The hockey gods must be smiling upon us as the United States and Canada will line up across from each other once again at the 2013 World Junior Championship, this time with a trip to the gold-medal game on the line. Team USA will take on its biggest rival at 4 a.m. ET on NHL Network, with a live stream on NHL.com in the United States. Stay up, wake up… just be up. This is going to be a great one.
The U.S. may have lost round one, but gets a fresh start in the rematch. Things are starting to click for this group that hit a rough patch in the middle of the preliminary round. After many tweaks to the lineup, it appears the U.S. has found the right mix. From the power play, to the penalty kill, Team USA is humming right now.
That said, Canada will be a different team as well, with J.C. Lipon and Boone Jenner in the lineup this time around. Their presence should make the already offensively dangerous Canada much more physical than the previous contest and will strengthen the depth for the Canadians overall.
This game should feature both teams at their very best. That still makes Canada the favorites to win the game, but that also should mean the U.S. is going to give their opponents some trouble Thursday and have a good shot at pulling off the upset.
Coming up after the jump, a look at both teams since they last met, notes on the match-up overall, the keys for Team USA and links.
Team USA Update
Based on the way the last two games have gone, the U.S. National Junior Team looks like a different team compared to the one that lost to Russia and Canada by identical 2-1 scorelines.
The real difference in those two losses were costly mistakes defensively and a hot goaltender at the other end of the rink. The U.S. also wasn’t able to get much accomplished in the middle of the ice, which is a big reason Team USA was only able to score once in each of those games.
It appears that Phil Housley’s line juggling has really paid off in a number of areas. Vincent Trocheck has been a key addition to Team USA’s first power-play unit with J.T. Miller and Johnny Gaudreau. That unit was on the ice for four of Team USA’s five power-play goals against the Czechs in the 7-0 quarterfinal win.
Also, bumping Rocco Grimaldi to the Trocheck-Tyler Biggs line after his benching against Slovakia made that line more deadly and gives the U.S. a bonafide scoring threat on every line.
The defensive adjustments were the real key however. Swapping Mike Reilly for Jake McCabe on the top pairing has made Seth Jones more effective at both ends of the ice and gives the U.S. a terrific defensively sound pair. Meanwhile, Jacob Trouba, whether with Shayne Gostisbehere or Patrick Sieloff, has been the tournament’s best defenseman period.
It will be interesting to see what Housley does with Gostisbehere, who was suspended for the game against the Czech Republic. Sieloff took his spot with Trouba. That duo has been playing together going back to their youth hockey days with Compuware. Should they remain together and Gostisbehere gets bumped to perhaps even a seventh defenseman spot, the U.S. has some snarl in the top four and can match muscle on muscle against Canada. Meanwhile, Gostisbehere would be able to spot in for some offensive situations and help out on the power play a bit more.
The glue that holds the whole thing together however is John Gibson. The big netminder has been simply terrific in this tournament and is among the top goalies statistically in Ufa. With a 1.51 goals-against average and .950 save percentage, Gibson is having one of the great tournaments in USA Hockey history. He kept the U.S. in the games against Russia and Canada and kept things nice and calm in Team USA’s most recent contests, both of which were essentially elimination games.
Things are really clicking as a whole for the U.S. in almost all facets of the game. The one area that needs work is Team USA’s penchant for getting in penalty trouble. That has to get fixed no later than the first period against Canada. Too many trips to the box will take its toll.
Other than that, looks like everyone is adjusting to their ever-evolving roles well and that’s going to play a huge part in what happens against Canada. Each of the U.S. players will have to do their job.
Here are some quick general notes about Team USA…
— Jacob Trouba’s four goals and eight tie him for third in tournament scoring overall and tops among defensemen. Seth Jones ranks second among all defensemen with seven points (1g-6a).
— Alex Galchenyuk’s eight points (2g-6a) also tie him for third overall in tournament scoring. His six assists are tied with Seth Jones for tops on Team USA and second overall in the tournament.
— John Gibson’s 1.51 goals-against average is tops in the tournament, while his .950 save percentage ranks second among goalies playing in at least 40 percent of their teams’ minutes in net.
— Team USA is the second most efficient team when it comes to scoring with a 12.9 percent team shooting percentage and leads the tournament overall with 26 goals scored.
— The U.S. also possesses the stingiest defense and goaltending in the tournament as a team. No team has allowed fewer goals against than the U.S., with seven allowed in five games. Team USA has given up 148 total shots, however, so a lot of that success is owed to John Gibson (and Jon Gillies for 20 minutes). As a team, the U.S. has collected two shutouts, to go with a 1.41 goals-against average and .953 save percentage.
