-- Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, pointed to one area of concern when assessing Team USA's disappointing finish in pool play at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"Player performance," Johannson told NHL.com.
The U.S. National Junior Team entered the WJC with its usual high expectations, and instead failed to advance into the medal round of the tournament for the first time in 13 years. Three successive losses in preliminary-round action forced the United States into the relegation round for only the second time in its history. The only thing at stake now is pride along with, at best, a possible seventh-place finish.
"I think as we finish this tournament and look at it, it comes down to the fact the performance wasn't what all of us expected," Johannson said. "Do we have to look at some of the makeup of the team? Certainly. But it comes down to performance on the ice and we didn't get that performance."
"I think as we finish this tournament and look at it, it comes down to the fact the performance wasn't what all of us expected. Do we have to look at some of the makeup of the team? Certainly. But it comes down to performance on the ice and we didn't get that performance." -- Jim Johannson
Johannson, who served as general manager of the U.S. team, offered what he considered to be the problematic areas for the club, particularly in a 4-1 loss to Finland on Wednesday.
"I'd say probably both fronts of the net … I don't know how I could better describe it," he said. "I think we could have been a better team in front of the opponent's net and I think we could have been a harder team in front of our net. I think those two areas on the ice ended up being difference makers in the games that knocked us out of the tournament."
U.S. team captain Jason Zucker
"We, the forwards, weren't hard enough around the net," Zucker told NHL.com. "We didn't put the puck in the net when we had our opportunities. We had a breakaway against Canada and a penalty shot against the Czechs … we had our chances and didn't bury, myself included."
Forward Charlie Coyle
was the only U.S. player to top 2 goals in preliminary-round play, finishing with 4. Three players had 2 goals -- Kyle Rau
, Zucker and Bill Arnold
. The seven-man defensive corps, which averaged 6-foot-2 in height, allowed 15 goals in four games.
The U.S. actually had seven returning players from last year's bronze medal-winning team.
Blais, who led Team USA to its second gold medal at the WJC in 2010, said his team's loss to the Finns was the one game that really didn't sit well with him.
"It's hard to figure out why half of our players against Finland were sub-par," U.S. head coach Dean Blais said. "We weren't even close to their game. Why did that happen? Maybe they saw the 8-1 score that Canada posted against Finland. Whatever the reason, we weren't physically or mentally prepared for that game, and that can't happen. These kids are too old, they know better."
Finland outshot the U.S. in the third period, 18-15, on the way to scoring three goals in a span of just under six minutes to snap a 1-1 tie.
"We cycled the puck, but if you don't get position in front of the net and get into those hard areas, it doesn't matter," Blais said. "We were OK, but weren't great at it. We were better against the Czechs and Canada. It's something we worked on every day, but when you throw a bunch of skilled players together, who is going to do the hard work for you? You all want to be the finisher, but someone's got to go get the puck and make plays. That's what we began showing against the Czechs and Canada."
Ron DeGregorio, the president of USA Hockey, is hoping the team can now close out the relegation round with victories over Latvia on Tuesday and Switzerland on Wednesday. NHL.com will be streaming both U.S. relegation round games.
"Every game is a test of your ability and you're always being tested, always being looked at," DeGregorio said. "This is an opportunity, under adversity, to show your character and show what you've learned you can deliver. That's the test of a high-skill performance player, because nothing in life goes in a straight line."
Beginning in 1996, the International Ice Hockey Federation altered its format for the WJC from a round robin to a playoff structure. Since then, Team USA has played in the relegation round only once (1999). The U.S. won both of its games in the relegation round that year, including a 5-4 victory over Switzerland on Jan. 3, 1999, and a 7-2 win over Belarus the following day. Team USA went on to finish eighth, its lowest finish ever in tournament history.
Blais expects the team to play with pride.
"As bad as the losses were to Finland, Czechs and Canada, a loss to Latvia or Switzerland would be far worse in my mind," Blais said. "It would show that you've given up. We can still get beat, but it better not be for a lack of hard work and intensity."
Despite the disappointing result at this year's tournament, Johannson is confident USA Hockey will rebound rather quickly.
"We have great respect for the opponents [at the WJC], but we do come in expecting to medal," Johannson said. "With that comes all the sweat and the grind and everything that goes into building a championship team. I guarantee you the 22 guys who were here wanted to be a championship team, but it didn't work out for them. Again, and I'll keep stressing, there are some performance things … they could've performed better. It's an Under-20 tournament, these things happen, and that's part of the excitement of this championship."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale