The United States played the game it wanted to on Friday against Canada.
It was physical, rough, and at times a little nasty. Because they were able to play that way and come away with a 4-2 win in their first pre-tournament World Cup game, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the strategy worked.
But that is not really why the United States was about come out on top.
It really just came down to the goaltending.
Canada ended the game with a commanding 43-25 shots on goal advantage, had a couple of near misses where Team USA skaters Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Kesler had to make saves of their own in the crease, and simply carried the play for most of the game. The United States, while trying to protect a one-goal lead, did not record a shot on goal in the third period until there was less than a minute left when Derek Stepan scored an empty net goal to help put the game. They had just seven over the second and third periods.
The difference on the scoreboard was the fact that Jonathan Quick played a dominant game in net during his two periods of action to keep the United States in it early, while Carey Price, playing in his first hockey game in nearly 10 months, was a little rusty at the other end of the ice. It was especially noticeable on Joe Pavelski‘s game-winning goal when he gave up an ugly rebound that allowed Pavelski to get the tap-in goal.
The second USA goal, scored by reigning NHL mvp and scoring champion Patrick Kane, is another one that you usually see Price stop.
If the goaltending performances were reversed, this game could have easily been a blowout in the other direction.
But the goaltending performances weren’t reversed, and that is the thing about hockey. Goaltending can be the great equalizer in games where the talent or play is tilted toward one particular team, and you saw that happen on Friday night in Columbus.
What gives the United States a chance in this tournament is goaltending is probably their greatest strength with three very strong options. Quick can be a polarizing player in the hockey world. He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and has a reputation for being a big game player because he has been excellent in the playoffs over the years for the Los Angeles Kings.
His overall numbers, however, tend to usually put him closer to the middle of the pack among the NHL’s goalies. A lot of that is because he can be an extremely hot and cold goalie. When he is on top of his game and gets into one of his hot streaks, he can be downright unbeatable. But he is also prone to stretches where he simply does not play well which can really drag down his overall numbers.
You get him on one of those hot streaks in a short tournament and it is a total game-changer.
Behind him the United States has Ben Bishop, another Vezina Trophy finalist from the 2015-16 season, and Cory Schneider, one of the best — and most underrated — goalies in the league over the past three years. Any one of them can play and give the United States a chance.
If they keep getting outshot 43-25 against Canada — and they will see Canada a lot over the next couple of weeks, including again on Saturday night in another pre-tournament game — they are going to need exactly that.