— The U.S. has the tournament’s best power play, converting on 12-of-33 chances for a staggering 36.4 percent success rate.
— The U.S. also has the tournament’s best penalty kill, operating at a 91.3 percent kill rate by thwarting 21-of-23 opportunities. That’s good news for Team USA, which is also the tournament’s most penalized team with 113 minutes in penalties so far, which includes 34 minors.
— All that up there (save for the penalty concerns)? Pretty not bad.
Unquestionably, Canada has been the tournament’s best team, regardless of what the stats say about Team USA. Canada has the perfect 4-0-0-0 record, which included wins over tough opponents in the U.S. and Russia.
Canada has the tournament’s best scoring efficiency (13.5%), the third best PP (31.6%) and PK (77.8%), and fourth best goaltending (.930 SV%). They also boast the tournament’s leading scorer by far with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins accounting for 11 points in Ufa.
Malcolm Subban was the major difference maker in Canada’s tighter games against the U.S. and Russia. He probably had his best night against Team USA, making 36 stops including several huge ones in the 2-1 win in the preliminary round.
Getting Lipon and Jenner back will certainly help as Canada gets some good grit back into the lineup with that pair. The U.S. will have to be ready for a much more physical contest.
Like the U.S., Canada has had trouble staying out of the box and dealing with supplementary discipline. That has taken away from their ability to play the game at 100 miles-an-hour with little regard for the puck. They have enough skill to play a game different from that, but it does take away some of what has made Canada so successful at these events.
Steve Spott has made some adjustments to his lineup since the last time these two squads met. Jonathan Drouin, the dazzlingly skilled 17-year-old, has been moved up to the top unit with Mark Scheifele and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It paid immediate dividends as the group accounted for three of Canada’s four goals against Russia.
Highly-touted defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who was fairly ineffective against the U.S. had a much better game against Russia, scoring a goal and putting six shots on net.
The other factor with Canada is how they deal with having the extra day off. There are two schools of thought when it comes to earning the bye. Some say it’s better to get that extra day of rest and be able to take on a team that’s still recovering from a game 24 hours prior. Others say the team coming into the semi off a quarterfinal win has momentum on their side, while even that one day off leaves a little bit of rust for the bye team.
Last year, both teams that had the bye — Canada and Finland — lost in the semis. Just some food for thought.
About the Match-up
The last time the U.S. faced Canada twice in one tournament was 2010. After losing to the host Canadians in a shootout in a New Year’s Eve classic, Team USA met Canada in the gold-medal game where this happened…
Canada has owned the all-time series however, with Team USA’s last two wins against its North American rival coming in the 2004 and 2010 gold-medal games. Ten of the last 15 meetings between the two squads since 2000 have been decided by just one goal.
The two countries have met four times in the semis in the last nine years and Canada has won all of them, most recently in 2011 in Buffalo.
So what does Team USA have to do to get over the hump?
The biggest thing is probably to learn from the last game, but to be prepared to adjust on the fly. This Canadian team will be a bit different than the first meeting and the game should be more physical than the last time.
While the U.S. was never out of that game against Canada, it failed to play a full 60 minutes and it ended up costing them. The U.S. should also have a better grasp on how to get pucks past Malcolm Subban after getting frustrated. The U.S. also knows what made them successful in the latter half of that game when things were going much better for the Americans.
Clearly, the amount of offensive firepower among Canada’s forward corps more than makes up for the relative lack of physicality they showed in the last game, but the U.S. tightened up very well against Team Canada, holding the boys in red to their lowest scoring total of the tournament.
This is why you can safely expect more physicality out of both sides. Having Boone Jenner back for some grit to go along with scoring potential is going to be a big boost for Team Canada in this one.
When it comes to Subban, the rebounds were most definitely there, but Team USA had trouble getting to them and converting on those second chances in tight. Establishing more of a presence down the middle will be a big key. J.T. Miller in particular has been much better at getting himself to the net front and creating traffic over the last two games. Team USA has enough size up front to be better in this department.
The defensive adjustments the U.S. made in the latter portions of the game against Canada really paid off. Team USA wasn’t getting beaten as much in transition and did a better job of protecting their net. Expect Seth Jones and Jake McCabe to get a lot of ice time against Canada’s top scoring unit.
The U.S. will also likely get its Grind Line centered by Cole Bardreau some big minutes against RNH and company. That group completely manhandled the Czech Republic’s potent first scoring unit in the quarterfinals.
