After suffering through back-to-back disappointing 2-1 losses to its two biggest rivals, the U.S. National Junior Team’s medal hopes are still alive in Monday’s match-up with Slovakia. Both teams have three points in the standings currently, meaning the winner of Monday’s game will advance to the medal round and meet the second-place finisher from Group A in the quarterfinals. The loser heads to the relegation round. USA-Slovakia will air live on NHL Network and live stream on NHL.com starting at 5 a.m. ET in the United States.
With the stakes as high as they are for both teams on Monday, there’s no time for dwelling on what could have been against Russia and Canada. Slovakia may be weaker on paper than both of the previous two opponents, but is not to be taken lightly.
Team USA truly controls its own destiny and that’s about all you could ask for at this point in the Group of Death. Considering the competition, leaving group play with a 2-0-0-2 record isn’t the worst result. Getting to the medal round wipes the slate clean. Medals can’t be won in group play, but they absolutely can be lost.
Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at Team USA coming out of the 2-1 loss to Canada, thoughts on Slovakia, potential line juggling and the three keys to the game for the U.S.
Team USA Update
After two losses in which the U.S. was only able to muster a goal, neither of which came off the stick of a forward, there is sweeping concern about this team’s ability up front. Jacob Trouba, Team USA’s strong two-way defender has both goals in the last two games, which is fine if you didn’t have Alex Galchenyuk, Johnny Gaudreau, J.T. Miller and Rocco Grimaldi in your top six. Because you do have those guys, you need to see them finishing more chances.
Phil Housley didn’t try to force what wasn’t working, juggling the lines against Canada, but maybe he didn’t go far enough. That’s something the coaches will have to discuss at length heading into the game against Slovakia. The way this team was built seems to limit the amount of combinations you can put out there to stoke scoring.
The one thing that seems abundantly clear is that Alex Galchenyuk is and has been Team USA’s most threatening forward. What is less clear is who the U.S. staff can put with him to get the most out of the third overall pick.
There should be enough firepower on the roster, however, where the U.S. should be able to generate more chances than they have and from more players.
In each of the last two games, Team USA’s inability to get bodies to the net and convert on second-chance opportunities off rebounds or broken plays has been a big part of the lack of scoring. It was the same story in 2012, where most of the shots were coming from the perimeter without anyone making it hard on the opposing goalie.
Team USA has size up front, it has guys with speed that can get to the hard areas. They’re just not getting there and that can’t continue to happen. It will be easier said than done against Slovakia’s mammoth blue line.
It will also be interesting to see what Housley does with the defense. Team USA was able to tighten up when Housley flipped Jake McCabe with Mike Reilly. McCabe along with Seth Jones was a very effective pair, while Shayne Gostisbehere and Jacob Trouba have been mostly good together a lot of the tournament. Patrick Sieloff also earned more ice time against Canada and probably should get some more ice time going forward with the style he plays.
A couple of quick notes…
— There has been no indication of any supplementary discipline hearings for Ryan Hartman stemming from his elbow to Ryan Murphy. The IIHF has a two-man disciplinary committee that reviews plays like that and makes those decisions. Without hearing much by now, it is unlikely Hartman will receive additional punishment beyond the 10-minute misconduct he received in the game.
— John Gibson has the second-best save percentage among goalies that have played at least half of their team’s minutes so far in the tournament with .951. The U.S. is getting exactly what it needs out of its goaltender and now needs to help him out offensively.
— Jacob Trouba is one of eight defensemen with three points in the tournament. He and Albert Yarullin of Russia are tied for the tournament goal-scoring lead among blueliners with three apiece.
— Vince Trocheck has won 65.5 percent of his 58 faceoffs so far in the tournament, tops on the team and fourth among regular centers in the entire tournament. Finland’s Aleksander Barkov has been the tournament’s best faceoff man winning an astonishing 48 of his 64 draws.
