There was a prevailing line of thinking prior to this World Junior tournament: if the Americans were to compete for a gold medal, goaltender John Gibson would have to be their best player.
Check and check.
Gibson made 33 saves in today's 5-1 semifinal win over Canada in what was easily Team USA's finest and most complete performance of the tournament. The U.S. moves on to play in the gold medal game on Saturday but first awaits the winner of the Russia/Sweden semifinal later today, and they'll have plenty of positive game tape to watch in preparation.
From the drop of the puck, the U.S. controlled the pace of the game and held the territorial edge throughout. Team USA held leads of 2-0 after the first period, 4-0 after the second and withstood a brief Canadian push in the third period thanks in large part to Gibson's play between the pipes.
"He's been outstanding for us, and given us a chance to win every game," U.S. head coach Phil Housley told Rob Simpson post-game. "He's made big saves at key times."
Housley also praised his team's composure after getting out to a solid lead, and not allowing Canada to capitalize on mistakes or draw the Americans into needless penalties.
"We settled in and we built off that lead, and we had to weather the storm in the third period," he said. "I'm very proud of our guys."
If you're a hockey fan on this continent and enjoy the passion of the World Junior Hockey Championship, this is about as much as you can ask for.
Team USA and Canada, on the biggest stage to date in this tournament, battling it out with everything on the line. Winner gets its name on the gold medal game dance card, and the loser settles for a bronze medal (at best).
Apologies to other games going on in the tournament, but it really doesn't get much better than this.
And the stage they're playing on has been set up wonderfully: Canada has stormed through the tournament and won each of its first four games -- albeit not without a bit of drama. The Canadians blew out Germany to open the World Junior, fell behind 3-1 to Slovakia before rallying for a win, held off the United States in a thriller, and finished off the preliminary round with a mighty impressive victory over the host Russians.
Defeating Russia clinched the "group of death" for Canada, and pushed it through to the semifinal to await the winner of yesterday's quarterfinal between the United States and the Czech Republic.
For the Americans, they feel as if they are getting better with each game and are more well-positioned to take on Canada than a week ago. A big reason is confidence; Team USA only got one puck behind Malcolm Subban in the preliminary round meeting, and they really had to work for it. The same happened in their game with Russia -- Andrei Makarov made 41 saves and stymied nearly everything the U.S. threw his way.
Read more about tomorrow's much-anticipated rematch inside this post.
Johnny Gaudreau has earned a reputation as a big game player, and it's fairly easy to see why.
The super-skilled Boston College forward had no shortage of quality chances in the first two games of the World Junior but a combination of bad puck-luck and stellar goaltending kept him off the scoreboard.
Gaudreau broke out in superstar fashion today in the quarterfinal, leading the way for Team USA with a hat trick in the Americans' convincing 7-0 win over a feisty Czech Republic side. The U.S. needed to get on an offensive roll after struggling to cash in its two key preliminary round games (vs. Canada and Russia), and they seemed to be on the cusp of putting things together after knocking out the Slovaks on Monday.
An early two-man advantage for the U.S. produced Gaudreau's first goal on a slam dunk at the side of the net. Jacob Trouba's pass down low got deflected on the way in, but it happened right on the stick of Gaudreau who was in the right place to give the Americans a 1-0 lead.
Special teams were a theme in this game and it carried over to the second period, where Gaudreau's second power play goal boosted the American lead to 2-0 just 28 seconds into the frame. Less than a minute later, Ryan Hartman scored on the put back of a Trouba blast to make it a 3-0 game, at which point the Czechs made a goaltending change.
Unfortunately for them, the switch in goal didn't turn off the U.S. offense.
Remember when Team USA's final roster move caused all that noise? In the Americans' most important game of this World Junior tournament, it could have the biggest impact.
