Worlds casts mixed reviews on U.S. future

INNSBRUCK, Austria – Live by the shootout, die by the shootout.

The American hockey team did the former last year at the world championship, winning two playoff games on shootouts to capture the bronze medal.

Thursday, it was the reverse juice. Five U.S. shooters tried and failed to beat Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun while Rick DiPietro turned in a spectacular effort in the U.S. net and still ended up a loser by a 3-2 score, leaving the Americans without gold in this event for the past 45 years.

Giving USA Hockey hope that he may finally give the country a bona fide replacement for the retired Mike Richter, DiPietro stopped 44 shots in regulation, which ended in a 2-2 tie. He blocked another six drives in the 4-on-4 overtime session, then allowed only one Czech, Martin Rucinsky, to beat him in the shootout for a 53-save effort.

But DiPietro's heroics weren't enough, and the Americans were eliminated from the medal hunt in what was clearly a transition year for the U.S. hockey program.

While players like Mike Modano and Doug Weight were part of this year's efforts, long-time stalwarts like Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, Brian Rafalski and Bill Guerin didn't play, either by choice or the preference of U.S. general manager Don Waddell.

Waddell wanted a younger team filled with players who had been skating for a team in Europe or North America – partly because he felt he couldn't use too many players who hadn't played all year due to the NHL lockout. Another factor was he was looking ahead to the possibility that USA Hockey might have to use very different players for next year's Olympics in Turin than it used in 2002 and 1998.

He might second-guess himself a little after the Americans couldn't score a single goal in the shootout.

Weight and Mike Knuble both hit the post, while Modano and Mark Parrish were foiled by Vokoun.

After Rucinsky scored on the Czechs' first shootout attempt, it was then left up to last year's shootout hero, Andy Roach, to beat Vokoun and keep the shootout going.

Roach, something of a shootout specialist from his years playing in the German league, used two different moves last spring to tally the winning goal in U.S. shootout victories over the Czechs and the Slovaks, the latter for the bronze medal.

Figuring Vokoun might remember last year, he used his other maneuver. This time, however, Vokoun read it all the way, and the Americans were out.

Interestingly, U.S. coach Peter Laviolette didn't use 20-year-old center Zach Parise in the shootout. Laviolette had insisted that Parise was the correct choice to take a penalty shot against the Ukraine in the final round-robin game.

Parise missed, and the United States settled for a deflating 1-1 tie against the Ukrainians.

On Thursday, goals from Modano and Parrish put the Americans up 2-0, a lead the team held until the early minutes of the third period, when Marek Zidlicky and Jaroslav Spacek scored 8:10 apart, setting up the dramatics that followed.

The good news for the United States, however, is the tournament gave some new players a chance to play important roles for their country and set the national team program up for next year's Olympics and beyond. As Weight pointed out early in the tournament, as long as the big stars who had dominated the U.S. team for years were still around in big numbers, youngsters might come and go but wouldn't have to carry a large part of the competitive burden.

DiPietro, it figures, will be prominent going forward. After sharing the goaltending duties with Ty Conklin at this year's worlds, DiPietro was tabbed to start against the Czechs and delivered a dazzling performance. Despite having his mask broken by a shot and then being forced to wear Conklin's, DiPietro the top pick in the 2000 NHL draft by the New York Islanders was so good he may be able to use the performance as a springboard to dominating the U.S. crease for years to come.

Since Richter won the 1996 World Cup for the United States, there has been a bit of a revolving door in the American net. Robert Esche, for example, got the bulk of the work in last fall's World Cup, with DiPietro on the bench for all but one game. At the worlds last year, it was Conklin tending goal en route to the bronze.

In four starts at this year's worlds, DiPietro's puck handling was, as always, terrific to watch, including a gorgeous long bomb pass to Yan Stastny for a breakaway goal in a big victory over Sweden Sunday. His puck stopping, sometimes a problem when he becomes too focused on making plays with his stick, was also excellent against the Swedes and the Czechs.

Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, standouts in recent years on national junior teams, both arrived late to this tournament because of American Hockey League playoff commitments, but they will be Team USA regulars in the future.

In Jordan Leopold, John-Michael Liles and Paul Martin, the Americans have a solid blue line corps. Adam Hall, Brian Gionta and Mike York will help hold the fort until teenage star Phil Kessel and other top young American forwards are ready. The 22-year-old Stastny, son of Slovak great Peter Stastny, was a revelation here as a non-NHL addition and might also figure in the team's future plans.

Whether these youngsters mean we've seen the last of Hull, Roenick, et al isn't clear. Chelios, for example, badly wanted to play in this tournament, and Waddell's selections for this event demonstrate that a sprinkling of the old guard can be a useful thing.

The future of NHL labor talks, of course, will also play a significant role in deciding which American players will be available for Turin. It's widely believed that if the NHL does strike a deal with the players' union to save part or all of next season, the league will not want to schedule a two-week Olympic break during its first season back in action.

The future for the U.S. national team is both cloudy and promising.

One guess: Working on penalty shots and shootouts will become a regular feature of Team USA workouts.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.