By Alan Adams
Photo Credit: HHOF-IIHF Images
LEKSAND, Sweden - The sweat was beading off Peter Mueller's chin and the Team USA forward was all smiles.
After a poor start to the World Junior Hockey Championship, the United States National Junior Team dug deep and turned in a sparkling performance against Slovakia, beating them 6-1.
"We did not get the start we wanted," Mueller, the hulking center who was the Coyotes' first pick, eighth overall, in the NHL Entry Draft last June, said after the win over Slovakia.
"We can do better and we will do better."
The pressure-packed World Junior Championship can teach the cream of the crop of junior hockey a lesson or two in what it is like to perform in a fishbowl. The margin of difference between top teams like Team USA and so-called lesser lights like Germany is razor thin, and Mueller got a first-hand look when the States lost 2-1 to the Germans.
The U.S. then faced two-time defending world champion Canada and lost 6-3, putting them in the unenviable position of having to win their next two games to slip past Germany in the standings and qualify for the medal round.
The U.S. got the first win and one night later, beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime. The Swedes tied the game with 14 seconds left in the third period but that didn't deflate the U.S. resolve.
"It was a huge win for us," said Mueller, the six-foot-two, 201-pound resident of Bloomington, Minn., who had four shots and was plus-1 in the game against Sweden.
Ask anyone around hockey about the pressures of playing in the best-on-best world junior tournament and they will tell you this is a win-win event, even when you lose.
Case in point was the two straight losses by Mueller and his Team USA teammates. Losing a game to an opponent you should have beaten (i.e. Germany) is one of those character-building moments that prospects like Mueller can draw on later in their careers.
And Mueller is a character type of player who has learned to take life's lessons to heart.
"All the experiences they go through, you hope it adds to their ability to help our team win down the line," says Tom Kurvers, the Coyotes' Director of Player Personnel.
Mueller is on leave from the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League to play in the World Junior Hockey Championship. This is his second tour of duty at the world juniors and his role has changed considerably from last year when, as a 17-year-old, he saw limited ice time and was primarily used on the penalty killing unit. A lot can change in a year and Mueller is proof positive of that. He is one of the key players for Team USA and Head Coach Ron Rolston has used him in every possible situation, which again is a plus for Mueller because it is a confidence-builder.
"There is nothing better than playing for your country and playing in Europe. Just wearing the red white and blue is a great honor," says Mueller. "You learn so many things playing in a tournament like this. Everyone trains just as hard as you and they have great players over here and they are very talented. You can't doubt any of these Europeans teams."
Mueller was a bright-eyed 18-year old when he arrived at the Coyotes' training camp last September. He made a good impression but had to leave when his grandfather suddenly passed away.
He came back strong after being away for about five days and the Coyotes kept him around little longer than originally planned and Mueller responded really well. Mueller returned to junior and had 45 points (8 goals, 37 assists) in 28 games for the Silvertips when he departed for the 10-team World Junior Hockey Championship.
Mueller remembers every minute of training camp as if it happened yesterday.
"It is something you do not forget," said Mueller. "I sat down for my first pre-game meal and was sitting with Ed Jovanovski and Jeremy Roenick and it is hard to not to forget about that moment. They told me when I got back to junior to do the best I could."
Mueller's coach in Everett is Kevin Constantine, a former NHL head coach who is exactly what a top prospect like Mueller needs at this stage of his career. Constantine brings a pro-approach to junior hockey and has helped Mueller round out his game.
"He has taught me so much about defense. He taught me you have to go get the puck out of the defensive zone first before you can go on offense," says Mueller. "He taught me so much and then the best guy who ever played the game (Coyotes Head Coach Wayne Gretzky) was teaching me how to play offense. I have had the best of both worlds."
Mueller has another year of junior eligibility after this season before he turns professional. His aim is to be in the Phoenix Coyotes line-up on opening night and sticking with the team.
"I am looking at the pro game right now and am trying to see what I can do off-ice to get better and make the jump. I am looking for that next step and it is the Coyotes," says Mueller.
Kurvers hopes Mueller is ready for the next stage of his career.
"He will make the decision for us (whether he sticks with the team)," says Kurvers. "We hope it's a hard decision to make."
The last word goes to Mueller.
"I hope to make it hard for them."