Head coach Phil Housley elected to keep rugged defenseman Pat Sieloff (Windsor Spitfires) on the roster and sent smooth-skating Matt Grzelcyk home to Boston University, and there was a lot of discussion as to whether it was the right move for the team. Was Sieloff, a stay-at-home blueliner, the person Team USA wants to plug in to more minutes in case of injury or suspension?
They will soon find out, as Shayne Gostisbehere was suspended for the quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic for his major penalty and game misconduct on Monday. Late in the first period, Gostisbehere was skating alongside Slovakia' Matus Matis and appeared to slash/spear Matis in the groin area. Matis dropped to the ice in obvious pain, and as a result of the play, Gostisbehere was ejected and the IIHF reviewed the play.
After the review, the IIHF's disciplinary committee deemed the action to be "reckless" and, in a statement, said they felt that Gostisbehere had to be held accountable.
Boone Jenner was chomping at the bit to get back on the ice for Team Canada, and fittingly, he did so in a game that was right up his alley.
With a first place in the group and a quarterfinal bye on the line against the Russians, Canada needed a different (and much better) performance than it put forth against Slovakia earlier in the week. They skated two forwards down in that game due to suspensions being served by Jenner and teammate JC Lipon, and adding the fresh legs back in the lineup proved to be valuable.
Canada started fast, scoring two goals in a span of 1:54 late in the opening period that really got Russia back on its heels.
Dougie Hamilton and Mark Scheifele's tallies took advantage of a major penalty assessed to Russia's Valeri Nichushkin for checking from behind, something head coach Steve Spott knew his team would have to do if the opponent got reckless.
Jenner fit seamlessly into Canada's attack, which was built on backing up the Russian defensemen and outworking them below the icing line. Spott lined him up with Brett Ritchie and Philip Danault, and the trio formed a strong line that really set the physical tone for the hockey game.
Offense had been hard to come by for Team USA and the grip on their sticks had grown tight, but they let loose against Slovakia in a must-win game.
With their medal round hopes on the line, the Americans came out firing and put the Slovaks in a 5-2 hole before the first period was over. They chased Adam Nagy from the Slovakia net with three goals in the opening 11 minutes and kept the pedal down to ensure they would move on to the quarterfinal with a 9-3 victory.
And though the U.S. can breathe a bit easier knowing it avoided relegation and now has a chance to compete for a medal, there's little time to sit back and enjoy this one. The final seeding in Group A won't be determined until Sweden and Finland face off later today, and if Finland wins in regulation, the three-way tiebreak (including the Czech Republic) will get complicated.
But what it all means for Phil Housley's team is the gold medal dream is still alive, and their next challenge comes in the Wednesday "cross over" against the second-place finisher from the other group.
How did the Americans get it done today? Put simply: a hot start, a hotter power play, and timely saves from their MVP -- goaltender John Gibson, who helped kick things off for Team USA.
They don't have just one scoring line or a group of five or six players that Steve Spott can call on when they need a goal; it's a well-structured team that has offensive firepower up and down the lineup. Spott rolls four lines and likes to get them all involved, and in scoring 15 goals in their first two games of this World Junior, it was an open invitation.
But even with three solid wins in the bag and a bird's-eye view of the medal round, the Canadians know they'll need to be better -- and they are getting a major piece of their team back for tomorrow's game against Russia.
Boone Jenner was suspended for a pre-tournament hit on Swedish defenseman Jesper Pettersson that resulted in a dislocated shoulder and broken wrist. Pettersson was ruled out for the entire tournament and it only added to a pile of significant injuries for the Swedes, who were outraged at what they deemed a dangerous hit by Jenner.
Team USA and Canada locked horns in yet another terrific hockey game earlier today in Ufa, Russia, with the Canadians holding on for a 2-1 win that punches their ticket to the medal round.
John Gibson was excellent in net for the United States, as was Malcolm Subban for Canada. Both players were honored as the players of the game and Subban did his best work in the third period, as the Americans pushed for the tying goal.
Steve Mears and EJ Hradek called the game on the NHL Network and offered up their thoughts post-game.