The U.S. began the 2011 World Junior Championship the same way it ended last year’s, with an overtime game winner. It’s not how you draw it up, but when you play a tough opponent like Finland, you’ll take it.
I was not in the least surprised in the way the game went. I know there were some that thought the U.S. would blow the barn doors off of the Finns, but anyone that’s seen international hockey before knows that this was a stereotypical Finnish-style game.
The Finns are known for their ability to grind out their opponents and in some cases outwork the other team. They are opportunistic as well. When they get a chance, they take advantage in most cases. They did twice last night, and that was enough to force overtime. They could have just as easily won, but Jack Campbell was solid.
In the end, it was Nick Bjugstad who threw the puck on net and it just happened to go in. It’s a shame the game ended that way for Joni Ortio, who was absolutely stellar between the pipes for Finland. I mean, honestly, this kid was real good.
Team USA’s regulation goals came from Justin Faulk with a blast from the point on the power play and Jason Zucker, who’s goal can be classified as a snipe. I don’t think I’m going out on a ledge there. Ortio really didn’t have a chance at either. You can’t blame him for letting those in. Both goals were perfectly placed. That’s the kind of night it was for the U.S. Everything had to be spot on. Ortio was brilliant until the last shot. Take nothing away from Bjugstad though, he scored when it counted and I thought he played well throughout the game. Good things happen when you put the puck on net (Let’s hear it for cliches!)
Finland’s goals were both a bit soft. I mentioned on Twitter that Jack Campbell’s favorite goalie is Marty Turco. Campbell, like his goaltending idol, loves to play the puck and can occasionally be guilty of doing a little too much with it. That’s pretty much what happened on the first goal. Campbell put himself in a position that wasn’t ideal, and it resulted in a turnover and an open whack at the net. The second goal was a rebound that you’ll usually see Campbell control, but it was just tiny little nudge the wrong direction that led to the game-tying marker. I think Campbell would like to have that one back, but that was one of those bounces that just happen sometimes.
Team USA can be happy to get out of this game with an overtime win. It is important to stress the fact that this was an OTW and not regulation. In IIHF play, a regulation win gets you three points, while an OT win nabs you two. Therefore, Switzerland is the first-place team heading into tomorrow. Finland walks away with one point for the OTL. Every point counts.
As Keith Allain alluded to in his post-game interview with Fred Pletsch on NHL Network, this team found a way to win even when they weren’t at their best. It was evident that Team USA could have played better, but it wasn’t like they played poorly. There are high expectations for this team, and I think its entirely fair to expect more out of them.
The thing that struck me the most coming out of this game was that Team USA did not really assert itself physically. They played the body, went hard into the corners, but the U.S. didn’t outmuscle the Finns often. They didn’t out-grind the Finns along the wall as much as I thought they could have. I think Finland will be the most physical of Team USA’s Group A opponents, so its a good test early. With the size and strength on the U.S. team, there’s no reason any of these opponents should be outmuscling them.
I give a ton of credit to the coaching staff’s for both teams. Finland really had a great game plan going in. They took away passing lanes in the neutral zone and really clogged the middle of the ice, especially in the D-zone. Team USA didn’t get too many great looks at Ortio from the perimeter. Meanwhile, the U.S. stayed the course with its game plan and didn’t let Finland force them to play outside of their game.
That said, Team USA was very quick in transition, which is hugely important at the WJC. Team USA went from offense to defense seamlessly at times. Kyle Palmieri had two brilliant chances in tight and Zucker had a mini-breakaway chance as a result of getting the puck up ice quickly. They found ways to get behind the defense, but Ortio was rock solid in those situations. That’s all you can ask for against a team of this caliber.
Finland is going to give someone fits in the medal round. That’s for sure.
One last thought: As I watched the game, I had a hard time figuring out what this team was. What is this team’s identity? What is their style? Maybe they don’t need one. Maybe we shouldn’t expect them to be in a certain mold. The players played hard, they got the win. That’s all that matters tonight.
U.S. Player of the Game:
Jack Campbell was named the official player of the game and I can’t argue with that. He made 32 saves in a hotly contest match-up. The two goals he gave up are ones you won’t see often from him, but he was so solid throughout. He bounced back well, shaking off the goals and sticking to his game. Good goaltending will take you far in this tournament and Campbell proved to his mates tonight that he is up to the challenge.
Additionally, I don’t think any one U.S. skater stood out for me. There were flashes from many players. Jason Zucker looked good, scoring a goal and showing off his speed. Kyle Palmieri created chances out there and looked like a seasoned veteran. Jeremy Morin had a goal taken away because a millimeter of Bjugstad’s skate was in the crease, and was a threat offensively. In the end, Campbell was the difference maker for his team tonight. He gets the nod.
Team USA will get a day off today to regroup a little bit and get a good look at video. I’m sure there are a lot of teaching points that the coaches will be able to get out of the film.
The U.S. coaches have continually said that they want this group to improve in every game. I expect you’ll see an improved U.S. team against Slovakia on Tuesday night.
UPDATE: Sounds like everyone is awaiting the official word from USA Hockey regarding Jeremy Morin. TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported last night that Morin may have suffered a serious shoulder injury in last night’s game. Media in Buffalo will likely get a status update during or after Team USA’s 1 p.m. EST practice. We’ll have reaction later this afternoon after the news breaks.