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Starman: USA hitting stride just in time for semis

by Dave Starman

The United States did its part to ensure a rematch with Canada in the World Junior Championship semifinals with a 7-0 pounding of an overmatched Czech Republic squad. The Americans will play their fourth game in five nights when they play Canada on Thursday (4 a.m. ET,, NHLN-USA, TSN). The winner plays for gold on Saturday, while the loser play for bronze. That schedule is reminiscent of the old best-of-five the NHL used to play in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the 1980's.

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 consistency in the American game and the way they took over the game and never looked back.

What happened: For the Czech Republic, it killed itself early and the Americans were more than happy to make the Czechs pay for it. The American power play was the story of the game. The 5-on-3 goal to open the scoring was off a deflected pass, the second goal by Gaudreau was a good play by him to regain his position on the back door after chasing a loose puck. Not works of art but power-play goals. The key was to score power-play goals when given the chance and not let the Czechs hang around. Mission accomplished. While the Czechs were not a great team, the United States saw a chance to go for the jugular and did so. You have to love that.

What went right: For the United States, here are three things the coaches will take away from this game.

The first was tenacity. The Americans were good being first on the puck, good at winning the 50/50 battles, good moving the puck, and really good away from it. They cared about playing good defense as a five-man unit. That set a tone; they basically established early to the Czechs that they were going to demand a price for puck possession. The Czechs showed up with empty wallets on that front.

The second was the aforementioned power play. The forwards were a factor on it where the defensemen looked to be more the motor of the man-advantage unit in the games against the Russians and Canadians. If the Americans can sell how dangerous their forwards are on the power play that should give Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones, Shayne Gostisbehere and others more room to operate and facilitate offense. That would be a huge advantage.

The third was John Gibson. While goaltending has not been an issue, Gibson continued to be solid. While not a major factor in the game, he made the two or three saves early that allowed his guys to get their legs underneath them, shake off any nerves they had, and get into their flow.

What went wrong: They failed to get to 10? Not sure anything went wrong. Alex Galchenyuk, expected to be an offensive catalyst, made a nice play or two but he has not been a big factor. He has to be Thursday.

Star of the game: You'd have to give it Gaudreau, but it could go to almost anyone. With all the bumps and bruises in the game, Dr. Phil Johnson and trainer Stan Wong could be candidates for the award for keeping guys on the ice. Riley Barber was solid and Vince Trocheck skated well.

Sleeper of the game: Patrick Sieloff. Pressed into more minutes, he was solid in his own end and the safety valve for Trouba to play his offensively expressive style of game. Rocco Grimaldi responded well to not playing against Slovakia when he was returned to active duty against the Czechs.

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What's next: A rested and confident Canada bunch. Canada's win against the host Russians was pretty dominant. That was a win that spoke volumes about the Canadian resolve. After an emotional win against the United States in which the Canadians expended every ounce of energy, they manned up and beat the Russians. It was a big win in a big rivalry game that proved the win against the Americans was not a fluke. Canada has the best line of the tourney and has been good in all areas. Malcom Subban was under fire after the first two games but has been a rock since.

The game against Canada exposed the American inability to get to hard areas and score against Canada. They know that and that issue has been addressed. That is a key Thursday. If the Americans doesn't get to the slot, doesn't make the Canadian defensemen play from poor defensive position and make the Canadian forwards drop down to help out, they could struggle to score again. Then again, they were happy with the chances they got against Subban and felt lack of finish was an issue, as well as the goalie's good play.

The United States is clicking as a defensive team, the power play has been fine, the penalty kill is solid and goaltending is as good as that of any team in the tourney. To me, the question is can the Americans score against an elite team? So far, the answer has been no. Canada has proven to be the elite team, beating two of the top three teams in the WJC in Russia and the United States.

One thing is different for the Americans heading to the medal round this year as opposed to 2010, when they also had to play the cross-over game to reach the semis. The Finland game for them was a struggle in Saskatoon. The Finns gave the Americans everything they could handle and for long stretches their high trap and neutral-zone play frustrated the Americans as they threw passes all over the place without much success. The United States kept at it, got timely goals and won the game, but they had to find another level to do it, which gave them a ton of confidence against the Swedes the next night.

I remember sitting with Coach Dean Blais the next morning at the hotel and him saying that the Swedes were almost an exact replica in style to the Finns, but were better offensively. He felt that if the Americans were forced to play against a trap-type style again they were better prepared and he was right on. The test given by Finland got their attention and they were really good against the Swedes. They pushed the pace early and often. They got to Jacob Markstrom early in that game and Mike Lee was brilliant for them in both the Finland and Sweden games.

The United States is battle tested, but doesn't have a win against a top opponent to show for it. Canada is battle tested with two wins. Might not mean much when the puck drops, but could mean something as the game goes on if Canada has a lead.

On the other hand, with the lack of travel involved, the team playing back-to-back nights probably has a better chance to get its game in gear faster than the team that had a day or rest. The equipment is still a little wet, you are still in the flow of the past game and the games tend to blend together. Plus with a little fatigue you think less and play more.

Looking ahead: For the United States to win this game, look for a couple of things. The first is to have the same compete level it had in the Canada and Russia games. Despite losses, the Americans played hard and matched the passion level of their opponents. That being said, they have to be a threat from the slot physically. Their big boys need to be physical and nasty and hard to play against in the dirty areas. The corners, half walls, and slot in both zones are the proverbial "high ground" that must be won in this game.

During the last Canada game I referred to the POP pass in some tweets. The POP pass, or Pass Off the Pads, is a tactic where the wide guy on the rush with no chance to score will fire one low off the goalie's far-side pad to create rebounds and scrums. It can also do it from bad angles. It will be something to watch off the lively pillows of Malcom Subban.

The Canadian have the best line in the tourney and probably the top four forwards. The Americans do not have last change. Knowing Mark Osiecki, who runs the defense, I am guessing he will not want to scramble in live play to get matchup changes. He likes flow and rhythm, as does Phil Housely. Both were defensemen and both know the mindset of defensemen playing with regularity. The right side of the American defense is Jones, Trouba, and Murphy who are all good-sized D (Trouba is the little guy at 6-foot-2). No matter what pair is out there they have size, mobility, and hockey sense.

This is unique in that once again the Russian crowd will be pro-USA. Normally in a United States-Canada WJC game in North America, the Canadians have home-ice advantage. They have last change, but not "home ice".

See you Thursday.

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