There was good news and bad news coming out the U.S. Men’s National Team’s game against Belarus Thursday. The good news was that the U.S. won, 5-3. The bad news was, Team USA is still struggling to play a complete game. Regardless, the U.S. earned a crucial three points in the standings and for now sits third in the Helsinki group with a 2-1-0-1 record.
One has to wonder if the result would have been any different if Andrei Mezin didn’t start in net for Belarus. Team USA chased the three-time Olympic netminder after two somewhat weak goals, leading to Vitali Koval taking over before the halfway point of the first period. The head start certainly helped the U.S.
Belarus ended up erasing the two-goal deficit with a pair of goals that were direct results of defensive breakdowns in front of Jimmy Howard. The U.S. recovered however, taking a 3-2 lead heading into the third period thanks to a late goal by Nate Thompson.
Team USA’s top line finally got it going in the third period with a pair of goals and the U.S. was able to get out with a 5-3 victory.
Coming up after the jump, a closer look at Team USA’s 5-3 win over Belarus and find out the USofH pick for player of the game.
The U.S. got off to a much better start Thursday, something it struggled to do Monday against Slovakia. However, as the U.S. appeared to begin to pull away, it seemed that the intensity level dropped.
Despite out-shooting Belarus 14-4 in the first period, the U.S. went into the locker room with just a 2-1 lead.
Belarus then became the first team to score a power-play goal on Team USA at the World Championship to tie the game 2-2 in the second.
The goal came while Jack Johnson sat in the box with a 10-minute misconduct for making contact with Mikhail Grabovski’s head.
The U.S. defense is noticeably different without Johnson. Losing significant minutes from the team captain while he sat in the box made things a lot more difficult. The U.S. has a lot of great puck movers on the back end, and Johnson is one of them, but he’s also one of the better actual defenders. His time in the sin bin exposed the relative lack of depth on Team USA’s blue line in terms of defensive play.
Another area of concern, is the offense, which started the tournament off with 12 goals through the first two games. After a five-goal game, you wouldn’t think it would be a concern, but considering three of those goals came via fluke circumstances, there is still concern about what might happen against a more sound defensive team.
The good news, however, is that despite a relatively ineffective first two periods, Team USA’s first line of Paul Stastny, Bobby Ryan and Max Pacioretty got going with a pair of goals in the third (Stastny and Ryan). They started to look more like the line that was buzzing in the first two games, which is exactly what Team USA needs them to be in its final three preliminary round tilts.
Jimmy Howard’s numbers in net aren’t exactly attractive (.896 save percentage), but I have a hard time hanging most of the goals he’s given up on him. Defensive breakdowns in front led to easy looks from Belarus. Blown assignments and lack of awareness by some of the blue liners on those first two goals were of the unforgivable variety.
That has continued to be a bugaboo for Team USA. Inconsistent play in the U.S. end has led to opportunistic scoring from its opponents. Mistakes like the ones the American defenders have been making can’t continue to haunt the team going forward, especially with a pair of tough opponents on the horizon.
The U.S. will meet Kazakhstan Friday at 9:15 a.m. EDT on NBC Sports Network. The Kazakhs have yet to win a game and shouldn’t be much of a match for Team USA. That said, with enough things to work on heading into the back end of the preliminary round, it’s an important game.
U.S. Player of the Game
With a goal and an assist, Justin Abdelkader was named Team USA’s player of the game at the tournament, and also right here on USofH. It isn’t actually his point production why he gets the nod on the blog today, however.
Up until this game, Team USA’s third line has been essentially a non-factor offensively. They’ve generated some chances in previous games, but were actually able to contribute in a big way.
Abdelkader was a big reason for that line’s success against Belarus. He’s been playing with speed all tournament, but showed good grit and some skill to go along with his good wheels Thursday.
As a result, Scott Gordon was able to use his third line a lot more against Belarus, which was entirely necessary due to the slow starts from lines one and two. Being able to get contributions from depth players is incredibly important at this stage of the tournament.
Here’s the official game sheet from Thursday’s tilt.
Max Pacioretty picked up two more assists to extend his team point lead to seven (1g-6a). Paul Stastny is second with five points (2g-3a). Justin Faulk (1-3–4) and Jack Johnson (3-1–4) lead blueliners with four points each. Team USA’s full stats through four games.
IIHF.com puts out power rankings after each day and make attempts to be funny. Often aren’t, but sometimes are (like Italy in this one).
Team USA’s national team blog reveals that Craig Smith will arrive in Finland Friday morning and may be available for the game against Kazakhstan.
Expect a full USA-Kazakhstan preview later Thursday on USofH.