After surviving the Group of Death, the U.S. National Junior Team gets a new beginning in the World Junior Championship quarterfinals. The Czech Republic is the opponent standing between Team USA and a trip to the semis and it’s a good one. The game will air live on NHL Network at 4 a.m. ET, while it will also stream live on NHL.com in the United States.
Last year, it was the Czechs that sealed Team USA’s fate with a stunning 5-2 win, sending the U.S. to the relegation round. It was one of those games that reminds you that the World Juniors has the tendency to be utterly unpredictable.
While the U.S. looks to be the better team on paper and certainly more battle tested than the Czechs, the slate is wiped completely clean in the playoff round. Every mistake is amplified and each momentum swing seems more important than the last. These are the types of games that can get away from teams quickly if they’re not careful.
The Czechs offer Team USA a formidable opponent and a tough challenge. Canada will be awaiting the winner of the game, but the U.S. needs to focus on its quarterfinal foe if it hopes to get there.
Coming up after the jump, the latest on Team USA, a look at the Czechs, a projected lineup and the three keys to getting through the quarterfinal.
Team USA Update
The U.S. heads into the quarterfinal with new life after bouncing back with a 9-3 victory over Slovakia coming on the heels of suffering back-to-back losses to Russia and Canada. With that new life, Team USA needs better play if it hopes to compete for a medal.
The offense came alive against Slovakia as new lines seemed to find better chemistry and the power play got hot. The U.S. has to find a way for that to carry over into the game against the Czech Republic.
Team USA will have to do the same things it did against Slovakia and Germany so effectively, even though the Czech Republic should offer more resistance. Getting bodies to the net and taking what they’re given will be key. Having learned what happens when they can’t get pucks and bodies to the net and trying to force things, the U.S. should have a better grasp of what it takes to be successful. The forwards did what they had to do against Slovakia. Now they need to prove they can do it consistently when it matters most.
The U.S. will come into the game with a shorter bench due to the IIHF’s suspending defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere one game. That puts more pressure on guys like Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Jake McCabe to play more minutes effectively. The U.S. shouldn’t be hurting too badly with the good versatility throughout the six guys in the defensive corps, but it’s something to monitor. It should mean more ice time for Patrick Sieloff and Jake McCabe and/or Connor Murphy getting more power-play time.
It should also be interesting to see how Rocco Grimaldi is used after he didn’t see the ice once against Slovakia due to a benching from Phil Housley. He’ll likely dress as the 13th forward as Jimmy Vesey seemed to spark production in the top six in his stead. Grimaldi also likely loses his spot on the power play with Vince Trocheck clicking very well with Johnny Gaudreau on that unit in Grimaldi’s place. That said, having a guy like Grimaldi with his speed and ability to make things happen offensively is valuable in a must-win game. If Grimaldi was able to swallow the punishment, he should see the ice more in the quarterfinal.
An interesting note coming out of the preliminary round: Team USA finished the first four games with the best penalty kill in the tournament, thwarting 15 of 17 PP opportunities for the opposition. That’s an 88 percent success rate. Canada and Switzerland are the next closest with each killing 77.8 percent of their penalties.
The bad news for Team USA is the reason the PK might be so good is because it is the tournament’s most-penalized team. The U.S. has earned 93 minutes in penalties at the WJC. That has to be cleaned up, no matter how good the PK is.
Three of Team USA’s players know how it feels to have the Czech Republic end your medal hopes. J.T. Miller and Jacob Trouba played, while John Gibson had a view from the bench as the U.S. dropped a 5-2 decision to the Czechs in 2012. This is where it helps to have returnees on the roster. These guys know well enough that it doesn’t take much to cost yourselves a shot at the medals. That experience and the bitterness that came with it is a powerful motivator, but also a cautionary tale for the rest of the team to learn from.
In that game last year, the U.S. ran into a hot goalie in Petr Mrazek and had one-too-many breakdowns in the D-zone. That U.S. team looked eerily similar to the one that showed up against Canada this year in terms of struggling to get enough traffic in front and getting dominated in the middle of the ice. The returnees will have to set the tone for Team USA to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
If you forgot about this one, you can watch the extended highlights here.
— Team USA’s full statistics through four games. (IIHF)
About the Czech Republic
Overall the Czech Republic has a sound team with some good skill up front, a good-enough defense and solid goaltending.
