About 90 minutes have passed since Team USA put the finishing touches on a 5-1 win over Canada in today's World Junior semifinal, but we're not done with the analysis.
Think back to the Americans' preliminary round loss to Russia: a hard-fought, competitive game that the U.S. probably deserved a better outcome from. It set up a must-win game against Slovakia if they had designs on advancing to the medal round -- and since then, it's been all business.
Team USA scored nine goals against the Slovaks, seven more in its quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic and added five tallies this morning against the Canadians. While goaltending has been a major contributor (John Gibson has been perhaps the best player in the entire tournament), the U.S. has benefited from an offense that's hit another gear in the last four days.
What exactly is behind the Americans' red-hot run to the gold medal game? Here are my "five factors" for Phil Housley's club:
1. Johnny Gaudreau catches fire -- After gripping the stick tight in the early stages of the preliminary round (and failing to cash in on several quality opportunities), the guy they call "Johnny Hockey" has absolutely gone off. It took until the third game of the World Junior for Gaudreau to light the lamp, but since then, he's been white hot: he's the tournament's top goal scorer with seven, and they've all come in the past three games. When Gaudreau is dangling and sniping as he has been, the Team USA offense just seems to be at a different and higher level.
2. Getting better with time -- Housley knew his team would be a work in progress, and with the final roster not coming together until shortly after Christmas, the U.S. team wasn't going to be perfect by any means. But they kept working at it and didn't panic when faced with a do-or-die game to get to the medal round, they simply got better. The trend continued from there, and it was beyond the obvious goal-scoring outbreak; Team USA's puck control style and transition game became refined with some tweaks to the defense pairs -- something Housley deserves full marks for.
3. The grind line -- Matchups have been important for the U.S. throughout the tournament, and in both games against Canada, Housley has opted to use the line of Blake Pietila, Cole Bardreau and Ryan Hartman against the line anchored by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Not only has the American "grind line" been terrific on the penalty kill, but their even strength play frustrated the top Canadian players and made it laborious to generate any scoring chances. They've been able to chip in on the offensive end, too: there are three goals and eight points among the trio with a cumulative +14 rating.
4. John Gibson -- As I mentioned in today's game recap, many believed Gibson had to be the Americans' best player in order to have a shot at gold. He's been their rock, keeping them in games at times and also keeping momentum in their favor with timely saves. Despite the U.S. scoring five times in the semifinal, Gibson's point-blank save on Ryan Strome might have been the most pivotal moment of the game.
5. Depth on defense -- It's been well-documented that this group of U.S. blueliners might be its best in some time, and all seven have played a huge part in the team's success. Housley has been able to balance minutes and play off matchups with a mix of puck-movers and stay-at-home guys, and in doing so, has created a defense that can transport the puck and quickly defuse the opposition. When Shayne Gostisebehere was suspended, Pat Sieloff stepped right into the lineup and played with longtime friend Jacob Trouba to form a sturdy, rugged shutdown tandem. Having different styles of defensemen that can all skate well has enabled Team USA to maintain its high-tempo game, and wear opponents down by making them chase the game.