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Team USA looking like a bad fit

TORONTO --  On paper, you wondered if an American team built on grit and sandpaper was a bad mix for this kind of tournament. On the ice, we saw Saturday that it was about as good an idea as the Bills doing an informercial on the Ryan brothers.

USA Hockey at its highest level reached one of its lowest moments in a many a year Saturday with its 3-0 loss to Team Europe in his opener in Air Canada Centre. You want the frank recent history? Team USA's top pros have been blanked in three straight games, dating to their humiliating double-shutout that closed the Sochi Olympics.

Pundits have seen this one coming for a good long while, ever since John Tortorella was hired as coach a year ago. The theory was that Tortorella did not have an NHL job and could spend the year on the scouting trail to build the perfect team. Riiiiiight.

Of course, that plan got blown up in October when the perennially pathetic Columbus Blue Jackets fired Todd Richards and somehow got the idea that Tortorella could bring them out of the abyss. When player selections started in January, there were eyebrows raised. They grew all spring on a team that included the likes of Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky -- best known for being infatuated with cross-checking Sidney Crosby's head -- but not Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson or Kevin Shattenkirk.

As it turned out, Kessel couldn't play anyway after hand surgery. And the Americans were certainly handicapped by Team North America's presence in this event. Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews, Dylan Larkin and Seth Jones sure would have looked good in this lineup, wouldn't they?

Lose one game and now you're in desperation mode. Lose another and you can forget a spot in the semifinals. And Team USA's next game? Tuesday night against Canada.

"We've put ourselves in this spot and now we're chasing," a somber Tortorella said. "We're chasing the tournament. It's a spot we didn't want to be in. It's a very dangerous spot but we are here. We just need to stay together and not blow ourselves up here. Have a couple good days of practice, get ready for our next opponent and try to do better."

The list of Americans who have to be better includes a defense corps that was burned for a ridiculous number of odd-man rushes and South Buffalo's Patrick Kane, who was minus-2 in the game and committed a grievous turnover that led to Leon Draisaitl's goal at 4:02 of the second period.

Kane was dangling with the puck near the left point at the Team Europe blue line when he tried for one dipsy-do too many. Off went Team Europe on a 2-on-0 break. Yes, a 2-on-0. As if it was some rookie tournament in HarborCenter.

Draisaitl and Minnesota's Nino Niederreiter worked it perfectly, with Draisaitl, picked No. 3 overall in 2014 after Sam Reinhart, pounding home a layup to give Team Europe a 2-0 lead.

"I'll definitely take the fault on that one," Kane said. "It's a play I've made a million times in my career. I just kind of lost the puck and the next thing you know, they go down 2-on-0 so that's unacceptable for me. But at the same time we had chances and looks throughout the game. We just didn't seem to get a break."

Kane had four shots on goal in the game but none of them were particularly dangerous. Team USA had a 35-17 advantage in shots that belied the way the game was played. The margin was 17-7 in the third period when the Americans were already in a 3-0 hole. Team Europe goalie Jaroslav Halak was stout when he needed to be, especially on Team USA's four power plays.

Tortorella bemoaned his team's lack of quality scoring chances and he was mostly right. It was a game where the Americans had very little zip. They had no jam, which was exactly what it was expected he would spread through the roster.

"We're trying and you have to give the opposing team credit too for how it defended," he said. "There were chances when another player was there but it just didn't happen. I thought our guys tried hard. The bench was good. We tried to stay together even through adversity there but we just couldn't create."

Team Europe's eight-nation collection has 16 former Olympians on its roster and 11 players who have at least 10 NHL seasons under their belt. It started exhibition play chasing around Team North America for two games but has improved every day.

"We didn’t see ourselves as just a sideshow ever," said Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger, a former Edmonton coach. "We didn't just come here to have one nice game."

"We were probably a little underestimated a little bit coming into this," said former Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who drew an assist on Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare's mid-air deflection with 1:28 left in the second period. "But we did a good job today. We started slow but we're building each game."

Marion Gaborik opened the scoring at 4:19 on a tap-in off a 2-on-1 break after a perfect pass from Frans Nielsen. And any team that has two-time Stanley Cup champion Anze Kopitar as captain has to be worth something.

"We have to learn from this one, focus on what we can do better and get ourselves ready to play Canada," Kane said. "It's disappointing, not the way we envisioned starting. Our backs are against the wall and now we have to come together as a group and figure it out."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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