Starman: USA finds perfect formula to mine WJC gold
For the first time in this World Junior Championship, the United State came from behind to win a game and, in the process, won the gold medal with a 3-1 victory against Sweden on Saturday. For USA Hockey, it is the third gold medal in this event since 2004. The Americans have won three straight gold-medal games -- two against Canada (2004, 2010) and this one against Sweden. They beat Sweden in the 2011 bronze-medal game in Buffalo and in the semifinal game to advance to the gold-medal game in 2010 in Saskatoon. Doesn't it seem like yesterday when Bill Baker scored for Team USA in Lake Placid against Pelle Lindbergh to tie the Swedes and set "The Miracle On Ice" in motion?
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 last one. What he liked was the consistency of the American effort in all seven games they played. Their commitment to play away from the puck and the goaltending of John Gibson were the difference in his mind.
What happened: The United States won.
Team USA at the WJC in gold-medal games is becoming like the 49ers in Super Bowls or Islanders in Stanley Cup Final (just to name two of many that I could): When it gets there, it wins. The Americans are now 3-1 in the big game at the WJC.
The penalty kill to start the third period was the game. Sweden scores there and it's a whole new dynamic. The Swedes were young and fighting hard, but playing from behind is a tall hill to climb against a team that played so well defensively.
Other little plays that caught my eye as big moments in the long run were the power-play chance for Sweden with 13:30 left that hit a stick blade and went wide (that shot was labeled far corner). Sean Kuraly's defensive-zone faceoff victory with 7:20 left as the Swedes were starting to ramp it up. The denial of Sebastian Collberg with six minutes left was huge. To me that was the game right there.
What went right: Defensive-zone play and individual skills in the defensive zone. The fact that no team in the tourney could cycle against the Americans eliminated many quick low-to-high plays. Because of that, point men were not able to bomb away or get quick one-timers toward the American net. The other thing eliminated by busting cycle play is the opportunity for opposing forwards to get open behind point coverage for Grade-A chances. Both of these were factors. While John Gibson was outstanding, his team's play in front of him made his ability to be that good a little easier. That is what good teams do -- just ask the late 1970s Montreal Canadiens. Ken Dryden got them started, the Flying Frenchmen finished.
The bottom-six forwards were huge in two ways. They provided some offense, didn't get scored on, killed penalties, and provided some bang for their buck. The Grind Line (Blake Pietila-Cole Bardreau-Ryan Hartman) was like the third line on great Cup winning teams like the Troy Loney line in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, the Bobby Holik line in New Jersey in the mid 1990s and the Kirk Maltby line in Detroit through four Cups in Detroit. When your bottom-six forwards eat minutes and allow your top-six to be fresh through a war of attrition like the WJC, it is a huge advantage. Phil Housley had the luxury of rolling his entire roster and keeping legs fresh.
The American team defensively also was a factor. Good gaps, goaltending and big goals were huge. The Americans' mobility defensively kept teams to the outside because of how well the defenseman closed the blue line and forced puck-carriers wide. Backside pressure and the ability to eliminate the second wave of an attack also provided a security system against the odd-man rush. Credit the forwards for that, as well as assistant coach Grant Potulny, who ran that group.
There were two really good offensive defensemen the Americans left off the roster: Notre Dame's Robbie Russo and Boston University rookie Matt Grzelcyk (who played pretty well Friday night against RPI). Instead, the Americans took Patrick Sieloff as their seventh defenseman, and his shut-down ability -- along with that of Jake McCabe -- was huge. McCabe is another Wisconsin Badger who played outstanding in the WJC, following in the footsteps of John Ramage, Jake Gardiner, Cody Golubef (Canada) and Ryan McDonagh. No surprise there, and the coach at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves, won gold in Finland with Team USA in '04. His assistant while coaching many of those players? Mark Osiecki, who served as an assistant coach on this WJC team. See the link?
Finally, every guy on this roster probably is among the top two or three players on his team back home. The ability to accept a role on an all-star team that isn't the role normally played is paramount to success. One guy who isn't all-in ruins it. That didn't happen here. In 2004 Eaves talked to me about how David Booth of Michigan State and Greg Moore of Maine, who were two elite-level guys, who played valuable fourth-line roles. In 2010, Jason Zucker, AJ Jenks, Phil McCrae, Jeremy Morin, Ryan Bourque, Tyler Johnson and Luke Walker all bought into support and specialty roles and it worked.
Housley getting Jim Vesey on the big line with his size to complement J.T. Miller's game probably was the springboard to John Gaudreau exploding as that combo bought Gaudreau a ton of space. Housley has been praised by those on site for how he handled the team. His upbeat, positive attitude was a big factor. Like Dean Blais in 2010, he treated losses for what they were: isolated incidents and not back-breakers.
What went wrong: It might not have been their most effective offensive game, but who will remember that by next week?
Star of the game: Gibson. Once again made the saves he needed to make, no leakers, provided stability and leadership. Yes, Rocco Grimaldi scored twice and played inspired, but Gibson just made it happen. The Americans played a foot taller and 20 mph faster due to what Gibson provided.
Sleeper of the tourney: Cornell's Cole Bardreau. Top-notch penalty killer, good puck mover, unselfish play are hallmarks of his play. Sieloff, the defenseman, gets some mention here also.
What's next: The Evaluation Camp in August and a tremendous amount of flights to scout the elite American-born players in the '94, '95 and '96 age groups. Many of them are at the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and will fan out to the NCAA and Canadian Hockey League after this season.
Jim Johansson and Tim Taylor will take about a day off from this and start looking at the candidates to complement the returning players who will likely be at next year's tournament in Sweden. It's unlikely Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones are back. Many scouts believe those players will be playing in the NHL by next December.
Last word: Thanks to NHL.com for having me along for the ride. Thanks to those on Twitter (@DaveStarmanCBS) who followed along during all those early-morning games and interacted. Hope we generated some conversation that was informational, entertaining and analytical. I am heading back to NCAA hockey on TV next week as the push begins toward the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh in April. Pittsburgh is the home area of gold-medal winners J.T, Miller and John Gibson, who both told me that if the Penguins weren't so successful when they were kids that their dads might not have had them ever lace up skates. Imagine, a Canadian and a Czech -- Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr -- being the inspiration for a generation of American-born players in Pittsburgh winning gold medals on the international stage. Amazing stuff!