The trip home this year for the United States National Junior Team will not be nearly as memorable as the one the team made last year.
After celebrating a third gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, the United States will arrive home empty-handed in 2014 after dropping a 5-3 quarterfinal game against Russia on Thursday at Malmo Isstadion in Malmo, Sweden.
"It's definitely disappointing," U.S. forward Ryan Hartman told NHL.com. "We came in with a goal to win gold and obviously fell short. It's a learning experience for the guys coming back next year; it's a good learning tool for them."
Hartman, U.S. captain Riley Barber and goalie Jon Gillies were the three returnees from the team that won the gold last year in Ufa, Russia. Hartman pointed to struggles on the penalty kill that led to the early dismissal this year.
"I thought our discipline and our penalty kill were the reasons we were eliminated," Hartman said. "Last year we allowed just three goals [in 28 times shorthanded] for the whole tournament. I think we allowed three power-play goals in the first three or four games this year. That was another thing we stressed from the beginning."
The Americans yielded six power-play goals in 21 times shorthanded at the 2014 WJC. They gave Canada five power-play chances and allowed one power-play goal in a 3-2 loss on New Year's Eve in the final game of preliminary-round play that gave their northern rival the top seed in Group A. By finishing second the Americans assured themselves a harder road through the medal round.
In the quarterfinals they gave Russia six opportunities with the man-advantage. Russia, which entered the game with the second-best power-play percentage in the tournament, got a pair of 5-on-3 power-play goals from Nikita Zadorov, a prospect for the Buffalo Sabres, in the second period to grab a 4-3 lead.
"The penalties in international play are different," Hartman said. "But that's why we play those exhibition games … to get used to it. But that was one downfall in this tournament for us. It's something we needed to adjust to before the tournament goes into single elimination."
Despite the disappointment of not advancing in the tournament, U.S. coach Don Lucia said he was proud of the effort by his team.
"It was an honor to be their coach," Lucia said. "They represented themselves and their country on and off the ice. I do feel that other than two five-minute segments of penalties taken against Canada and Russia we played well enough to win. But it's critical to have that discipline at certain points in the game. [The referees] called the little trips and those penalties that maybe aren't going to be called in North America, but that's on us. You have to adapt to that."
The United States got goals from 12 different players in the tournament, including four players from a defensive unit that chipped in with six goals and 17 points. Nicolas Kerdiles led the team's forwards with seven points and Barber had a team-high four goals and 20 shots on goal.
Defenseman Matthew Grzelcyk, who was the last player cut from the 2013 team, had two goals and six points. The youngest player on the roster, 17-year-old center Jack Eichel, starred on the team's second line and finished with one goal, five points and 15 shots on goal. Eichel, who plays for the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 team, isn't eligible for the NHL draft until 2015.
"It's always great to wear the USA jersey and I'll miss it since this was my last shot [at the WJC]," Hartman, a 2013 Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick (No. 30) said. "I just tried to make the best of it. I'm happy I was able to get at least one gold medal."
Hartman generated a team-high five shots and scored a goal against Russia. He had two great opportunities stuffed by Russian goalie Andrey Vasilevskiy as well.
"He was probably at the top of goalies we faced in the tournament," Hartman said. "He let up some shaky goals to start but was able to recover from that start. That's what good goalies do; he didn't quit and did a good job back there for his team."
The United States, which entered the quarterfinals with the top-ranked power play in the tournament, failed to score on five chances with the man-advantage Thursday.
"You look to your power play to not only score goals but generate momentum, but Russia did a good job of blocking some shots and closing down our dump-ins," Lucia said. "We weren't dumping quickly enough. I don't want to say we were in panic mode, but maybe too anxious instead of playing the way we wanted to on the power play [against Russia]."
Gillies, a Calgary Flames prospect, had 20 saves Thursday. He had a good tournament, finishing 2-2 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .892 save percentage.
"It's not a good feeling, but I think it will make us better players," Gillies said.
However, Gillies failed to come close to matching the performance of John Gibson in the U.S. net last year en route to the gold medal in Russia. Gibson led all goalies with a 1.36 GAA and .955 save percentage, and was named tournament MVP.
"I thought [Gillies] did a good job," Lucia said. "They had some great shots and we made a couple of mistakes in front of him. The last two goals [by Zadorov] were off tremendous shots."
The U.S. has medaled in three of the past five WJC tournaments, including gold in 2010 and 2013 and bronze in 2011.