With goaltending in check, U.S. needs offensive boost
TORINO, Italy -- For two straight nights, Rick DiPietro has turned in the kind of performance that USA Hockey officials were quietly praying for.
For two straight nights, it was not enough.
In spite of holding the talented Swedes to two goals on 26 shots Sunday night, the Americans dropped a 2-1 decision to go to 1-2-1 in the round robin portion of the tournament.
The fact that Latvia has been drubbed by a cumulative 21-6 score since tying the Americans on opening night means the Americans have virtually guaranteed themselves a berth in the quarterfinals even before they close out the round robin Tuesday against Russia.
Then comes the 64-dollar question: can DiPietro do even more than he has already done to keep his team alive?
Given the fact the Americans have gone cadaver cold offensively, the bottom line is DiPietro will have to be better. It is a tall, perhaps even epic, order. Certainly, he has the tools. And he certainly doesn't lack self confidence.
Asked if he was surprised at how well he'd played during back-to-back 2-1 losses to Slovakia and Sweden, DiPietro shot back; "Are you surprised at how well I've played is the question."
Actually, Rick, that is exactly the question, and the answer is an unequivocal "yes." We are surprised at how well you've played.
Why shouldn't we be? Coming into this tournament, no one quite knew what to expect. Was it going to be sublime? Ridiculous? Somewhere in between? That is the kind of season DiPietro has had on Long Island. Unbeatable one night, beaten up the next. Granted, it's an Islanders team that doesn't exactly cry out "team unity," but there have been periods when DiPietro has looked lost.
He has looked anything but that the last two nights.
"Goaltending hasn't been a problem for us at all," U.S. coach Peter Laviolette said. "I thought that Rick did a good job for us. When we had breakdowns, he made saves."
At the beginning of the tournament, the question was which of the three netminders, DiPietro, John Grahame or Robert Esche, had the best chance to help the Americans exceed modest expectations for this tournament. Grahame, the hottest of the three in NHL play, got the start against Latvia and was adequate, if not sensational, in a 3-3 tie. DiPietro has started the last three games and has played well in the past two, stopping 43 of the 47 shots he faced to have rightfully expected to win at least one, if not both.
"I don't know if anything needs to be turned around. I mean, two disappointing losses. Two, 2-1 games against good opponents," DiPietro said. "We have a big game against Russia, but the main goal of this tournament is to get to the quarterfinal round. As long as we get there, it's been a successful round robin."
DiPietro on Sunday made the stops that quality netminders make to give his team every chance to win, the kind of stops that win medals. He blocked a dangerous Daniel Alfredsson, 2-on-1 chance to keep the Swedes to a 1-0 lead in the first period.
With Doug Weight in the penalty box for "illegal equipment" (he touched the puck after his helmet had been knocked off), DiPietro denied Mats Sundin twice in succession to keep the score deadlocked at 1-1 in the second. Then, during the first of two long 5-on-3 U.S. power plays, DiPietro thwarted P.J. Axelsson's breakaway attempt.
"We're looking for the big shot, the one-timer, the pretty play. A lot of times you're right around the net, even on the goal line, just throw it to the feet of the goalie and things are going to bounce in for us," said Weight, who has one assist in four games. "It's obvious that we had about three minutes of 5-on-3 and that's got to be in the net every time. You've got to be about 85, 90 percent and there's really no excuse for not scoring there."
Laviolette said he will think about juggling the lines for Tuesday's round-robin finale with Russia. But he admitted he hasn't been unhappy with the effort and the number of scoring chances they've generated. As far as the foiled 5-on-3s, Laviolette said he thought they had the right people on the ice and generated quality chances.
Mike Modano, on the point for part of the time, had several excellent chances stymied by New York Rangers rookie netminding sensation Henrik Lundqvist. The team, which has played four games in five nights, even worked on their 5-on-3 formation in the pregame skate Saturday.
"If we keep doing things like we are, hopefully we'll hit our stride just as the time is right," Laviolette said.
"I think we have a very urgent feel. And I think our play shows that," Weight said. "Because you don't score, doesn't mean you're not urgent. It maybe means you're too desperate and you've got to look for simple plays to the net."
Still, he admitted it was disappointing to squander two fine performances by DiPietro.
"It is difficult. We feel bad for him, but he's going to have plenty more opportunity to do his job, I hope," Weight said.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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