NHL Network analyst Dave Starman has covered each of the past four World Junior Championship tournaments. He also spends a tremendous amount of time broadcasting and scouting college and junior hockey games across North America. As a result, he is intimately familiar with many of the players who are competing for gold during the next two weeks in Ufa, Russia. Throughout the WJC, Starman will weigh in with his thoughts and analysis, focusing his attention heavily on the fate of the Americans. These are his thoughts on the United States following an 8-0 win against Germany on Thursday. The U.S. faces Russia on Friday.
The United States beat Germany convincingly on Thursday, and it reminded me of a couple of past big victories by the Americans. With Russia coming up next on Friday (9 a.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN), forgetting this game ever happened probably would be a good thing if history is any indicator.
In 2009, the United States beat Kazakhstan handily. The next game it lost to Canada, 8-5. In 2012, the Americans beat Denmark 11-3 in Edmonton to open the tourney and then lost to Finland 4-1 the next time out.
Being battle tested is a huge part of this tourney and the Russians have already passed their first test, beating a tenacious Slovakia in overtime. The United States is still untested. In this dynamic, that matters.
However, winning 8-0 is better than losing 8-0, and the Americans got a balanced attack from four lines and saw their defense contribute as well. They scored in a myriad of ways, and one thing that was evident was their puck support. Keep those two words -- puck support -- in mind, especially on the big sheet. It will be a common thread in the U.S. dressing room throughout the tourney, and probably a buzz word repeated by the staff on a shift-by-shift basis starting Friday against a terrific transition and skating team from Russia.
Puck support allows good teams to be great. Puck support allows offensive success because short passes have a better chance of getting where they should go (think West Coast offense). Puck support also prevents transition and does not allow good skating teams to shorten the ice, something the Canadians did really well in that win in 2009 against the United States and conversely, something the U.S. did extremely well against Canada in the gold-medal game of 2010.
I emailed several scouts Thursday, and one of the players mentioned as standing out was Mike Reilly. A standout defenseman at the University of Minnesota, Reilly was strong with the puck and good away from it in all three zones. That a defenseman stood out in an 8-0 game is a great thing for the United States because in its 11-3 win against Denmark last year, the defense looked shaky at times and allowed three power-play goals in the game.
The larger ice surface used in this tournament should be a factor worth noting as the United States thinks ahead to the Russians. While most fans would think that Russia will be more used to playing on the big ice, the mostly NCAA-based United States team spends a great deal of time on the wide sheet.
The key to the big rink is playing smart and not playing high-risk -- it is where puck support comes in. Playing at Lynah Rink at Cornell, if you are on the half wall and throw a bad pass to the middle lane and it gets picked, you have a 50-50 chance of getting back and being involved in the backcheck. Stand on the half wall on an Olympic-sized sheet and do the same thing, and you are automatically almost eight feet further away from the play. At the tempo played in this tourney, that can seem like miles.
"We need to be smart on the forecheck on the big sheet," said assistant coach Mark Osiecki in an exchange of emails with me after Thursday's win. "We also need to be smart in the neutral zone."
Osiecki, the coach at Ohio State, will be on the American defensemen Friday to keep puck to the wall, not force pucks up the gut. He will also tell them to be real careful about being a second wave in the attack.
The Slovaks gave the Russians fits. Russia might have taken that game too lightly -- or the Slovaks are a whole lot better than expected. The Russians will be ready for this game, losing to the U.S. on home ice is not as bad as losing to Canada, but it is pretty close. They will be ready.
The United States will get its first test against Russia. A bad call, a bad break, and/or a bad goal either way could go a long way to determine the outcome. The Americans have Canada next, but won't be overlooking this game. The Russians get Germany next, so they have a chance to be thinking 3-0 if they win this one.
The Russians have demonstrated in the past an ability to explode for goals. The U.S. challenge will be puck control, puck support, and puck possession.
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