|Johnny Gaudreau puts home the first of his two goals on the backhand. (AP)|
Team USA was left in the unenviable position of winning or being eliminated on Monday against Slovakia at the World Junior Championships and the Americans responded as well as could be hoped. USA jumped out to a 5-2 first-period lead and ran away for a big 9-3 win to avoid relegation for the second straight year.
After successive 2-1 losses to tournament favorites Russia and Canada, the Americans were facing a strong possibility of missing the medal round for another year. Despite a sloppy start that seemed fraught with nerves, they found the offense that had been missing the past two games in a big way. Much like the 8-goal performance in the opening game vs. Germany, the Americans balanced out the scoring including the first two of the tournament for John Gaudreau and the fourth in as many games for defenseman Jacob Trouba.
American coach Phil Housley took it upon himself to give the offense a jolt by shaking up the lines. The game started with one of America's top offensive players, Flames prospect Gaudreau, with Riley Barber and J.T. Miller but Housley very quickly put Jim Vesey with Miller and Gaudreau all while Rocco Grimaldi was left without a line. Grimaldi didn't play a single shift all game.
Gaudreau had the game we expected all tournament long and showed the form that he's been showing off as one of the NCAA's best players at Boston College. He had those two goals and helped Vincent Trocheck score his first two of the tournament. That combination of Gaudreau and Trocheck, while not on the same line, was clicking when together, namely on the power-play unit.
It all seemed to work for Housley, a Minnesota high school coach (and former NHLer, of course) on Monday.
Or possibly playing Slovakia was the cure for what ailed the U.S. offense.
After the United States got some shaky passing out of the way early -- one turnover high in the defensive zone led to a breakaway goal for Slovakia -- they began to pour it on the Slovaks, making the final two periods more or less a formality. Even still, the U.S. was more or less skating circles around the Slovaks for the rest of the game and they were never close to being in any real danger.
The good news (besides the obvious 9-3 win and quarterfinal berth)? There was a lot frankly, but one bit was that this Slovakian team is not Germany. Slovakia jumped out to a 3-1 lead on Canada earlier in this tournament before succumbing and actually pushed the Russians to overtime and, like the U.S., was playing for a spot in the quarterfinals. Maybe they were just out of gas or maybe the Americans can actually take something away from hanging an awfully crooked number on the Slovaks.
And much of it was done without nary a peep from Alex Galchenyuk, the No. 3 overall pick to the Canadiens in last summer's draft and the USA's most high-profile forward coming into the tournament. There is no denying he has some major ability and sizzle but he was so quiet you'd have thunk he was sitting with Grimaldi on the pine all game. Galchenyuk did get on the scoring sheet with a secondary assist on Trouba's power-play goal and then scored on a 5-on-3 power play in the closing minutes but was relatively as quiet as a mouse.
The question is whether that's a positive development for the U.S. or not. Where the U.S. was going to get offense in this tournament was the question coming in and one that really hadn't been answered despite the 8-0 win over Germany -- keep it in the context that Germany is pretty awful. The fact that the Americans opened up the flood gates without much from Galchenyuk could be good but at the same time you need your best players to be at their best. The USA still has to show it can score against the better teams in this tournament and that's where a guy like Galchenyuk with superior offensive skills fits in.
We're nit-picking some as Galchenyuk is still USA's leading scorer. But if the U.S. wants to keep going they will need everybody to be at their best. Galchenyuk can make plays happen when he's on his game and that form is needed from here on out.
On the other end of the ice the defense wasn't too busy and John Gibson wasn't as sharp as he has been in other games, but it didn't matter much. Still Housley's defensive pairing moves -- which came about in the middle of the Canada game -- deserve praise, too.
Housley has gotten a lot of flak throughout the tournament for player usage, but the adjustments made to D pairs should be lauded #2013WJC— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) December 31, 2012
Minus a defensive lapse here and there, the defense hasn't been a big problem and in fact they have been contributing substantially on offense. On Monday they were aggressive, hopping up into the offensive zone and netting some scores for the U.S. That's something the likely won't be able to get away with against the better teams.
The Americans turned in the performance they needed and then some and kept their hopes alive with a huge showing. Next up as the third team to make it out of Pool B, the Americans will face the No. 2 team from Pool A, the Czech Republic, on Wednesday.
Gostisbehere gets game misconduct
One of the very few lowlights for the U.S. was Shayne Gostisbehere's game misconduct for this slash in the first period. It should have been a spear but whatever, the call was the same; a 5-minute major and banishment to the locker room.
Canada takes out Russia
In the round-robin finale, Canada and Russia, the two heavyweights in Pool B faced off for the top spot in the pool and bye that comes with it in the semifinals. Canada took it over the hose team with a 4-1 win in which they controlled the game from near start to finish.
An early major penalty against Russia gave Canada a five-minute power play and the Canadians turned that into two goals, one from the Bruins' Dougie Hamilton and the other from the Jets' Mark Scheifele. From there the Canadians held firm control of the play and built up the lead to the eventual final of 4-1.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continued his great tournament by assisting on the first three goals for Canada in the game. That brings his four-game point total to 10, the leader in the tournament. So for that reason I suppose Canadians can be happy about the lockout (ha!).
The Canadian win finalized the quarterfinal matchups as follows:
United States vs. Czech Republic
Switzerland vs. Russia
In the semifinals it will be:
USA/CZE vs. Canada
SUI/RUS vs. Sweden
Here are the standings after round robin games. The top three teams in each pool advance to the next round while the bottom two head to the relegation games.
|Pool A standings|
|Team||Games||Wins||OT Wins||OT Losses||Losses||Points|
|Pool B standings|
|Team||Games||Wins||OT Wins||OT Losses||Losses||Points|
• In the first game of the day, Switzerland kept its hopes for the quarterfinals alive by taking the Czech Republic to overtime before losing, 4-3. It was the Swiss' third OT loss of the tournament. (IIHF)
• A little later they learned their hopes were realized when Sweden defeated Finland 7-4. In the process the Swedes won the pool and take the quarterfinal bye while Finland has the shocking visit to the relegation round coming. (IIHF)
• Monday's schedule finishes with two big games as Finland faces Sweden needing at least one point to advance to the quarterfinals while powers Canada and Russia will battle it out for the top spot in Pool B and the quarterfinal bye that comes with it.