Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Eight names with the most to gain -- or lose -- from the World Cup

The round robin portion of the World Cup has officially hit the halfway point. And that means that for four of the eight teams, the tournament itself is half over, since they’ll be going home empty-handed once the round wraps up on Thursday night.

We don’t know which teams those are yet, and there’s still plenty of time for this year’s tournament to take a few more twists and turns. But it’s fair to say that the pressure is building. And for some of those who are front and centre in this tournament, the pressure has been higher than for others.

So today, let’s take a look some of those who find themselves under an especially bright spotlight this week. Here are the eight names who have the most to gain – or lose – from their time on the World Cup stage.

Team Canada: Carey Price

Canada is a bit of a funny team to find a pick for. As the host team and overwhelming favorite, there’s no team in the tournament that’s under more pressure as a group – even one loss will be reason for panic across a nation. But the roster is stacked with so much talent that few individual players really stand out as being directly under a microscope.

But Price is an exception. After missing most of last year with an injury, his performance in the tournament will be watched closely for any hint that he's not 100 per cent back to his old Hart Trophy form.

Fans of Team Canada will want to see him do well, although with Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford waiting in the wings, it's not make-or-break. But fans of the Montreal Canadiens will be living and dying with each shot on net, hoping that their franchise player looks like his old self.

Saturday's opening-night shutout against an overmatched Czech squad was certainly a good sign. If Price is back to his old tricks, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But if he struggles, even briefly, well…. Montreal fans aren't the sort to panic, right?

Honourable mentions: When Habs fans need a break from overanalyzing Price, they can overanalyze new acquisition Shea Weber. Sidney Crosby will be under the spotlight because he's Sidney Crosby. And after taking over the GM duties from two-time winner Steve Yzerman, Doug Armstrong will take plenty of heat if Canada doesn't win it all.

Team USA: John Tortorella

We tend to focus on players in these sort of pieces, but there's no question that coaches and GMs can come under just as much scrutiny, if not far more. That's especially true for a team like Team USA, who made plenty of roster decisions that were widely questioned, all in an apparent effort to build a squad that would have the best chance at beating Canada.

After Saturday's disastrous opener that saw them drop a 3-0 decision to an underdog Team Europe, the Americans are in serious danger of missing the playoffs.

The heat on the management group has been cranked up, and there's lots more to come if Team USA can't come through in a literal must-win against Canada tonight. Plenty of that will fall on the shoulders of GM Dean Lombardi, who had the final call on the roster. But Lombardi still has two Cup rings in the last four years and plenty of credibility to draw from, so he'll get at least some benefit of the doubt.

Not so for Tortorella. He may have a Cup ring of his own, but 2004 was a long time and three jobs ago, and his reputation has taken a beating in recent years.

The coach already put himself in the spotlight earlier in the tournament with his musings on the national anthem, and he made that spotlight even brighter with some odd lineup decisions, including Saturday's puzzling scratch of Dustin Byfuglien and tonight's apparent line combos.

Tortorella's hard-nosed style is well-known, and he has a team that seems to have been designed in his image. If that team turns out not to be good enough, the coach will end up wearing that.

Tortorella still has his defenders, and Team USA can silence the doubters with a big effort tonight against the team they were built to beat. But if they can't pull it off and end up going home before the final four, there will be plenty of finger-pointing to go around. And a lot of them will be aimed behind the bench.

Honourable mentions: Yet another Hab makes an appearance, as Max Pacioretty was called out by Tortorella during the exhibition round. Patrick Kane will be under plenty of pressure as the team's best player, and his ugly defensive gaffe in the opener didn't help matters.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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