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Starman: Americans show flashes, but must be better

by Dave Starman

In its second game of the World Junior Championship, the United States dropped a 2-1 decision to host Russia in Group B pool play Friday. The Americans never led in the game and lost on a rebound goal by Vladimir Tkachyov at 4:10 of the third period.

The Americans are 1-1 and have three points as they wait to play Canada on Sunday. The Russians have five points from two games and play Germany on Saturday.

NHL Network analyst Dave Starman checks in with his look at the game from the viewpoint of Team USA. He will do so after each game played by the United States in the tournament.

What Happened: In the first meeting between the United States and Russia since the 2008 World Junior Championship, Russia scored a crucial go-ahead goal off an end-to-end rush to take a 2-1 lead. The United States played better than the one-goal loss might indicate, with the difference in the game being Russian goalie Andrei Makarov. Like he did against Canada last year in the semifinals, Makarov bailed out teammates who were careless with the puck in the final 40 minutes of the game. The Russians were terrific on a late penalty kill as they played the final 90 seconds down a man. In the last minute, the Americans pulled their goalie for a 6-on-4 advantage. Early penalty trouble hurt the United States and prevented them from getting any momentum or rhythm. More importantly, while shorthanded, a good chunk of American players didn't see the minutes they needed to get into an early flow.

What went right: A lot. The Americans put up double digits in shots on goal in all three periods, impressive since they were shorthanded most of the first period. Shots on goal don't mean great scoring chances, but the fact that rubber was heading toward the Russian goal is better than the alternative. The defense had 15 shots alone, which showed its ability to get shots through and create chances. In this day and age of shot blocking (which the Russians showed a somewhat unconventional style of doing), that is a good effort by the Americans. The pair of Jacob Trouba (goal) and Shayne Gostisbehere had eight between them.

The line of Blake Pietila, Cole Bardeau and Ryan Hartman was really good. Hartman showed great ability to find open spaces, get his stick available and hit the holes with the proper timing. Pietila, with a deflected pass as the weak side forward on the penalty kill, might have made the defensive play of the game. With a Russian forward waiting alone for a back door tip in, Pietila read the play and jumped to the hot spot to break it up. Tremendous read proves again that the old adage of head-on-a-swivel really works. The fact that they, as a "third line," were as good as they were is something that leads you to believe this team can be successful. When depth plays well, it creates matchup issues for opponents.

Rocco Grimaldi was solid; his ability to control the puck allows him to extend plays and make shifts he plays dangerous. That line will be vital against Canada as they need to score. Patrick Sieloff was solid 1-on-1, and I thought Seth Jones was as good as he could have been. Goalie John Gibson was solid even though he took a penalty.

What went wrong: Penalty trouble and lack of finish. The beauty of teams like the United States, Canada and Finland is they play with a ton of emotion and play with an edge. Early on, it hurt the Americans. Grimaldi took an offensive-zone penalty, Gibson took a penalty, the United States had a too-many-men infraction called, and Trouba took an interference penalty. That was just in the first 17 minutes. The Americans allowed a power-play goal which pinballed into the net, but they lost the draw that led to it. First clears and won draws are vital on a penalty kill, and draws in IIHF play are more unique since all you can use is arms and/or stick. You can't use your feet or body, which is the norm in North American hockey.

Net presence was good, but it needs to be better. The Americans are more scoring challenged than previous entries they have sent to the WJC, so scrambles and greasy goals could be the difference between a medal and relegation.

Star of the game: Personally, I though Gibson was terrific. Gostisbehere was solid. Hartman was solid. Jones was also very good. Gibson probably would have gotten my No. 1 star.

Sleeper of the game: Pietila. Finished hits, played hard, had a couple of shots, was responsible in all three zones.

What's Next: Jack Parker of Boston University likes to tell the story that on weeks they are playing Boston College, all he has to say to his team to motivate them is "BC." For U.S. coach Phil Housley, he needs to say one word: "Canada."

"We'll need to keep our heads up. It will not be hard to look ahead to the next game. We'll need to be able to manage our emotions as a team," assistant coach Mark Osiecki emailed me after the Russia game.

That is very true on many levels.

This game, to me, is do-or-die. I have called five of these games between the United States and Canada at the past four WJC's and two things are common threads: Emotion is sky-high, and the team that handles it better usually wins. The other is momentum changes. Both teams have shown an ability to come back on the other. That means that momentum changes have had huge effects on these games and, at times, haven't been handled well by the players in the heat of battle.

Last year, in a game that meant nothing for the United States as they were out of medal-round contention, they were down 3-0 and fought back to 3-2 late and, if the third period was another 20 seconds longer, could have tied it. In '09 the United States was up 3-0 and lost 8-5. Saskatoon saw Canada erase two-goal leads in the waning moments in two separate games, winning one in a shootout and losing the other in OT on a goal by John Carlson.

Why do-or-die? The United States is 1-1. If it loses to Canada it 1-2, while Canada would be 3-0, and the Russians also probably 3-0 after their next game against Germany. That leaves the Americans with a must-win game against the Slovaks, and those are tricky. The Slovaks get the Germans next after an OT loss to Russia and a loss today to Canada in a game they led 2-0 and 3-1 midway through before Canada came alive. Looking ahead to Dec 31, in the past four years the United States is 1-3 on New Year's Eve, losing three times to Canada and beating the Swiss ('11 in Buffalo).

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