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U.S. junior team has 2005 blueprint as a guide

Wednesday, 12.22.2010 / 10:36 AM / 2011 World Junior Championship

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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U.S. junior team has 2005 blueprint as a guide
The Americans defending their World Junior gold medal on home soil -- it's happened before. The 2005 team, which finished fourth after winning the previous tournament, gives advice to this year's squad.
In January 2004, a plane carried jubilant members of the United States World Junior Championship team home from Finland with something no U.S. team before it had ever earned -- a gold medal.

Featuring current NHL stars Zach Parise, David Booth, Drew Stafford and Matt Carle, the U.S. had beaten Canada 4-3 in the gold-medal game.

A similar scenario played out this past January, when the U.S. beat Canada by one goal in the gold-medal game, and the 2010 team -- one that features current NHL players John Carlson, Cam Fowler and Derek Stepan -- flew back from Saskatoon wearing well-earned gold.

With seven members of the 2004 team returning for the 2005 World Juniors, and the tournament being on home soil in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn., the U.S. was expected to thrive, and maybe even repeat as champions.

Again, that same theme will be repeated in a few weeks, when as many as eight players who partied in Saskatoon will suit up for the U.S. at the 2011 World Juniors, which will be held in Buffalo starting Dec. 26. And just like in '05, the host nation will be among the favorites for the gold.

That '05 team, however, came up short in its golden quest, losing to Russia in the semifinals and the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game to finish fourth.

Can the 2011 U.S. team avoid suffering the same fate?

The best way to prevent history from repeating itself may be to look back at the 2005 team and see where things went wrong for the U.S.

The players who arrived in Grand Forks with gold-medal experience spanned every position -- goaltender Al Montoya, defensemen Ryan Suter and Jeff Likens, and forwards Dan Fritsche, Patrick O'Sullivan, Jake Dowell and Drew Stafford.

That left 15 new players to come on board, and to Dowell, now a rookie with the Chicago Blackhawks, the chemistry that was omnipresent in 2004 never was found the next winter.

"We don't get a whole lot of time together before the tournament, so some guys didn't know each other that well and sometimes it takes longer than you expect to form a little chemistry and trust each other," Dowell told NHL.com. "To me, that is the biggest thing. If we don't have that, then we struggle a little bit."

Suter, now a defenseman with the Nashville Predators, told NHL.com he felt the same way.

"When you're in these short tournaments, you have to come together so fast and you have to be on your game," he said. "You almost have to be lucky to make sure everyone's firing on all cylinders. We would be good in games, and then we'd be bad."

They were good early. In their opener against a Russia team led by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Fritsche's shorthanded goal midway through the second period broke a 4-4 tie and gave the U.S. a 5-4 victory. Two days later against Switzerland, the U.S. got goals from Stafford, T.J. Hensick and Robbie Schremp in a 2:33 span early in the third to break a 2-2 tie en route to a 6-4 victory. That would be the last U.S. win for a while, however.

Playing a Belarus team featuring Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, the Americans trailed 2-1 after one period and 5-1 midway through the second en route to a shocking 5-3 loss. In their final game of the preliminary round, against the Czech Republic, all the Americans could manage was a Fritsche goal in a 3-1 loss.

Almost no one could have predicted the U.S. would be just 2-2 after four games. Some of it could have been the pressure of being in the unusual position of favorite, coupled with hosting the event. The U.S. wasn't used to WJC success -- prior to the gold in 2004, the only U.S. medals at the event had been bronzes in 1986 and 1992, and a silver in 1997.

"I don't think a lot of guys knew what to expect going into it," O'Sullivan, who was credited with the golden goal at the '04 tournament and now playing for the Minnesota Wild, told NHL.com. "And there weren't a lot of guys that had played the year before. Our team wasn't as good. … It definitely was a different feeling going into that tournament having won it the year before. Everyone wants to beat the team that won the year before. It was definitely different."

"You know when a team is ranked higher than you or everyone says they're better than you, so you go out and play harder against those guys," said Suter. "We had the bull's-eye on our chests and teams brought us their best."

After a day of rest to get ready for the quarterfinals against Sweden, the good U.S. reappeared, as Phil Kessel scored two of his three goals in a five-goal third period of an 8-2 rout. The next day, however, Ovechkin and Malkin scored twice each as Russia pounded the U.S. 7-2 in the semifinals.

In the bronze-medal game, Petr Vrana beat Montoya 2:38 into overtime to send the U.S. home empty-handed.

"We obviously didn’t do as well as we expected, for whatever reasons," said Dowell. "We lost the third-place game, so it was a little disappointing, but it was definitely a really cool atmosphere and was really fun to be part of."

It'll be up to the 22 players picked for the 2011 U.S. squad to make their own fun -- and maybe take home another medal. And in case the 2011 players are wondering, the players from the 2005 team that failed in their title defense will be watching, and rooting.

"For sure," O'Sullivan said when asked if he would be watching. "I think most guys … it's around the holidays, it's fun. Guys like to bet on the games, have fun with each other. I think everybody is pretty interested in it."

They'll also be rooting for this year's Team USA to do what their team couldn't. And they're more than willing to pass along their lessons.

"I would say you've got to come together fast and be on your game and be better each period," said Suter. "The teams are going to be coming for you. You have the bull's-eye on your back, you won the year before. Everyone wants to do their best against the best. Just be ready for them."

"The first thing you can do is just enjoy the moment and enjoy the opportunity to be there and represent your country," added Dowell. "It's all an opportunity and you've just got to take advantage of it."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com
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