Team USA's medal aspirations at this World Junior took a hit with a loss to Russia today. And man, was it ever a tough-luck loss.
Johnny Gaudreau sparked the Americans with a glorious scoring chance just seconds into the game, but Russian goaltender Andrei Makarov stretched across the crease to make a remarkable toe save. That seemed to be the story of the game, as the U.S. settled down after an early goal by Russia but couldn't get more than one puck behind Makarov in a 2-1 preliminary round loss.
It was opportunity after opportunity for Team USA but Makarov was solid, making the saves he had to make as well as some stops that changed the momentum of the game. After a while it seemed to frustrate the U.S. but they forged on, and had several chances to take a lead in the latter stages of the second period.
Albert Yarullin capitalized on a bad U.S. penalty in the opening minutes and ripped a one-timer past goaltender John Gibson for a 1-0 lead that energized the home crowd. But Team USA had a better response, and though it didn't score, settled into the hockey game and began to instill its style as the first period closed.
The Russians were rather careless with the puck in the first two periods and it fed right into the Americans' "get up and go" style of offense and allowed them to move up on the rush. Russia was forced into taking penalties, and finally, after a slew of chances, Jacob Trouba broke through with a one-timer of his own to even it up at 1-1 in the second period.
At the time, it looked to be just what the U.S. needed to take firm control, but Makarov wasn't having any of it. He made big stops on Rocco Grimaldi in the slot, JT Miller on a drive to the net and made sure momentum never stayed in the Americans' hands for long.
Other assorted notes out of today's game:
-- The U.S.' top line was at its best in this game and was never rewarded for some really good work in the offensive zone. Miller, Gaudreau and Grimaldi weren't heard from on the scoresheet but I suspect they will be down the line. Sunday's game against Canada is a huge test for everyone, top line included.
-- Gibson did just about everything he could, and really had no chance on the go-ahead goal by Vladimir Tkachyov. Team USA melted down defensively in front of the net as Valeri Nichushkin drove hard to the cage and Tkachyov cleaned up the loose change. Gibson and Makarov allowed just three goals combined on 72 shots total, a save percentage near 95 percent.
-- Thought Sean Kuraly played another strong game for the U.S. and his presence in the faceoff circle cannot be overlooked. His offensive game has gotten better with each shift and he looks great with Alex Galchenyuk and Riley Barber.
-- I'd like to see more of the Connor Murphy - Jake McCabe pairing but I can understand why their ice time is down in comparison to Seth Jones, Trouba and Shayne Gostisbehere. McCabe has looked solid inside his own blueline and Murphy complements him well.
-- Sunday morning, 4:30 a.m. ET, United States vs. Canada. This game could be for all the medal-round marbles in a very tough group. You won't want to miss it.