Well, all the build up is finally over and the World Junior Championship has arrived. Team USA will meet Germany in its opening game at the World Juniors after a Day 1 bye. The Americans will look to set the tone for the rest of the tournament with this important early-tournament tilt. The game will air live on NHL Network, while also streaming live on NHL.com in the United States starting at 9 a.m. ET.
The first game of any tournament is important, but when you get a max of seven games that quick start is all the more meaningful. In the early stages of a tournament, it’s important for teams to gel quickly and get on the same page to establish some familiarity and consistency. There is only so much prep a team can do before games go live.
Playing in the incredibly tough Group B makes the Germany an almost-too-early must-win game. Wins will be tough to come by, so it is important to take advantage when playing a weaker opponent. Not only will the U.S. want to win, but win in regulation. With the IIHF on a three-point system, getting those three points would put the U.S. in an early tie with Canada for the top spot in the group and one point ahead of Russia before Friday’s match-up with the hosts.
It’s easy to look ahead to Friday’s big contest, but doing that against a German team that should be better than most expect them to be could be a costly mistake.
Coming up after the jump, the latest on Team USA, an in-depth look at Germany, some keys to the game and pertinent links.
Team USA Update
As of this writing, the U.S. National Junior Team’s roster still sat at 22 players, one shy of the full 23 allowed. It is sounding more like USA Hockey is planning to keep the defenseman spot open until after the Germany game to ensure that previously injured defenseman Connor Murphy is able to get through without issue.
Matt Grzelcyk and Patrick Sieloff remain in Ufa with Team USA, but neither has been named to the final roster yet. It is likely the U.S. would keep Grzelcyk if Murphy shows no ill effects, while if Murphy goes down, the likelihood of Sieloff making the team shoots up.
Until a player is rostered, he is not locked onto the team, so the U.S. is giving itself some added flexibility by not bringing in that seventh defenseman just yet. It’s an unfortunate situation fro Grzelcyk and Sieloff, but the U.S. had to give Murphy every opportunity to prove he could play with how important a role he could take on for the squad.
As a result, the U.S. is likely to go with six defensemen against the Germans.
USA Hockey had better hope none of the other defensemen end up injured or ejected with rostering only six D for the first game, but it’s a risk they have to be willing to run. These are the challenges a team can face in a tournament like this.
Germany is coming off a 9-3 shellacking at the hands of Canada, so the team could be limping into today’s contest. While that drubbing was expected by most on the outside, it can’t be easy to give up a nine spot in the first game back after getting promoted last year.
That said, the German team as a whole might be better than that scoreline would indicate. There’s some good talent on the squad up front, but it thins out on the blue line and in net.
The top line of Leon Draisaitl centering Tobias Rieder and Dominik Kahun has enough skill to put up some points and cause a little trouble even for the U.S. D. All three play in Canadian major junior and put up points for their respective teams. Germany has no problem loading up that top line and let them get going.
Nickolas Latta of the Sarnia Sting had a goal against Canada and can certainly provide some scoring, while Sebastian Uvira and Frederik Tiffels, who currently plays for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, each bring a good skill set up front.
Elmar Trautmann was in net for all nine goals and gave up a few real bad ones against Canada, which allowed that one to get away from Germany more than it probably should have. Don’t be surprised if they turn to Marvin Cupper, who was a star for Germany in the last two World Under-18 Championships and is in the middle of a lukewarm campaign in the QMJHL with the Shawinigan Cataractes, against the U.S.
On defense, Germany is led by captain Stephan Kronthaler, who has good two-way skills and a bunch of international experience. There’s also mammoth rearguard Oliver Mebus, who comes in at 6-9, 240. He’s 6-9, 240, you see, and decently mobile. Max Faber is also a strong defenseman who has seen some time in the German Elite League this year.
Here’s a look at the lines Germany went with against Canada (PDF).
About the Match-Up
The Germans are going to have a tough time matching Team USA’s speed and depth. The U.S. also has the capability to be the more physical team. If the Germans are going to keep this one close, they’ll need better goaltending and provide more pressure up front. They managed 28 shots on goal, which is respectable against Canada, but with Team USA’s ability to tighten up defensively, Germany will have to be opportunistic with its chances.
