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Starman: Fast start delivers Americans shot at gold

by Dave Starman

The United States started early Thursday and never looked back as it crushed Canada, 5-1, to advance to the gold-medal game Saturday (8 a.m. ET,, NHLN-US). John Gaudreau, a late cut from the 2012 team, was a huge factor in this game, and John Gibson continued to make the saves he needed to at the right time. The Americans now play for gold, having won it last in 2010 in Saskatoon.

NHL Network analyst Dave Starman, who was the game analyst for the past four WJC's for NHL Network, watched the game and takes a look at this one. What he liked was the "go-for-the-jugular attitude" the Americans showed.

What Happened: For Canada, not much. When this game turned was early. The Americans scored first, which is huge for the team playing back-to-back nights. Then, with the first-period domination still to be determined at 1-0, Canada had a great five minutes and got nothing as goalie John Gibson closed the door. It allowed the Americans to regain the momentum they were building, and from then on they had the confidence, jam and passion to dominate the game.

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Date Time Matchup Replay
Thurs Jan. 3 4:00 AM *USA vs. CAN 5:30 PM
Thurs Jan. 3 8:00 AM RUS vs. SWE 8:00 PM
Sat Jan. 5 4:00 AM CAN vs. TBD 5:30 PM
Sat Jan 5 8:00 AM *USA vs. TBD 8:00 PM

The American top line, which I questioned because it hadn't really been a big factor against a big team, was on its game today, so I'll order a plate of crow on that one.

One of two things likely happened in the tourney with that line, which was reconstituted on the fly when Rocco Grimaldi was taken off it during the preliminary round. Either the coaches discussed the line not being good against the Russians and said, "We need to give this line more size" or J.T. Miller or John Gaudreau -- the two other players on that line -- went to either Phil Housley or Grant Potulny and said, "We need another style of player on the wing to complement what we have." It is as simple as that when these things happen. However it came about, it worked.

From a tactical standpoint, the American challenges were to handle Canada's energy level, win the battles in both slots, win 50/50 pucks, own the neutral zone, and get the defense involved to create coverage issues. They succeeded on all fronts. They played with discipline, stayed out of the box, scored on special teams, and got big saves.

The key was the second wave on the attack for which Canada had no answer. In short tourneys, defensive cohesion is the hardest thing to achieve. So, the more chaos you create with depth in the attack, the more you confuse a group of guys not used to playing with each other in a system they are adapting to as they go along. Phil Housley jokes that he'll never show his defensemen video of him playing as an instructional tool, his backliners have played much like he did. Seth Jones might be the best backchecking defenseman in the tourney.

What went right: The Americans acting like they have been there before has been evident. They have been as composed as any U.S. team I have seen at this tourney. They have carried themselves with an air of inner arrogance that you need to win.

As I alluded to before, scoring first in a big game is always huge. When that happens, especially at the younger levels, it increases the stress level of your opponent. The relentless pressure on the puck-carrier forced Canada into an uncomfortable style of play. Canada has been good fundamentally in four games, but in this one the puck-carrier needed a cell phone to make verbal contact with the nearest passing option. Canada played too wide and too long. The Americans were really good on the forecheck, and their third forward on the weak side did a nice job eliminating Canada from playing east-west and using the width of the rink.

The game looks like a lopsided one and it was, but don't underestimate Gibson in goal. He made big saves at momentum-changing times of the game (shorthanded, after goals, late in periods, and when Canada was carrying play) and that contributed to the Americans playing with the jam they did.

But the biggest factor, to me, was the American defense in both ends. It has been the backbone of the team in many ways.

What went wrong: Not much. You will give up some Grade-A chances in any game you play, and the Americans allowed a few Thursday. They did show some soft spots in the defensive zone and, at times, were caught looking at the puck as opposed to what was going on away from it. However, you would have to nitpick to really find a lot wrong on this day.

Star of the game: You could go many ways here, but when your captain scores the first two goals of a semifinal game, you couldn't be in better shape physically or, more importantly, emotionally. That was Mark Messier-type stuff out there. Jake McCabe gets the big star.

Sleeper of the game: Connor Murphy. Solid in his own end, great stick, eliminated offense before it happened. Bench management by Phil Housley, who had his team prepared, rolled his lines and stayed with the game plan of keeping his guys disciplined and focused, can't be overlooked. He turned an emotional game into a routine one, and that is no easy task at the WJC. I've seen the other side of that many times in this event.

What's next: The gold-medal game for the Americans against Sweden. We'll preview that Friday.

Looking ahead: Asked assistant coach Mark Osiecki about Friday. "Day off," he said, joking. The Americans need it. They have played six games in eight nights, which is a pro schedule. With eight major-junior guys in the lineup who are somewhat used to this type of schedule, it might give those players a chance to lead by example in how to turn your body around that quickly. The key for the rest of Thursday and throughout Friday is handling the players and keeping them on an even emotional keel. Dean Blais did a masterful job of this in 2010 and he had Osiecki at his side in that one, so there is some experience there.

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