Phil Housley shrugged off a disappointing preliminary round, saying he simply wanted his team to get better with each game. Mission accomplished.
With two clutch goals from Rocco Grimaldi, who was benched for an entire game earlier in the tournament, Team USA put away defending champion Sweden 3-1 to win the gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship today.
John Gibson, by far the best American player in the tournament (and quite possibly the best, period), stood tall in goal for the United States and earned the honor as tournament MVP.
Team USA knew Sweden would be its sternest test, not only as last year's champion but one of the most solid all-around teams in the tournament. Even without three of its top players out to injury, Sweden had a tough road to the gold medal game and had to outlast host Russia in a shootout just two days ago.
And the Swedes were better from the start, showing their puck-possession game and strong puck support that's made them a junior hockey powerhouse in the last decade. After scoring the opening goal of the game, though, Team USA seemed to awaken and got started with its pressure game -- and Sweden struggled with it.
Canada and Russia will meet on the final day of the World Junior Hockey Championship, but the circumstances are far different from what either side expected.
With two lineups bolstered by NHL-caliber talent and gold-medal-or-bust hopes upon arriving in Ufa, Russia, both clubs stunningly stumbled after duking it out in the "group of death" preliminary round. The Canadians steamrolled opponents en route to sweeping the group and earning an automatic bye to the semifinal, while the Russians survived a quarterfinal scare from Switzerland and earned a date with Sweden in the semis.
The results that followed were -- to say the least -- unexpected.
Team USA, fresh off a quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic, managed to handily knock off Canada even though the Americans were playing their sixth game in eight days. Jake McCabe scored a pair of goals in the first period, and the U.S. eventually chased Malcolm Subban in the second period on their way to a 5-1 victory.
Russia, with high expectations as the host country and an improved style more suitable to the international game, saw its gold medal hopes end in a shootout loss to Sweden. The Russians clawed back from an early 2-0 deficit , tied the game in the third period, but could not convert a gift-wrapped power play chance in overtime.
Disappointment was the prevailing emotion following Canada's semifinal loss, generating a lot of reflection on one of their sloppiest performances in recent memory.
About 90 minutes have passed since Team USA put the finishing touches on a 5-1 win over Canada in today's World Junior semifinal, but we're not done with the analysis.
Think back to the Americans' preliminary round loss to Russia: a hard-fought, competitive game that the U.S. probably deserved a better outcome from. It set up a must-win game against Slovakia if they had designs on advancing to the medal round -- and since then, it's been all business.
Team USA scored nine goals against the Slovaks, seven more in its quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic and added five tallies this morning against the Canadians. While goaltending has been a major contributor (John Gibson has been perhaps the best player in the entire tournament), the U.S. has benefited from an offense that's hit another gear in the last four days.
What exactly is behind the Americans' red-hot run to the gold medal game? Here are my "five factors" for Phil Housley's club:Continue reading for the rest of this story.
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.