Forwards Ryan Hartman and Jack Eichel and defenseman Matthew Grzelcyk each had a goal and an assist and goalie Jon Gillies made 27 saves to lead the United States National Junior Team to a 6-3 victory over Slovakia on Saturday in the preliminary round of the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship at Malmo Isstadion in Sweden.
The U.S. entered the third period holding a precarious 3-2 lead, but broke the game open by outscoring the Slovaks 3-1. The Americans outshot Slovakia, 47-30, including a 16-8 margin over the final 20 minutes.
While it wasn't textbook hockey, U.S. coach Don Lucia will certainly take it. His team remains unbeaten in the Group A pool with six points in two games.
"When you get into a tournament like this, there will be a lot of close games in the third and you have to be a good strong finishing team and we did a good job," Lucia said. "We got the puck down low and that's when our team is at its best; we're not a fancy team, that's not our identity."
The U.S., which has scored 11 times in two games and received goals from 10 different players, will next face Germany in preliminary round play on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com).
"That's the identity of our team," Hartman said. "We don't have that one player who's going to go out and score four goals. We have a well-rounded team and everyone is contributing, which is great to see."
Defenseman Will Butcher and forwards Nicolas Kerdiles and Andrew Copp each had two assists in the win. Additionally, Copp won 16 of 24 faceoffs (66.6 percent) and Daniel O'Regan won 11 of 16 (68.7 percent).
While the U.S. scored three power-play goals on five opportunities, it also struggled staying out the penalty box and allowed the Slovaks back into the game as a result. Fresh off a 9-2 victory against Germany on Friday, Slovakia received power-play goals by Milan Kolena at 11:04 and Martin Reway at 12:57 to pull within 3-2.
"We turned the puck over far too many times and they put a lot of pressure on our young guys on defense with their breakouts; more so than the Czechs [on Thursday]," Lucia said. "Our defense made some mistakes, but the good thing is those are all correctable. I didn't think the details in our game were as good as they were [in a 5-2 win against the Czech Republic] as far as being in the right spot on the rink. That's something we have to press upon and explain how important that is."
The U.S. took a 6-2 advantage in the third with three goals. Grzelcyk (Boston Bruins) took a bank pass off the end boards from Connor Carrick and deposited his first of the tournament at 9:33 for a 4-2 lead. Grzelcyk was named player of the game for the United States.
Stefan Matteau (New Jersey Devils) extended the lead when he took a pass in the slot from Copp (Winnipeg Jets) and ripped a shot into the top right corner at 14:15. U.S. captain Riley Barber (Washington Capitals) finished a 2-on-1 breakout with Copp at 16:34 to give his team a 6-2 lead before Slovakia's Reway scored his second of the game at 17:52 to close out the scoring.
If not for Gillies, the Slovaks might have entered the third tied or holding a lead. He denied Mario Lunter with a spectacular left pad save off a rebound at 3:20 of the second and then turned away David Griger's blast from the left circle at 9:10.
"I thought [Gillies] was good," Lucia said. "In the first, he made some good saves that were critical. I put both the [power play] goals on us and not him. Guys didn't get a stick on the puck and they were tough plays."
Gillies (Calgary Flames) made a huge stop three minutes into the third with his team on the power play. Matteau's blind pass in the Slovak zone was picked off and Marko Dano broke in one-on-one against the American goalie, who flared the mitt to deflect the attempt over the glass.
Slovakia finished 2-for-6 with the man advantage, including 2-for-4 in the second when it outshot the Americans, 11-9. Still, Lucia told NHL.com he isn't too concerned with the amount of untimely penalties taken by the U.S. against the Slovaks.
"We took just two penalties against the Czechs; I'm happy that the penalties haven't been retaliatory penalties," he said. "They haven't been really dumb penalties either; there were a couple of interference calls in the offensive zone, but I think our guys have done a really good job with that for the most part."
The U.S. had taken a 3-0 lead 4:22 into the second when Hartman (Chicago Blackhawks) uncorked a shot from the left circle that beat Richard Sabol high to the short side on the power play. Butcher (Colorado Avalanche) set up the play with a tape-to-tape pass to Hartman from the point. Sabol finished with 41 saves.
After killing two Slovakia power-play attempts early in the first, the United States knocked in a pair of goals with the man advantage in the final four minutes to open a 2-0 edge. The Americans outshot the Slovaks 22-11 in the opening 20 minutes.
"It's hard to win a game when they score almost every time they get a power play," Reway told the IIHF website. Reway, who has three goals and six points in two tournament games, was named Slovakia's player of the game.
Eichel made a nice move to the net down the slot and received a great pass from Hartman before sweeping home his first of the tournament at 16:53.
"[Eichel] has some major offensive talent, and is proving to be pretty sound defensively," Lucia said. "He's in the right spots. One of the things going into this tournament was wondering if we had to hide him in our own zone, but we haven't had to do that. He's stepped up and did a good job at both ends."
Sabol was whistled for delay of game at 19:17 and O'Regan (San Jose Sharks) would jam home his first of the tournament with just one second remaining to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead. Grzelcyk took a pass from Kerdiles (Anaheim Ducks) before taking a shot that bounced to O'Regan in the slot.
While Gillies wasn't called upon to be great, he did make several big saves in the opening period to keep the game scoreless when the Slovaks had some sustained pressure.