Welp. If you’re a Team USA fan, your heart is a little heavy right now. The U.S. National Junior Team lost another shocker, this time to the Czech Republic, 5-2. Despite a better effort than it showed against Finland, the U.S. now faces the stunning reality that it likely has to play in the relegation round, as opposed to competing for a medal.
The only way the U.S. can get to the medal round is with two Finland losses or a Finland OT win and loss, combined with a U.S. win over Canada. If Finland defeats Denmark in regulation tonight, as anyone who’s been watching expects they will (as of this writing it’s 3-0 Finland), Team USA’s fate will be decided. Relegation round bound.
Coming up after the jump, a look at what happened and what this loss means overall.
In looking back at the 5-2 loss to the Czech Republic, one thing is abundantly clear. This is a team loss. You really can’t pinpoint one particular weakness as a reason the U.S. lost the game.
First off, you have to credit the Czech Republic, and in particular the brilliant goaltending of Petr Mrazek, who made 52 saves. Mrazek just may have stole this one away from the Americans. At the very least he took away momentum from the U.S. in key moments and kept his team confident. He made some huge saves and gave his team a huge boost when he gave Josh Archibald next to nothing to shoot at in a third-period penalty shot. On the ensuing shift, Mrazek stuffed several of Team USA’s best opportunities of the game. From then on, the upset was in the air. The Czechs capitalized on mistakes, just as the Finns did and made the U.S. pay.
The U.S. had to battle some attrition throughout the game, as Derek Forbort went down early in the contest and did not return. Dean Blais also revealed after the game that Charlie Coyle was sick, which explains why the forward barely saw the ice in the second and third periods. Still, there’s no excuses. The U.S. lacked depth, but still had the ability to overcome such difficulty.
As good as the Czechs played, you have to look up and down the U.S. lineup at the names on that roster and say to yourself, how did this team lose two of its first three games at the World Junior Championship?
There are a few simple reasons. Committing costly turnovers is a big one, particularly in the defensive zone. Another is lack of execution.
Dean Blais talked about the importance of getting bodies to the net and being aggressive on the forecheck. The U.S. accomplished the former in parts of the game, but utterly failed at the latter. In both of Team USA’s losses, the forecheck was seemingly non-existent. Without sustained pressure, the U.S. found itself on its heels as soon as it got into the offensive zone.
Both of Team USA’s goals came on the power play, but when you consider how much PP time the U.S. got, those two goals don’t sound all that great. Two goals in 14:33 of power-play time in a must-win game isn’t going to cut it. Not against most teams, at least, and especially not against a team with a good goaltender.
The U.S. took 93 shots in its last two games and scored a total of three goals. While the high shot total would lead one to believe that the U.S. was getting good chances, it really wasn’t the case in the last two days. Granted, the U.S. had better chances against the Czechs, but there still wasn’t an established net-front presence. Without that, Team USA, with all of it’s incredibly gifted forwards accomplished little offensively.
There’s really not much left to say about the game. The U.S. had an opportunity to bounce back from the tough loss to Finland and, while it answered with a better effort, that still wasn’t good enough.
I don’t think the players quit, by any means, but without much urgency in the early goings, the U.S. was never able to take control and when the game was taken away by the Czechs, there just wasn’t enough of a response.
It is completely fair for anyone to say this is one of the most disappointing pair of losses in U.S. World Junior history. With a team of this caliber, the result is almost unthinkable. No one, and I mean no one, figured the U.S. would be out of the medal race coming into the tournament. In fact, this is the first time since 1999 the U.S. is outside of the medal round (assuming Finland beats Denmark tonight).
With seven returning players, the returning coach from the 2010 gold-medal team, 20 drafted players on the roster, medals in each of the last two years and a group from one of the deepest birth classes the U.S. has produced, the only think left to do is shake your head and say, “Did that just really happen?”
The words embarrassing, humbling, humiliating all come to mind. Those terms might describe the way the players and staff feel right now. It’s certainly an overwhelming dissappointment for an organization that has built its U.S. National Junior program into an annual contender. This is a significant and confidence-shattering setback. With a group that was this good, how did this happen? That is the question that USA Hockey has to answer. It’ll be a difficult answer to come by.
The U.S. is only two years removed from sweeping each of the Under-20 tournaments (U17 Challenge, U18 World Championship, World Juniors) and now stares the relegation round in the face. How does one explain that? One doesn’t.
This result for the U.S. is going to get analyzed and picked apart for the next year. The selections made for the team will be second-guessed. However, I honestly don’t feel the selections were poor. You look at the roster and you say, this is a team that has a good mix of talent. Certainly enough to contend. Lack of depth on the blue line wasn’t going to get fixed by anyone outside of the roster. The forwards brought in appeared to have exactly what Blais was looking for in spades. Speed, skill and proficiency.
When USA Hockey goes back to the drawing board, and I’m guessing that will begin the second the tournament ends, there has to be a long look at what happened. Where it goes from here and how this can be prevented in the future.
I think it would be wrong to make sweeping criticisms of the organizational structure. These last two losses don’t feel like they were losses due to developmental ideologies or a problem with “the system.” Today’s loss in particular was a perfect storm of a motivated opponent, bad luck and a failure to respond when the chips were down. I don’t see how that’s a product of the American development system. It sounds more to me like a bad day at the rink.
Looking ahead, the U.S. still has a date with Canada Saturday. A game that likely has little meaning in the standings (though Team USA’s points from the prelim round do carry over to the relegation round), the tilt against Canada just became Team USA’s championship game. The one chance to take something positive out of the tournament.
Captain Jason Zucker has vowed to beat Canada Saturday. For a team with nothing to lose, all there is to gain is something to look back at the tournament and say, well it wasn’t ALL bad.
I’ll have a preview of that contest tomorrow morning.
If there’s one thing at all to be learned, nothing is decided until the final horn blows and nothing can be taken for granted. The U.S., on paper, was better than Finland and the Czech Republic. Easily favored in both contests. Didn’t matter. The team that played the hardest and made the most of its opportunities won both times. Funny how that works.
There isn’t a coach or a program in the world that can develop competitiveness. That is a skill or mentality that can only be found within in each player by each player. If there was an area where the U.S. fell short, it was finding that compete level to push back against a highly-competitive opponent. And because of that, Team USA can only say to itself, “What if?”
U17 Challenge Update
The news doesn’t get much better for USA Hockey. The U.S. National Under-17 Team fell to Russia today, 3-2, in its second preliminary-round game at the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Russia got out to an early lead and the U.S. ended up playing from behind the entire game. Evan Allen scored his third goal of the tournament for the U.S. and Hudson Fasching added another in a third-period-comeback effort. It just wasn’t enough.
The U.S. has Saturday off, but will be back in action in a must-win game against Canada-West on New Year’s Day at 7 p.m. EST
Unlike the World Juniors, only two teams from each group advance to the medal round at the Challenge. The top two teams from each group cross over to play the second place teams from the opposite group in a semifinal. After that, it’s onto the medal games.
Team USA likely has to win its next two games to be part of that semifinal as the U.S. looks for its sixth medal in eight years.
FASTHockey is covering the entire World U17 Challenge. All you have to do is register for a free account at FASTHockey.com and you can watch every game of the tournament.
Coming up tomorrow on USofH, a USA-CAN preview and perhaps more analysis on what went wrong for the U.S. National Junior Team at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.
As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and I’ll still be answering questions on Twitter for the duration of the tournament.