This is a team that had to bounce back from a humbling 4-1 loss to Sweden to almost completely shut down Finland for a 3-1 victory (Though the Finns were their own worst enemy in that one). A 4-2 win against Latvia and a 4-3 overtime squeaker against Switzerland put the Czechs into second place in Group A. With 12 goals for and 10 against, that plus-2 goal differential shows how tight things were over on the other side of the bracket. Switzerland also advanced with a plus-2.
The Czech Republic leans heavily on its top scoring unit featuring NHL draft picks Tomas Hertl, Tomas Hyka and Dmitrij Jaskin. The trio has scored five of the team’s 12 goals and has combined for 32 shots on goal. One scout told me he thought Jaskin, a second-round pick of the St. Louis Blues who leads the team with five points so far, has been one of the tournament’s best players.
That trio has loads of skill and can move the puck so well to create some sustained pressure in the offensive zone and convert in the transition game. The U.S. will likely give its Grind Line the assignment against this group, with a heavy dose of Seth Jones and Jake McCabe.
The Czechs have also gotten sound play from their captain, Lukas Sedlak, who has a pair of points and plays a gritty two-way game that makes things tough on opponents. The U.S. will also have to be wary of the line featuring Martin Frk and Dallas first-rounder Radek Faksa. The pair has been solid with Petr Beranek. Frk’s shot makes him one of the deadlier scorers Team USA has seen.
On the back end, the player most North American fans will be familiar with is David Musil, who has had a pretty quiet tournament. The undersized and first-year Draft-eligible Jan Stencel is an effective puck-mover that the U.S. will have to be aware of. By WJC standards, with the exception of Musil, the Czech D is fairly small. As a group, they have allowed, on average, 30 shots per game.
Petr Mrazec isn’t walking back through that door, but Patrik Bartosak, an average-sized netminder who currently plays for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, has been more than solid in three games this year. He’s posted a 1.98 goals-against average and .924 save percentage with 78 shots against.
The Czechs have really struggled on special teams so far in the tournament. The power play is a mere 3-for-18 (16.7%), which ranks eighth in the tournament. Meanwhile, the penalty kill isn’t fairing much better, having allowed five power-play goals on 18 penalties. The five power-play goals against account for half of the total goals allowed by the Czech Republic in the tournament, so there’s the glaring weakness.
While the D and the PK might be weaker spots, the Czechs still do a good job of taking away passing lanes and making it tough to get to the net. As they did against the U.S. last year, this team can really take away the middle and force the U.S. to take shots from the perimeter while limiting second-chance scoring opportunities. That, combined with Bartosak in net could make goals hard to come by.
For a look at the extended highlights from the Czech Republic’s 4-3 OT win over Switzerland, click here.
About the Match Up
The U.S. is going to have to focus on taking what they’re given, just as they did against Slovakia, though they shouldn’t expect nearly as many openings against the Czechs. The U.S. may have to make some of their own openings with their size and speed up front, but being opportunistic and taking advantage of any miscues from the Czechs will be important.
The special teams clicked so well for Team USA against Slovakia, so that is another area the U.S. has to be the better team in. They should get chances against the Czech’s somewhat porous PK. The U.S. also has to avoid getting into the box, but should they find themselves shorthanded, the penalty kill has to remain strong.
Mistakes get amplified in these elimination games. With stakes so high, the pressure creates that extra potential for a miscue here or there.
The U.S. will have to limit mistakes defensively due to how opportunistic the Czechs can be. The American D love to jump into the play, but they’ll have to be selective with their timing, especially now that they’re short one body. The defense has been so effective in aiding the offense, so you don’t want to see too much change, but just being a little more cautious won’t hurt.
This is also going to be a battle of who is able to control the middle of the ice. The U.S. has shown that when it fails to get bodies to the net, it can’t score. The Czechs do a good job of collapsing in their own end to limit those high-percentage scoring opportunities in the slot, so getting shots through and forcefully breaking through will be a big part of what the U.S. has to do to score.
Team USA should be the faster team in this game by quite a bit. Utilizing their speed in transition has been a priority for the U.S. since before the tournamnet, but the decisions with the puck once they get that transition game going has made it less effective against tougher opponents. Beating the Czechs in transition shouldn’t be terribly difficult for the U.S. with its great speed, but they have to prove they can do it with consistency.
