull and Colorado’s Scott Young, and Mike Modano of Dallas flanked by Phoenix’s Keith Tkachuk and New Jersey’s Bill Guerin.
Injuries limited the playing time of forwards Pat LaFontaine of Buffalo and Joel Otto of Philadelphia, and Washington goalie Jim Carey. A roster spot was left open for center Jeremy Roenick, who remains unsigned after his rights were traded by Chicago to Phoenix.
Canada Coach Glen Sather replaced the injured Al MacInnis with Ed Jovanovski of Florida and dropped Pittsburgh center Ron Francis for Washington defenseman Sylvain Cote.
Forward Brendan Shanahan was suspended Friday for Canada’s next game for breaking Alexander Semak’s right cheek with his stick in a victory over Russia.