Don’t sleep on Slovakia. This is a scrappy group that is going to have a trap-style defensive scheme that could challenge the U.S. when it comes to getting to the net.
Slovakia needed overtime to get past Group B weakling Germany, but took Russia to overtime via a late goal and at one point led Canada 3-1 before ultimately collapsing. This team has enough to give the U.S. trouble, so this is far from a gimme game.
There isn’t a lot of depth of skill on the Slovakian team, but they have enough weapons up front to challenge the U.S. in the defensive zone and make things tough on John Gibson.
The Slovakian attack is led by the highly-skilled Marko Dano, a 2013 Draft-eligible currently playing for Slovan Bratislava in the KHL. Dano scored twice against Canada and leads Slovakia with five points in the tournament. The U.S. has to be aware of him at all times as he doesn’t need much to do some damage.
There isn’t a ton of scoring depth on this team, but forwards Martin Reway, Richard Mraz and Tomas Mikus are guys to watch for Slovakia up front. Reway is a 17-year-old phenom currently playing for Gatineau in the QMJHL and has a lot of potential despite a relative lack of size.
Slovakia’s D corps is enormous, which is going to make things tougher on the U.S. attack. Four of the blueliners are 6-3 or taller and over 200 pounds. Peter Ceresnak, a sixth-round pick of the New York Rangers, was the overtime hero against Germany and is a leader on the back end for Slovakia.
Adam Nagy has played every minute so far for Slovakia and has lukewarm numbers with a 3.22 goals-against average and .867 save percentage. The U.S. needs to get shots on Nagy and make him work for everything. If they can get any sort of net-front presence, Team USA could get to this netminder who is not like the dynamic Malcolm Subban and Andrey Makarov the U.S. saw in the last two games.
This is a team that understands its limitations, which is why it plays more of a trap style game. It can’t get into run-and-gun games with anyone, because they’d lose. Clogging passing lanes, making entries into the zone tough and keeping the front of their net clear are big things Slovakia can do to slow down the already anemic U.S. attack.
One advantage the U.S. should have against Slovakia is a few extra hours of rest. Slovakia played Germany Sunday night in Ufa, while the U.S. had that mid-afternoon contest. Not only that, but Slovakia needed overtime. Team USA should be the fresher team Monday, if only a little.
— Slovakia’s statistics through three games. (IIHF)
— Extended highlights of Slovakia’s 6-3 loss to Canada (TSN)
About the Match-Up
Based on the defensive scheme Slovakia will bring, the U.S. is going to have to work for its goals. Taking advantage of what Slovakia gives them by way of power-plays, turnovers or any mistake at all will be a big key to getting past this underrated opponent.
“They play that one-four and they don’t cross center unless they’ve got an opportunity to attack,” Canada head coach Steve Spott told the National Post before Canada’s tough contest against Slovakia.
That could be bad news for the U.S. which has struggled so mightily getting anything established in the middle of the ice.
The U.S. can’t try to force plays like it’s tended to do when things aren’t clicking. Slovakia’s commitment to team defense simply won’t allow it. If the U.S. can get back to focusing on utilizing its speed and being physical, it should be able to break through and create chances. It has to find ways to get behind that Slovakian D.
Defensively, the U.S. has to just keep things simple like it did in the latter two-thirds of the game against Canada. Team USA has the talent on the back end to completely shut down the Slovakian attack, which ranks second to last in scoring efficiency in the tournament. There’s enough skill to cause some concern, but the U.S. D should be equal to the challenge.
The big thing the U.S. has to avoid against Slovakia is those defensive breakdowns like the ones that cost them the Canada and Russia games. We still haven’t seen Seth Jones play the game at the level he’s capable of in this tournament. He’s been on the ice for the last three goals against the U.S., all of which were preventable. This doesn’t make Jones any less of an elite prospect, it just makes him human. The mistakes were uncharacteristic and there’s reason to believe he’ll be better going forward.
