-- For the first time in three years, the players and coaching staff of the U.S. National Junior Team have earned the right to catch their breath at the World Junior Championship.
A two-day break and an automatic berth into the tournament semifinal round were the fruit of some rock-solid defense, timely scoring and the unshakable goaltending of Jack Campbell
The last time the U.S. earned an automatic pass was 2008 in the Czech Republic -- but the Americans lost 4-1 to Canada in the semifinal round and then fell 4-2 to Russia in the bronze medal game.
The U.S., the Group A winner, will play the winner of Sunday's quarterfinal-round match between Canada and Switzerland on Monday in the semifinal round at HSBC Arena (NHLN-US, 7:30 p.m. ET). The other semifinal will feature Group B winner Sweden against either Finland or Russia on Monday at 3:30 p.m.
After a tournament-opening 3-2 overtime victory over Finland, the U.S. defeated Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland.
During the four-game sweep, the Americans outscored (15-4) and outshot (177-92) their opponents by considerable margins.
"The schedule had been advantageous to us for two of the four games," U.S. coach Keith Allain said. "We were a rested team playing against a tired team (on two occasions), and when you're given an advantage like that you have to take advantage of it -- and we did."
Allain, who has preached puck possession, speed and discipline throughout, beat Slovakia (6-1) and Germany (4-0) following a day off. The Americans beat Switzerland 2-1 on Friday one day after beating the Germans.
"We saw a lot of different looks from a lot of different teams, so we got our fair share of aggressive forechecks and teams that sat back," forward Chris Kreider
said. "We felt like we saw it all, and that definitely helped us. Hopefully, we can take some of what we learned into the next game."
Success didn't come without some measure of adversity, as the U.S. was forced to play without the services of playmaking wing Jeremy Morin
and big center Brock Nelson
against the Slovaks, forward Jason Zucker
against Germany and both Morin and Zucker against a tough Swiss team.
Still, the U.S. generated more than enough on offense with centers Nick Bjugstad
, Charlie Coyle
and Drew Shore
leading the way. Allain has also been pleased with the fact the scoring has been distributed throughout the lineup -- 12 players, including defensemen Jon Merrill and Justin Faulk
, have scored goals.
"For us to achieve the ultimate goal, we're going to have to do it with a solid team game," Allain said. "The way our lines are set up now -- not necessarily the power-play but 5-on-5 -- there's no first, second or third line. We need contributions from everyone and we're getting contributions from everyone and that's why we've earned the bye into the next round."
Defensively, the U.S. has allowed the fewest goals of any country while being whistled for only seven penalties -- its 14 penalty minutes are the fewest of any country in the tournament. The unflappable Campbell, who has been lights out since last year's gold medal-winning effort against Canada, is 4-0-0 with a tournament-low 1.03 goals-against average and WJC-best .957 save percentage. Including last year, Campbell is 5-0-1 with a pair of overtime victories.
"I think our team defense has been good but when you play in a tournament of this nature it doesn't matter how good you are, it's the quality scoring chances every night and the Swiss had more time than we would have liked (on Friday) but we only allowed one goal due to the work of Jack," Allain said. "He's a calming influence for our hockey team and he's kind of a guy that we all rally around."
Not to be forgotten is the fact Team USA has trailed for a grand total of 3:14 in the tournament, allowing the Swiss to open a 1-0 lead on Friday before getting even on a goal by Kreider.
"We were able to really see what we had in our locker room; the character as well as the talent (in the victory over Switzerland)," Campbell said. "I really like what we're bringing to the table as far as our team and coaching staff. We're just trying to get better each day and I'm confident if we do that we'll have success."
For a competitor such as Campbell, having an opportunity to play against the world's best is also an exciting time.
"I'm confident with the team we have, but now we go against the best and that's why you come here," he said. "You don't want to win 5-0 every night. You want to come here to play the best and to really test what you have in the locker room.
"Now, every single mistake goes up on the scoreboard since you're playing against such good players. Now the focus is bearing down when you have the chance. It's a fresh start and a new tournament and we have two more to go."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale