By Jeff Hawkins
Special to USAHockey.com
INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. -- Chasing a high-arching lead pass, defenseman Tyler Carron retrieved a loose puck and split two converging defenders. Open momentarily for a shot, Carron let loose just as Canada goalie Corbin Watson turned the hustling attempt aside.
The U.S. National Sled Hockey Team bench applauded the rubber-match effort.
That’s more like it.
About two months from defending its Paralympic gold medal, the new-look U.S. squad hosted Canada in a three-game series last weekend (Jan. 9-11) at Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, N.C. The pre-Paralympic series was billed as a potential gold-medal showdown preview.
Canada claimed the exhibition opener, 4-1. Team USA coach Jeff Sauer said he was not surprised by the 3-0 first-period deficit or the result. It was the first game since making some “tough roster decisions,” Sauer said.
What the veteran coach later appreciated was the locker-room chemistry that developed during the 2-1 victory in Game 2 and the 3-1, series-clinching triumph in Game 3. Hustle plays like Carron’s second-period effort in the finale helped define the squad’s make-up.
“We like to use our speed and forecheck,” Sauer said.
Sauer also initiated a coaching move he likely will carry over to the Paralympic Winter Games in March in Sochi, Russia. Able to match lines in Game 3, Sauer used the line of Josh Sweeney-Rico Roman-Paul Schaus against Canada’s No. 1 line of Brad Bowden-Billy Bridges-Greg Westlake. It worked.
Grinning, Sauer said: “We did something different.”
That seems to be a common theme within the program recently.
Team USA is anchored by a core of seven Paralympic veterans but is engaged in a youth movement that includes 15-year-old Brody Roybal and 16-year-old Declan Farmer.
“We have a new mix,” Sauer said.
With the program growing quickly, Sauer said he had the luxury of selecting the team out of about 30 quality prospects, adding that the competition is fortifying Team USA as an international power.
“We are the youngest team in the world,” he said. “And we have good depth.”
Returning to add leadership is captain Andy Yohe. The oldest player on the team at 35, Yohe served as captain on the 2010 gold medal-winning squad. Following his second Paralympics experience, Yohe left the program to focus on raising his daughter, Abbie, who is now 3 ½ years old, and his two-week-old son, Levi.
When offered an opportunity to return to the 2014 Paralympics, Yohe received support from his wife, Katie. It’s likely his sled hockey swan song.
“I am super excited about it,” said Yohe, who also participated in the 2006 Paralympics. “With the young kids coming, this is probably it.”
During Saturday’s series finale, Team USA allowed a first-period, power-play goal by Bowden, off a cross-ice pass from Westlake. One-on-one with goalie Steve Cash, Bowden flipped a shot under the crossbar at 7 minutes, 15 seconds. From that point on, however, Canada’s top line was effectively limited by Sauer’s coaching move.
Schaus helped Team USA tie the score at 13:46 of the first period by not giving up on a play. Initially upended along the neutral-zone boards by Canada defenseman James Gemmell, Roman worked the puck into the offensive zone and eventually assisted on Schaus’ equalizer.
Roman was credited with the game-winner at 11:06 of the second period, scoring off a drop pass from a rushing Sweeney, who was credited with three assists.
Protecting the one-goal lead in the third period, defenseman Taylor Chace, on the penalty kill, cleared the puck from the crease area after a scramble in the crease. Cash closed out Canada’s power play with a sweeping glove save.
With 14.3 seconds remaining, and the crowd chanting “USA … USA … ” forward Kevin McKee scored an empty-net goal.
In preparation for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, which take place March 7-16, Team USA returns to the Charlotte suburb ice rink Feb. 15-22 to work out against the U.S. National Development Sled Hockey Team.
After capturing 2012 gold medals at the IPC World Championship and World Sledge Challenge, Team USA followed up both efforts with silver medals in 2013.
With a mix of youth and proven veteran leadership, new-look Team USA appears poised to challenge for another gold.
“We are not looking back,” said Cash, who turned aside 12 shots in Game 3. “We are looking forward.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.