This game in all likelihood comes down to goaltending. John Gibson and Malcolm Subban have been two of the best in the tournament, with Subban out-dueling Gibson just barely the last time out. Expect another great performance out of these counterparts.
Canada is certainly favored here. They have 11 first-round draft picks, two more that will certainly be taken in the top five in June and six returning players. The U.S. has to be the faster, stronger team if it hopes to advance.
The winner will meet either Sweden or Russia in the gold-medal game Saturday, but neither will likely be looking too far ahead. These teams know each other, they don’t like each other and they’re both standing in each other’s way to play for the top prize. Something tells me this will be another USA-Canada classic.
Team USA’s Projected Lineup vs. Canada
The way things clicked for Team USA against the Czechs, expect much the same out of Housley and company. The only real difference is having Shayne Gostisbehere back, so we’ll see how much ice he gets coming off of the suspension.
13 Johnny Gaudreau – 10 J.T. Miller – 26 Jim Vesey
15 Alex Galchenyuk – 7 Sean Kuraly – 16 Riley Barber
20 Blake Pietila – 18 Cole Bardreau – 21 Ryan Hartman
23 Rocco Grimaldi – 25 Vince Trocheck – 22 Tyler Biggs
12 Mario Lucia
19 Jake McCabe – 3 Seth Jones
27 Patrick Sieloff – 8 Jacob Trouba
6 Mike Reilly – 5 Connor Murphy
14 Shayne Gostisbehere
35 John Gibson
30 Jon Gillies
Three Keys for Team USA
Keep Special Teams Special — One of the best ways to get ahead is with effective special teams. With the No. 1 PP and PK in the tournament, the U.S. will have to make the advantages count when and if they get them. This should be a more physical contest and that can potentially lead to more penalties. The U.S. needs to focus on staying out of the box and particularly avoiding retaliation. The PK has been excellent, but you don’t want to have to use it as much as Team USA has been forced to use theirs. In a game so tight, power plays are going to be huge for both teams.
Convert on Second Chances — The U.S. failed to get enough pressure on Malcolm Subban and never really took advantage of the second chances they had via rebounds or deflections. There were plenty of initial shots, but Team USA hasn’t scored a lot of those, what they’re terming, “greasy goals.” It doesn’t have to look pretty in this game, it just has to go in. If the U.S. fails to get pucks and bodies to the net and convert on those rebounds that Subban has a tendency to give up, it’s going to be tough to win.
60 Minutes — A big reason the U.S. lost the last game against Canada was two brief lapses defensively in the first period. The U.S. simply wasn’t very good in the first 20 against Canada, so focusing on a good start and carrying it through the full 60 minutes will be big. The U.S. has been so stingy defensively that it’s rare to make mistakes. They don’t have to be perfect against Canada, but they have to be fairly close. Team USA can’t match Canada’s depth, but they can skate stride for stride with their North American rivals. The team that battles longer will be the one that ends up playing for the big prize on Saturday.
Team USA players and staff offer some of their own thoughts on the game ahead…
— If this preview wasn’t enough, I list five big things to watch for in Thursday morning’s game over on the Eye on Hockey Blog. (CBSSports.com)
— I spoke with defenseman Patrick Sieloff about being the last player to make the team and what he expects in the big game Thursday morning. Said Sieloff, “These are the games I look forward to. Canada-U.S. is one of the biggest rivalries out there. It isn’t a toe-drag game, it isn’t a high-end skill game. It’s get the puck deep, who’s hitting the most, who’s blocking shots — and that’s the kind of game I love.” (USAHockey.com)
— The great Mike Morreale gets some thoughts from Phil Housley ahead of the big semifinal match-up. (NHL.com)
— “I still don’t think anyone has seen as our best hockey” Jake McCabe told USAHockey.com for its game preview. “The team that improves the most throughout the tournament is the team that generally wins the tournament so I think that’s what we’re shooting for.” (USAHockey.com)
— Russia barely got past Switzerland, winning in a shootout, to advance to the semis against Sweden. (NHL.com)
— The tournament logistics for these types of events are always tough on the support staff it seems. Athletic Trainer Jason Hodges gives a tour of Team USA’s locker rooms and details what the staff has to go through on a game-by-game basis.
Well, if you’re staying up or waking up for the 4 a.m. ET start, I’ll be up and on Twitter during the game for live analysis. As always, you can expect a detailed recap of the game later Thursday morning after the results are known. Enjoy what should be a sensational semi.