Defensively, the U.S. has to put a lot of added focus on shutting down the Hyka-Hertl-Jaskin line. The Czechs will have the last change as the designated home team, so the U.S. will have a little less control over the match-ups, but expect Cole Bardreau and company to get a lot of shifts against this top unit. That line could knock the highly-skilled trio off its game.
Team USA will want a businesslike approach to this game. Take the emotion out of it and simply play the game they’re capable of playing. As long as they do that, they have the depth and the speed to take out the Czech Republic and set up a semi-final rematch with Canada.
Team USA’s Projected Lineup vs. Czech Republic
There isn’t likely to be sweeping changes from the Slovakia game Things clicked well in that one offensively. Obviously losing Gostisbehere forces at least one change, but other than the D rotating a bit and maybe some ice time for Rocco Grimaldi this time around, there’s not much need to make too many drastic changes unless Housley finds some better match-ups in the pre-scouting.
13 Johnny Gaudreau – 10 J.T. Miller – 26 Jimmy Vesey
15 Alex Galchenyuk – 7 Sean Kuraly – 16 Riley Barber
12 Mario Lucia – 25 Vince Trocheck – 22 Tyler Biggs
20 Blake Pietila – 18 Cole Bardreau – 21 Ryan Hartman
23 Rocco Grimaldi
19 Jake McCabe – 3 Seth Jones
27 Patrick Sieloff – 8 Jacob Trouba
6 Mike Reilly – 5 Connor Murphy
35 John Gibson
30 Jon Gillies
Three Keys for Team USA
Play Smart – The suspension to Gostisbehere, while perhaps too strong, is a good reminder to the U.S. that they have to keep their wits about them. Getting goaded into unnecessary penalties or getting reckless with their sticks could cost them. Even though the Czech PP has been dreadful, they have enough skill to make you pay. More time in the box also means less time getting numbers up ice. When the U.S. gets away from the game they want to play and get frustrated, they’ve gotten careless. That can’t happen anymore.
Dictate the Pace — The Czechs cannot match Team USA’s speed, which is why the U.S. has to make sure the game is played at their own pace. Keeping the Czech defense on their heels and creating some pressure in the offensive zone won’t allow the skilled forwards of the Czechs to get as many opportunities. The U.S. hasn’t created too many odd-man opportunities in this tournament either, so using that good team speed should help them get numbers up ice quickly, while not allowing the Czechs to set up any of their D-zone systems.
Shut down HJH Line — The Czechs run a lot of their offense through Hyka-Hertl-Jaskin. While the Czechs have a good deal of skill with its Frk-Faksa-Beranek, they’re not as consistently dangerous as that top group. Making the game hard for those highly-skilled guys up front by playing the body, applying pressure in pursuit and forcing them to make quicker decisions could knock them off their game a bit. If they can’t going, the Czechs will have a hard time competing with Team USA.
— According to USA Hockey’s media notes ahead of the game against the Czech Republic, the U.S. leads the all-time series (barely) against the Czechs 8-1-1-7-1 (USAHockey.com)
— USA Hockey’s game preview includes some good notes on Team USA as well, including the fact that all, but one player has at least a point in the tournament (USAHockey.com)
— Kevin Allen previews Team USA’s quarterfinal with comments from the U.S. staff and players. (USA Today)
— Adam Kimelman breaks down the medal round. (NHL.com)
— Dave Starman offers his thoughts on Team USA ahead of the quarterfinal match-up (NHL.com)
U17 Challenge Update
The U.S. National Under-17 Team had its lone day off today at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge after earning a big 5-1 win over host Canada Quebec on New Year’s Eve. The U.S. out-shot Quebec 47-18.
North Dakota recruit Chris Wilkie had a goal and two assists in the win, while Chris Birdsall made 17 saves. The victory put Team USA in first place in Group B with one preliminary-round game remaining.
Wilkie took over the team lead with six points including five assists. Jack Eichel leads Team USA with three goals.
The U.S. U17s will take on Slovakia Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. ET. The game can be seen live on FASTHockey.com.
A complete recap of Team USA’s quarterfinal game with the Czech Republic will be posted after Wednesday’s game, but if you’re setting your alarm or staying up to watch, you can join the conversation on Twitter.