Never-say-die 'tude not enough for Team USA

Updated: February 22, 2006, 7:37 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- There always will be something off-putting about the American men's hockey team at this Olympic tournament, even with its never-say-die mentality and its surprising tenacity.

Off-putting performances and off-putting qualities ultimately will leave the most lasting impression and define this team after four straight one-goal losses, including Wednesday's 4-3 quarterfinal loss to Finland.

Derian Hatcher, Teemu Selanne
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesDerian Hatcher and Team USA fell behind too early against a potent Finland team.

Veteran Mike Modano came off the ice after the Americans had come from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to make a game of it until the dying seconds and carped about head coach Peter Laviolette's strategy. He moaned that USA Hockey didn't do enough to look after the players' families and the distraction that caused.

Nice.

Someone asked Modano why he wasn't on the ice in the third period, when the Americans were desperate for the tying goal.

"I don't know, you'll have to ask Peter," Modano said, implying it was a tremendous error in coaching judgment that he of the two-goals, zero-assists performance wasn't on the ice.

He didn't deserve to be. Plain and simple.

Look at the players Laviolette sent over the boards time and again in the last half of the third period. Brian Gionta, who scored the third American goal with 4:27 left in the game, and Jason Blake and Chris Drury and Erik Cole. Veteran Doug Weight was there ostensibly for his face-off acumen, but it was the kids that Laviolette turned to, not Keith Tkachuk, who finished the tournament with zero points and took three minor penalties in the quarterfinal game, or Bill Guerin or Modano.

"We're down, looking for goals and looking for offense, and it wasn't, to be honest, it wasn't about Mike Modano. It's never been about any one player on the team. It was about trying to get the players out on the ice that were going," Laviolette said. "The third period was clearly our best period. We wanted guys out there that jump, that could go down into the offensive end.

"I think some players, in general, didn't seem to have the jump and some players did, and it varied from game to game," Laviolette added. "And you do the best you can to try and get the players out there that had the jump. Again, we were close in the third period, but for me, it was too little, too late. We lost the game in the first 40 minutes."

How about the first 10 minutes.

Instead of taking advantage of their strong performance in a 5-4 loss to Russia on Tuesday night, the Americans came out timid and out of sorts.

The undefeated Finns, who have made their mark in this tournament with strong, energetic starts, made the Americans resemble table hockey characters instead of highly-paid and, presumably, highly-motivated NHLers.

So clueless was the U.S. performance that less than a minute after Ville Peltonen gave the Finns a 1-0 lead, a red-faced Laviolette called a timeout 10:24 into the first period. We could read some of the words Laviolette uttered during the timeout and let's just say we can't in all good conscience repeat them.

"The time out I called because I felt like it was not going anywhere," Laviolette said. "They were clearly on top of their game and we were clearly sitting back on our heels and before the score got out of hand, I thought it was just an opportunity to gather them and see if we couldn't somehow get fired up emotionally and play a little bit harder."

And for a time, Laviolette's move appeared to be a stroke of genius.

And for a moment, it appeared that all the hard work and diligence that hadn't paid off in the preliminary round, where the Americans lost three straight one-goals games, was going to bear fruit when it mattered most.

True, less than two minutes later, Sami Salo ripped home a short-handed effort off Mathieu Schneider's stick to give the Finns a 2-0 lead. But the Americans did show some signs of life.

They started to generate the kind of forecheck that had marked their earlier efforts in this tournament.

Schneider, trying to atone for a miserable tournament marked by blind passes and poor decisions, caromed a shot off Mike Knuble's torso to make it 2-1. Then Schneider was at it again, blasting a shot over Finnish netminder Antero Niittymaki's glove hand just 1:29 into the second period to tie the game.

Derian Hatcher, who seemed woefully out of place for most of this tournament, was called for hooking, as was Bret Hedican shortly thereafter, giving the potent Finnish power play a two-man advantage for 1:35. They waited until there was just four seconds left in Hedican's penalty before Florida Panthers captain Olli Jokinen drilled a bad angle shot over netminder Rick DiPietro and under the crossbar to re-establish the Finns' one-goal lead.

Tkachuk went off for hooking, and then Schneider's brainless hit from behind once again gave the Finns a two-man advantage, which Jokinen converted to give Finland a 4-2 lead by the end of the second.

If the Americans hadn't continued their penalty woes well into the third period, they might have had more time to convert on the comeback, but Hatcher took a double-minor high sticking and was followed to the box by Gionta, Tkachuk and Scott Gomez, who took a 10-minute misconduct. Given his lack of productivity, it probably was the best place for him.

"I think as a group I think we're probably disappointed with the way we played tonight. It was our game where we seemed to have the least amount of pop and energy. We never seemed to get it on track throughout the tournament," Laviolette said.

One wonders what kind of effort the Americans would have produced had GM Don Waddell and the rest of the USA Hockey brain trust gone a different direction with this team.

The thinking was that by taking a mix of older players like Chris Chelios, who actually had his best game of the tournament Wednesday, Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Weight, they would provide leadership for younger players like Cole, John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold, and that the team's depth would keep them competitive.

But it didn't pan out that way.

The Americans finished with one win in six games, a 4-1 victory over Kazakhstan. They lost four in a row to medal-caliber teams. All one-goal losses, but losses nonetheless.

What would have happened if USA Hockey had bit the bullet and said, no, forget sending a team built on wishes and maybes and yesterdays, we're going to send a team for tomorrow?

What would have happened if young American defensemen Paul Martin and Paul Mara, and even NHL rookie Ryan Suter, had been on this team? And forwards Tim Connolly and Zach Parise?

Would such a team have won a medal? Not likely. Could it have matched the results of the team that came to Italy? It would be hard not to accomplish that. And they would likely have accepted defeat a little more graciously.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.