There was a prevailing line of thinking prior to this World Junior tournament: if the Americans were to compete for a gold medal, goaltender John Gibson would have to be their best player.
Check and check.
Gibson made 33 saves in today's 5-1 semifinal win over Canada in what was easily Team USA's finest and most complete performance of the tournament. The U.S. moves on to play in the gold medal game on Saturday but first awaits the winner of the Russia/Sweden semifinal later today, and they'll have plenty of positive game tape to watch in preparation.
From the drop of the puck, the U.S. controlled the pace of the game and held the territorial edge throughout. Team USA held leads of 2-0 after the first period, 4-0 after the second and withstood a brief Canadian push in the third period thanks in large part to Gibson's play between the pipes.
"He's been outstanding for us, and given us a chance to win every game," U.S. head coach Phil Housley told Rob Simpson post-game. "He's made big saves at key times."
Housley also praised his team's composure after getting out to a solid lead, and not allowing Canada to capitalize on mistakes or draw the Americans into needless penalties.
"We settled in and we built off that lead," he said. "We had to weather the storm in the third period, we knew Canada would come. We pulled through and I'm very proud of our guys."
The story in the first period was American captain Jake McCabe, the (usually) stay-at-home defenseman who got the offense going with a gorgeous snap-wrister at 7:18 of the first period. With a maze of bodies in front of Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban, McCabe took a pass from Riley Barber and walked to the middle of the ice, beating Subban to the far side through traffic.
A heads-up play by Rocco Grimaldi, who was stapled to the U.S. bench earlier in the tournament, made the second U.S. goal happen. He broke into the Canadian zone and sent a drop pass to McCabe, who had crept into the high slot yet again. Another snap shot top corner on Subban made it a 2-0 lead for Team USA, and they made sure to keep the pedal down in the second period.
Johnny Gaudreau, on some kind of hot streak coming into the game, did nothing to cool himself off against Canada. His goal just 2:58 into the second period was a thing of beauty, turning a 2-on-2 rush into a three-goal lead after a sick toe drag and blast over Subban's glove side shoulder.
Gaudreau's second point of the period was the primary assist on Jimmy Vesey's first goal of the World Junior -- and it was equally aesthetic. Vesey made one dip of the shoulder at the right circle and drove hard to the net, beating Subban off the far post and in, ending the day for Canada's starting netminder.
Jordan Binnington entered the game and did everything he could to give Canada a chance, but Team USA's commanding lead and commitment to its game plan prevented any sort of rally from materializing.
A few notebook items from today's first semifinal:
-- Housley took some heat early in the tournament for lineup decisions, but he has been pushing all the right buttons when it counts. He mixed up the defense pairings to get more balance and it paid off, and made the tough call of limiting Shayne Gostisbehere's ice time after returning from suspension today. He stuck with what got the U.S. into the semifinal and it paid off.
-- Special teams were dominant again, and though Team USA's tournament-best penalty kill didn't have as much work as it's used to, it answered the bell when called upon. Gibson was a big story again, making the key saves to thwart momentum and cover up any lapses in the American defense.
-- Canada head coach Steve Spott told TSN's Mark Masters that pulling Subban in the second period was not about his performance, but how the team failed to support its goaltender: 'I thought we left him out to dry and the goals they scored were quality goals," he said.
-- Blue Jackets prospect Mike Reilly was paired once again with Dublin native Connor Murphy and played a solid game in limited action, especially the third period with a shortened bench. Housley loves using him as the puck-rusher on the power play and his wheels have created several chances in this tournament.
-- The gold medal game is an 8 a.m. faceoff on Saturday, and as always, it will air live on the NHL Network and be streamed on NHL.com.