The United States faces a tough test Wednesday against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the 2013 World Junior Championship.
The Czechs have some quality wins and have played well. Traditionally, the Czechs have been a tough out and should be so again Wednesday (4 a.m. ET, NHL.com, NHLN-US).
The United States has some issues that have to be dealt with, if only from a numbers perspective. Against the two lesser teams in its pool, the Germans (who were awful in the opening game) and the Slovaks (who were surprisingly uncompetitive after playing other teams tough) the Americans have scored in bunches, winning 8-0 and 9-3. Against the two top teams in the pool -- Canada and Russia -- the Americans managed just two goals total in a pair of 2-1 losses.
I mentioned that to an NHL scout who is in Ufa, Russia and asked for an interpretation.
"The Americans have not found a way to score against the top goalies here," he said. "They also have not gotten enough Grade-A chances. I like their team, but their grit factor hasn’t been great."
Goalie John Gibson has done his job, and so has Jacob Trouba and, for that, the National Team Development Program should be complimented as both are program kids. The role players have been fine, playing their assigned roles and contributing. The fact is this, though: If the team’s best players are not their best players in the medal round it becomes impossible to win a gold medal.
In Buffalo in 2011, the United States played Canada in a medal-round semifinal game and weren’t very good in the game. Canada played great in almost every area. After the game, American forward Chris Krieder called his team out in a post-game interview done on NHL Network and it played an inspired game to beat Sweden and win bronze. It wasn’t exactly the impassioned speech Phil Esposito gave in Vancouver after Game 4 of the 1972 Summit Series, but it had that same theme of ‘we need to be better.”
In the two losses this week, the United States played well in a lot of areas, but their big guns weren’t factors. They are relying way too much on their defense for offense and, on the big sheet, the defensemen can be a big factor with all the room they have in the offensive zone to make plays. However, this is prime time and the likes of Riley Barber, John Gaudreau, and Alex Galchenyuk have to be a factor. There is a huge difference between effort and execution. Just because you broke a good sweat doesn’t mean you got anything done. The beads of sweat on the stars of this roster must be ones of success and not just effort.
Team USA also plays one defenseman short with the suspension of Shane Gostisbehere, who has been good in a lot of areas.
Victories against teams that don’t have the skill or depth to compete are not ones I use for evaluation. It is clear the best five teams here are the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden and the Czechs. The Swiss are so unpredictably scrappy they could make it a six-team group. Don’t forget the upset they pulled in Saskatchewan beating the Russians in OT in the playoff round in what will be remembered as the Nino Niederreiter game.
Using just the Russia and Canada games to evaluate the Americans, you saw a couple of things. The united States used its forecheck well to win pucks. The forecheck is the greatest weapon in hockey and when you have the speed and skill the Americans have up front, it is something that needs to be a factor. Chances off the rush were not something that I saw in great abundance, so offensive-zone play becomes vital.
Defensively, there were some sort-outs that were a little shaky, especially the one off the lost draw on Canada’s first goal. Two weeks or so is not a lot of time to build defensive cohesion, but one thing the Americans must avoid is their forwards selling out defensively to try and stretch the ice. The medal round is a time where a untimely goal-against or a goal given up where you beat yourself are hard to overcome. These games, especially when they wear on to the late stages, are ones where teams in the lead can sniff winning it all and it becomes harder to overcome a deficit. The Swiss in 2010 or Canada’s comeback in the Golden Game of 2010 to tie it late are two recent exceptions.
For the Americans, three things are key. They must play with the lead and getting it falls on the shoulders of the big guns. The transition game is huge as the Americans are faster than the Czechs and one can argue more skilled. That speed and skill needs to be maximized. Finally, they need to stay out of the box. Good penalties tend to get killed, dumb ones don’t.
Special-teams' wise, the Americans scored a power-play goal against both Russia and Canada and allowed a power-play goal to the Russians while stoning Canada’s power play. That was impressive since Canada was on it all game and had a 5-on-3 late. In those two games, they finished 2-for-9 on the power play and killed seven of eight penalties. That efficiency can breed success.
With 13 forwards in play, penalty trouble messes with line rotation and those forwards not involved in killing penalties sit for too long. Line-Matching can also shorten the bench. So, it is best in a tournament like this to play as much full-strength hockey as possible to keep all of the players involved
On defense, I think more ice time helps Patrick Sieloff -- and his shut-down ability could be a big factor. Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba have to manage this game from the back line and someone like Mike Reilly could wind up with valuable minutes to make big plays. Up front, should they stay together, look for the trio of Mario Lucia, Tyler Biggs, and Vince Trocheck to establish the all-important forecheck I mentioned. They can be guys who get in hard, tenderize the beef, and get the Czech defensemen looking over their shoulders.
The United States has the roster to win this game. This one should be close, but if the Americans don’t beat themselves, they should be looking at a rematch against Canada in the semifinal on Thursday.
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