Team USA’s Grind Line of Cole Bardreau, Blake Pietila and Ryan Hartman should see a lot of time against Germany’s top unit. If that group can wear down Rieder and Draisaitl, it could be a long day for Germany offensively. Take away that top line and there’s not a lot of scoring depth to cover it up for Germany.
Offensively, the U.S. has to focus on utilizing its speed in transition and getting some sustained pressure in the German zone. The U.S. can comfortably roll all four lines throughout the game and get the players quite a few important reps.
Don’t expect this to be treated as a pre-tournament game though. The U.S. is well aware of how important a win against Germany is and shouldn’t approach the game much differently than it would any of its other games. Germany has just enough weapons to make you sweat a little bit and with the right game plan, they could catch the U.S. off guard.
A quick start and setting the physical tone will be huge for Team USA. As long as they dictate the pace of the game, the Germans won’t be able to keep up.
Projected Lineup for Team USA (Updated)
Here is today’s official lineup for Team USA, with numbers for your viewing assistance.
13 Gaudreau – 10 Miller – 23 Grimaldi
15 Galchenyuk – 7 Kuraly – 16 Barber
12 Lucia – 25 Trocheck – 22 Biggs
20 Pietila – 18 Bardreau – 21 Hartman
6 Reilly – 3 Jones
4 Gostisbehere – 8 Trouba
19 McCabe – 5 Murphy
Three Keys for Team USA
— Hit Early, Hit Often: Over the last two years, the U.S. didn’t have enough physicality to win the tight games. Setting the physical tone should always be a priority. It’s harder to be physical on the big ice, but out-working teams along the boards, applying pressure with the body on the forecheck and making forwards pay in open ice will help this U.S. squad win hockey games.
— Top Six Scoring: The U.S. needs to get its big guys going early. Team USA will want its top two scoring lines to get hot and stay hot. Getting production out of guys like Alex Galchenyuk, Rocco Grimaldi, John Gaudreau and J.T. Miller is going to be important. If you can’t get them going well enough against Germany, it will be that much harder against Russia and Canada.
— Draw Penalties: One of the big things faster teams can do is goad teams into those lazy stick penalties. The U.S. should be the much quicker team in this contest and getting some power plays and a chance to get the power play working a bit will be a big help in the first game of the tournament. Guys like Rocco Grimaldi and Cole Bardreau are so good at getting under opponents skin with their speed and tenacity, so getting themselves in those positions that forces the other teams to take penalties will be important. Special teams get so few opportunities to really click in live games. Forcing the Germans into the box a lot can help ease that transition heading into the meat of group play.
– Here’s a link to USA Hockey’s complete media notes for USA-Germany.
– The World Juniors started Wednesday in Ufa. For complete results, stats and other odds and ends, visit IIHF.com. Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland all opened the tournament with victories. Shocking, I know.
– The tournament also has a nifty event website set up to help follow along the action in fewer clicks.
– Alex Galchenyuk talks with IIHF.com about his choice to play for the country of his birth, despite having Russia as an option.
– Rocco Grimaldi discusses his eagerness to play in the World Juniors after missing out on the last two tournaments.
– SBNation is doing a good job of recapping the action at the World Juniors with all-around good guys Bruce Peter and Travis Hughes handling the duties. You can follow their coverage here.
– Y! Sports Canada’s Buzzing the Net Blog should be part of your daily reading anyway if you like junior hockey, but it becomes especially invaluable during the World Juniors. Just read everything on it.
– My pals and I are also going to be covering the tournament at the CBSSports.com Eye on Hockey Blog. Come check us out, won’t you? WJC coverage will start Dec. 27 with the U.S. opening play.
– I’m late on this, but Ryan Lambert penned a new holiday classic poem, “‘Twas the night ‘fore World Juniors” for The Sleeping Giant. Get back in the holiday spirit all over again.
– The IIHF has launched a smartphone app for 2013 and it’s awfully handy. Search “IIHF 2013″ to download.
– USA Hockey’s media guide for the tournament is now live and available for download here.
Come back to United States of Hockey after the game for a complete breakdown of USA vs. Germany. You can follow along during the game on Twitter: @chrismpeters