The United States continued its quest for a medal at the World Junior Championships on Wednesday morning, crushing the Czech Republic 7-0 in the quarterfinals and setting up a rematch with Canada. Johnny Gaudreau had a hat trick for the Americans, Riley Barber scored twice and John Gibson recorded the shutout behind 31 saves.
As is typically the case in international competition, the game was called extremely tight -- too tight, really -- and it was a penalty fest from the opening puck drop. That worked in Team USA's favor in the first period as the Americans had a brief 5-on-3 power play opportunity and Gaudreau -- or Johnny Hockey as NCAA/Boston College fans know him -- converted for his third goal in the past two games.
With another minor bleeding into the second, Gaudreau put home another goal, giving him back-to-back two-goal games after going pointless through the first three. He took a hard hit against the boards in the second and some were worried Gaudreau might have injured his shoulder but he came back and added the third goal for a hat trick in the closing seconds of the five-goal second period for the U.S. Very clearly one of America's top scoring threats is starting to round into shape and just in time.
The consistent special teams play was a theme but it wasn't just Gaudreau taking care of business. Barber got in on the action not once but twice. He scored USA's third power-play goal of the game for a 4-0 lead and then tallied his second score of the game with a breakaway goal on the penalty kill, leaving the goaltender twisted like a pretzel.
Obviously Barber gets the credit for the goals but Alex Galchenyuk, the U.S.' most dynamic offensive player, deserves plenty of love for his assist on Barber's power-play tally. He showed exactly why he was selected No. 3 overall by the Candiens last year by driving hard through the center of the zone and taking three Czech defenders with him while staying in control of the puck and sliding it over to Barber for the easy finish.
While all of the penalties can kill the flow of a game, it seems to play in the United States' favor. The special-teams units for the U.S. have been excellent thus far as the power play has been clicking at better than 25 percent -- including five power-play goals on Wednesday -- while the penalty kill has been tremendous and nearly impenetrable.
As has been the case in this tournament, the defense was once again terrific. While Jacob Trouba didn't keep his streak alive of scoring a goal in every game, he showed once again that he is a prime prospect for the Winnipeg Jets. On one of the Czech Republic's power plays in the opening period Trouba was everywhere, diving in front of shots and helping Gibson to look great again. That was in addition to being an offensive catalyst as he notched four assists.
Then there was Seth Jones, who played at the level that everybody has come to expect of a potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. Like Trouba he had four assists and was strong in his own zone, particularly in moving the puck up the ice. If you were wondering why the hype is so high on Jones after the first few games, this showing was exactly why. He was creative in the offensive zone, including a between-the-legs pass to help set up a goal, and slid in his own zone.
Wednesday's win was undoubtedly the Americans' best showing of the tournament so far. They have been playing excellent defense from the start but they started to add the offensive element to match the goaltending and defense. Jones said before the Juniors that he thought the USA was the team to beat and they are starting to show why he was so confident.
The Czechs aren't on the same level as the other elite teams in this tournament but they are definitely a formidable opponent at the least, evidenced by their second-place finish in Pool A, but the USA made them look like they're in the same class as Germany and Slovakia, two teams the USA toyed with. Clearly this team is getting better with each game.
It was a great bit of retribution for the United States, which ran into the Czech in last year's Junior tournament in Canada and lost to end up in the relegation round. Now this team will have a bigger shot at redemption against the Canadians. Team USA lost to Canada in the round robin by a 2-1 score, a tight game where Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban was fantastic.
Save of the game
While Gibson wasn't terribly busy on the day thanks to the skaters in front of him, he did have to do some work to keep the clean sheet. The highlight was this robbery of Sharks prospect Tomas Hertl's shot with a great glove save, leaving Hertl clearly frustrated. It was just that kind of game for the Czechs.
Russia survives scare from Swiss
In the other quarterfinal, Russia got all it could handle from the Swiss and a little more. The host Russians had the crowd chewing their fingernails, going into the final minutes trailing by a goal but got the equalizer from Nikita Kucherov and the game headed to overtime.
The 10-minute, 4-on-4 overtime couldn't settle anything so they headed to a shootout and still through three rounds, nothing was decided. So they alternated the order and swapped goals in Round 4 (Sabres prospect Mikhail Grigorenko scored for Russia) before Kucherov undressed Swiss goalie Melvin Nyffeler for what turned out to be the winner.
Switzerland bows out of the tournament without having suffered a loss in regulation, much like their team in the Olympics back in Vancouver. That Swiss team tied all three games and didn't advance.
Now Russia has a date with the only team from Pool A to reach the semifinals, the winner of the pool, Sweden.
In the relegation round, Finland had no problems with Germany in an 8-0 win. (IIHF)
The U.S. will get back at it again on Thursday in the wee hours of the morning back in North America. The rematch with Canada will face off at 4 a.m. ET.
H/t to C.J. Fogler (@cjzero) for the videos