Neighboring nations collide
A Canadian sweep may not have been exactly what the U.S. Sled Hockey Team had in mind when they embarked on the three-day tournament with their northern neighbors last week at the Park City Ice arena, but the progress made was well worth it.
"I’m very pleased with the improvement," U.S. Sled Hockey Team head coach Ray Maluta said. "I think our players have bought into our philosophy."
It’s been a bit of a crash course for the Americans, who received a brand new coaching staff at the start of the week and play with a team of mostly high school and college athletes. Coaching styles, teamwork and cohesive play had to come together in a matter of days for the U.S. team, but by the end of the tournament on Saturday, they seemed to be making it work.
The tournament began with a Canadian blowout, but after that, the Americans made the necessary adjustments. Canada narrowly escaped with a win on Friday 2-1, and by Saturday, the quality of the American play was evident, as the Canadians won a close 1-0 game.
"We barely beat them Friday night," Canada’s coach Jeff Snyder said." We played better Saturday night, but it was hard fought, both teams played well."
Saturday’s final game began with a scoreless first period, but strong goalie play and good defense kept Team Canada out of the net. Halfway through the second period, Canada’s Marc Dorian scored on shot to the upper left-hand corner of the goal off of an assist by Todd Nicholson. With strong defense and fewer shots on goal in the third period, neither team would score again and the Canadian’s skated away with the victory and the tournament championship. Still, Canada gave credit where it was due.
"It’s been good," Snyder said. "It always good with the U.S. I can see the coaching changes made a huge difference."
After the game, Maluta was happy with the overall defensive effort of his team, but felt there was room for improvement.
"They are showing more and more promise in pressure situations," Maluta said. "When we get five guys involved at once, we will be there."
Besides having experience on their side, Canada also has been playing a bit longer this season. The Park City event was their second after a tournament in Norway in October. This past weekend’s play was the first for the Americans. Snyder said his team’s time together was evident but he still feels that his team has a long way to go before an international multi-team competition in Japan in January and the World Championships in March.
"We still have some things we need to work on," Snyder said. "We’re not where we need to be, but we’ll get there by that time."
On the American side, Maluta says the U.S team is playing at about 30-percent of their potential. He says that as they become more comfortable working together and newer players become acclimated to the system, the team will only flourish.
"There’s progress. It’s going to take awhile," Maluta said. "They’ve bought into our system, our philosophy. It will take them awhile to work on the fine-tuning."
Maluta says, in general, he plays with the same two lines, but tried to rotate the newer players into the games throughout the tournament.
"They’re all young," Maluta said. "Their time will come."
The team will have some time to work on their game individually on their respective club teams, before reconvening Jan. 3-6 for a national team training camp in Colorado Spring, Colo. before traveling to Japan later in the month.
"It’s been a huge wake-up call against Canada," Maluta said. "I think we will have a different team in the first part of January."
The teams played to crowds of 50 to 100 each night in Park City, a far cry from the usual 1,000 to 2,000 the national teams draw in Canada, but both teams still appreciated the fans vocalness and support of the sport.
"If you get a full crowd, it makes it better for the players," Snyder said.
Maluta also praised the support of the National Ability Center and the Park City Ice Arena in organizing the event.
"I want to thank the people at the NAC and the rink," Maluta said. "They have been fantastic."
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