However, when the team isn’t scoring, how much blame can you really put on the defense? The U.S. forwards have an opponent that they can take advantage of with their speed and skill, which they absolutely have to do for the first time since the tournament opener against Germany.
The U.S. simply cannot allow themselves to lose this game. They’ve gotten in their own way enough over the last two contests that their backs are now against the wall. A loss to Slovakia and a second consecutive trip to the relegation round would compound the embarrassment of last year for USA Hockey.
The pressure is on. Now it’s time to find out how the U.S. players can deal with it.
Team USA’s Projected Lineup vs. SVK
Based on some of the juggling Housley did against Canada during the game, Team USA’s lines are much tougher to project coming into the Slovakia game. There shouldn’t be much different in the bottom of the lineup at forward, but the D pairings and scoring lines could look quite a bit different.
With the multitude of options, for now the projected combos are similar to those used against Germany.
As soon as Team USA’s official lines become available, I’ll have them posted.
15 Galchenyuk – 7 Kuraly – 16 Barber
13 Gaudreau – 10 Miller – 23 Grimaldi
26 Vesey – 25 Trocheck – 22 Biggs
20 Pietila – 18 Bardreau – 21 Hartman
14 Gostisbehere – 8 Trouba
19 McCabe – 3 Jones
6 Reilly – 5 Murphy
Three Keys for Team USA
Dominate the Middle – After watching Team USA’s losses against Russia and Canada, the U.S. was unable to do anything in the middle of the ice in any zone. This is particularly important in the offensive zone. Team USA needs to get bodies in the slot and in front of the goaltender. Slovakia’s size on D will make this tough, but Team USA has enough guys that should be able to find their way to the middle and battle in front.
Urgency Without Desperation — In this must-win game, the U.S. has to play with a bit of urgency. That’s going to require better effort from the forwards in the scoring lines to get pucks to the net. The U.S. cannot be desperate and start forcing plays however. That happened a bit too much in the last two games and the results show why that’s a bad thing. Certain players are going to have to step up and assert themselves in this game.
Score Goals — It’s obvious, right? Well it hasn’t been obvious enough for the U.S. with only two goals against opponents not named Germany. The forwards have been shut out in the last two games and with the group they have up front, that should be considered unacceptable. Coming into the tournament scoring depth was a concern, but what’s transpired is well beyond concern now. If the forwards can’t convert, this team will be relegation-round bound.
— Full team statistics through four days at the World Junior Championships. (IIHF)
— Ryan Nugent-Hopkins leads the tournament with eight points through three games. Full leader board here. Alex Galchenyuk is tied for third with five points. (IIHF)
— Full tournament standings heading into the final day of round-robin play. (IIHF)
— U.S. forwards talked about the need for scoring “greasy” goals in this USA-Slovakia preview. (USAHockey.com)
— Johnny Gaudreau has played in his fair share of must-win games over the last two seasons (USAHockey.com)
— Dave Starman offers his thoughts on what went wrong for Team USA against Canada and what needs to improve. (NHL.com)
— The NHL Network crew breaks down the loss to Canada and looks ahead. (NHL.com)
— Canada will play Russia for the bye to the semifinals Monday. (TSN)
World U17 Challenge Update
The U.S. National Under-17 Team improved to 1-1-0-0 at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge with a 6-3 win over Canada Atlantic Sunday. Dylan Larkin scored a goal and added two assists, while Edwin Minney made 20 saves in the victory.
Sonny Milano, Jared Fiegl, Nathan Billitier, Austin Poganski and Ryan Collins also scored in the win. Team USA will meet tournament host Canada Quebec Monday at 7:30 p.m.
All games from the World U17 Challenge are available live and free on FASTHockey.com.
Coming up after the game Monday, a full recap of Team USA’s huge game against Slovakia and a look ahead to either the quarterfinals or the relegation round. As always, you can join me on Twitter for live analysis.