By Pat Durant, usahockey.com
HERNING, Denmark – It’s not just about winning games, it’s about winning the right games.
At last year’s International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s World Championship, head coach Jeff Blashill (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.) saw his upstart U.S. squad rebound from an opening loss to Germany with six consecutive victories to close the preliminary round. It marked just the second time a U.S. Men’s National Team has ever won six straight contests in a world championship (1990).
The triumphs, which included wins over Sweden and Russia, catapulted Team USA to the top seed and a quarterfinal matchup against Finland. Unfortunately, the medal-round run ended early with a 2-0 defeat to the Finns that sent Team USA on an unexpected early flight home.
Now Blashill finds himself back as the bench boss of the 2018 U.S. Men’s National Team, and motivated to make a deeper run the second time around.
“I think we proved to ourselves last year we were good enough to win this tournament,” said Blashill, who just completed his third season as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. “We were in a great position and unfortunately we lost the wrong game.”
Four players return from last year’s National Team, including forwards Johnny Gaudreau (Salem, N.J./Calgary Flames), Dylan Larkin (Waterford, Mich./Detroit Red Wings) and Anders Lee (Edina, Minn./New York Islanders) and defenseman Connor Murphy (Dublin, Ohio/Chicago Blackhawks). Murphy captained Team USA while the three forwards combined for 13 goals and 29 points to fuel the U.S. effort.
With that core in place, along with a barrage of newcomers led by 2018 U.S. captain Patrick Kane (Buffalo, N.Y./Chicago Blackhawks), Blashill believes this group has the talent to compete for gold.
“We were a talented group last year and we’re equally as talented this year,” said Blashill. “We need to believe in ourselves and build as a hockey team throughout the tournament.”
Other notable veteran additions to this year’s team include forwards Cam Atkinson (Riverside, Conn./Columbus Blue Jackets) and Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass./New York Rangers) along with defenseman Alec Martinez (Rochester Hills, Mich./Los Angeles Kings).
Internationally, 14 of Team USA’s 23 players have skated for a U.S. national team previously, combining to win 24 medals in IIHF World Championship play. Among the medalists are 10 IIHF gold medal-winners, including defensemen Will Butcher (2012 MU18), Quinn Hughes (2017 MU18) and Murphy (2013 WJC, 2011 MU18) and forwards Gaudreau (2013 WJC), Kane (2006 MU18), Kreider (2010 WJC), Larkin (2014 MU18), Sonny Milano (2014 MU18), Tage Thompson (2017 WJC) and Colin White (2017 WJC, 2015 MU18).
The gold medal-winning presence within the locker room will be mixed with newcomer excitement as well. Six players, including goaltenders Scott Darling (Lemont, Ill.) and Charlie Lindgren (Lakeville, Minn.); blueliners Martinez and Jordan Oesterle (Dearborn Heights, Mich.) and forwards Blake Coleman (Plano, Texas) and Brian Gibbons (Braintree, Mass.) will be making their international debuts at the 2018 IIHF Men's World Championship while defensemen Nick Jensen (St. Paul, Minn.) and Neal Pionk (Hermantown, Minn.) as well as forward Derek Ryan (Spokane, Wash.) will be skating in an IIHF tournament for the first time after previously skating on U.S. select teams.
Overall, Blashill looks at this year’s team as one filled with speed up front with defensemen that have the stick skill to facilitate an up-and-down style of play.
“We have a group of forwards that are highly skilled with a couple of elite net-front guys in Anders Lee and Chris Kreider,” said Blashill. “We also have a defensive core that will allow the forwards to track hard and create transition opportunities for us. That’s where I think we’ll have the most success.”
Like last year against the host Germans, Team USA will be tested early in its opening game against Canada on Friday (May 4) before playing host Denmark the following day.
“We have a tough back-to-back to start things off and that’s great,” said Blashill. “It gives us the opportunity to see where we are at and what need to improve on as the tournament goes on.”
The 2018 U.S. Men’s National Team opens play against Canada on Friday (May 4) at 10:15 a.m. ET. All U.S. games will be televised live on NHL Network. For complete coverage of Team USA at the 2018 IIHF Men’s World Championship, click here.