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.
Matej Machovsky fared no better than Patrik Bartosak, giving up three more goals before the second period came to a close. Miami freshman Riley Barber made it 4-0 on a wonderful pass from Alex Galchenyuk, who attracted four Czech defenders before slipping the puck to Barber for the goal.
But the story (aside from the penalties) was the Team USA power play, which had been rather effective coming into the game -- but it went "next level" in the quarterfinal. The Americans scored four power play goals in the first two periods (5-for-9 total) and were much better at burying the opportunities given, something they struggled with at times in previous games.
U.S. head coach Phil Housley clearly had a plan to use all four lines (and he said as much to NHL Network's Rob Simpson before the game) and take away the Czech Republic's top line, which had done a lot of damage in the tournament. The strategy paid off two fold; Team USA got production up and down its lineup, spread out the ice time to keep guys fresh, and the Czechs never got anything going in the offensive zone.
Some items from the notebook after today's game:
-- The next test is the Americans' biggest yet: a second date with Canada in the semifinal with a berth in the gold medal game on the line. Think both teams won't be up for this one? It's another 4 a.m. ET puck drop, aired live on the NHL Network.
-- He hasn't gotten enough credit because of how much the team is scoring, but goaltender John Gibson has been tremendous for Team USA. He's made the big saves as well as the saves you expect your goalie to make, and has done so in spite of being in the awkward spot of not having much work in recent games. He's an X-factor for the U.S. going forward.
-- Seth Jones needed a strong performance today and he delivered. The 18-year-old top prospect stepped up in the absence of Shayne Gostisbehere and played a ton of minutes with captain Jake McCabe and looked like a dangerous player on the power play. He racked up four assists (as did Trouba) and wasn't shy in shooting the puck from the point.
-- Blue Jackets prospect Lukas Sedlak, captain of the Czech team, had a relatively quiet game but he had plenty of company. Team USA's quick-strike offense and a boatload of needless penalties by the Czechs took the flow out of the game early, and the Americans made certain to capitalize. By the time two periods were complete, only one team appeared interested in continuing.
-- Thought Mike Reilly played well today, but maybe didn't get as much power play time as anticipated. Housley regularly used Trouba and Jones on the point with Reilly getting most of his ice with the second unit.
-- Have to think Team USA's grind line (Blake Pietila, Ryan Hartman and Cole Bardreau) is going to be a huge factor in the semifinal matchup with Canada. The U.S. wasn't happy with the amount of space it gave the top Canadian players in their preliminary round meeting and I suspect it'll be a focal point for their preparation. That line has given Housley a go-to group in big moments and considering the occasion, it's a pretty big game tomorrow.