Did that really just happen?
The U.S. Men’s National Team is on its way to the semifinals after a stunning rout of defending gold medalist Russia. Before Thursday, the U.S. had defeated Russia just four times in the history of the IIHF World Championship. It’s 8-3 win made it five and was the largest margin of victory in the history of the match-up.
Considering Russia’s skill and international experience, the defending champs were heavy favorites, especially after outlasting Team USA 5-3 in the prelims. Adding Alex Ovechkin only strengthened the high-octane offense that had led the tournament in goals coming into Thursday’s action.
It seemed like a mismatch on paper.
Team USA’s best line features Paul Stastny, Craig Smith and David Moss. Russia’s had Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. Russia also boasted Ilya Bryzgalov in net with 425 NHL appearances under his belt. The U.S. had 19-year-old John Gibson, who spent this season in the Ontario Hockey League.
It turned out it was a mismatch, only not the way anyone expected it to be.
Here are the highlights from today’s contest:
The U.S. was the better team for most of the game, actually. Jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first period was a huge confidence booster.
The Stastny line was prevalent in the contest, winning a lot of puck battles and creating chances. It was that line that connected on the first goal, with Craig Smith working the puck along the walls and spinning to feed Stastny in the slot. When T.J. Oshie’s shot squeaked through Bryzgalov, it appeared as though the Americans were beginning to take control.
Russia did cut the deficit to 2-1 on an incredible feed from Sergei Soin to Alexander Svitov, most famous for being a spectacular NHL Draft bust (3rd overall to Columbus in 2001). That really seemed to give Russia some extra life after.
John Gibson made nine saves in the period, including doing the splits to rob Ovechkin on a 2-on-1 in the first minute of the game and later stuck out a pad to take one away from Radulov. Those were key stops that helped the U.S. set the tone in the period.
Two more goals in the second period gave the U.S. control again as Nate Thompson scored on a great effort to get to the net on a 2-on-1 and Alex Galchenyuk finished a beautiful passing play to make it 4-1. Bryzgalov was pulled in favor of Semyon Varlamov. In Bryzgalov’s defense, he was hung out to dry a few times.
The game got interesting early in the third period as Ovechkin had a rocket wrister beat Gibson just 1:33 into the frame. The puck came out of the net so fast, the referee and everyone else thought it hit the crossbar. It actually went off the back bar in the net and after video review was called a goal.
An incredibly soft penalty call on Stephen Gionta, who was given two minutes for roughing after a clean check, put the U.S. at a dangerous disadvantage. Russia’s top power-play unit with Kovalchuk and Radulov went out, but the U.S. countered on the PK as Ryan Carter forced a turnover, took the puck down the left side and put a wrister through Varlamov to make it 5-2. Russia struck back quickly on the same power play to make it 5-3 and keep things interesting with 15:20 remaining in regulation.
After that, it was all USA. Jacob Trouba scored on the power play with a perfect wrist shot through a screen. David Moss put one through Varlamov 1:45 later to make it 7-3. Twenty one seconds later, Stastny put an exclamation point on the game with his second of the afternoon. Ballgame.
Stastny finished with four points, while Craig Smith had a five assist day. John Gibson ended up with 31 saves, none bigger than those he made in the first period.
It won’t show up much in the box score, but Team USA’s defense had one of, if not its best game of the tournament. Justin Faulk led all Americans with 22:02 and was solid throughout. Trouba, who was scratched in Team USA’s last two games played physical and moved the puck extremely well, particularly on the power play. He also laid out Artem Anisimov with a reverse check as Anisimov went to make contact with Trouba. It was another tone-setting play. Here’s what it looked like:
— Elena Rusko (@ElenaRusko) May 16, 2013
The U.S. didn’t beat itself out there, which is something Russia can force a lot of teams to do. It wasn’t a mistake-free game, but there weren’t a lot of those costly turnovers that Russia thrives on. Team USA applied heavy pressure in the offensive zone, was the more physical team and used its speed incredibly well. The U.S. made Russia play at the pace the U.S. wanted to play at.
It was also a big boost for the U.S. to get big days out of its two newest additions in T.J. Oshie and Alex Galchenyuk. Both were playing in just their second game with the club since joining after the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and both scored goals. Adding that type of scoring depth to the team hasn’t always paid off, but this year it is. That’s a huge bonus for a team that needed offensive help.
Gibson’s performance, as a 19-year-old playing against some of the best snipers in the world, was incredible. It’s not really a surprise though. That’s how he’s been throughout his very young international career. With the USA crest on, he’s been silly good. Gibson was the directorate award winner as best goalie at both the 2011 World U18 Championship and 2013 World Juniors. The Pittsburgh-native is emerging as the next great goalie prospect in the U.S. and he’s putting on a show once again.
The U.S. is now guaranteed to play for a medal for the first time since 2009. The U.S. has not won a medal of any color since 2004. USA Hockey has brought more talented rosters to this tournament in recent years (especially last year) and not made it past the quarterfinals. This very young team is light on World Championship experience, but it hasn’t mattered.
The consistent play by the top line has allowed the U.S. to have this type of success. The guys that have been there before have been the guys leading the way in all facets of the game. Perhaps the overwhelming factor in Team USA’s success is the competitiveness of the team. It seems as though most of the players want to be there and want to win. That’s not always true of these squads at the end of a long NHL season. Now they’ve got a chance to go home with some hardware.
Here are some odds and ends from Team USA’s 8-3 victory…
Team USA’s comments in the postgame mix zone:
It’s tough to take a ton of meaning out of a World Championship victory. The tournament is clearly not a best-on-best, but there is certainly some significance in the U.S. beating Russia in the quarterfinal. The U.S. has enough elite players right now to compete with other countries, but its the depth that has not been as prevalent.
In a lot of ways, this U.S. roster is mostly made up of second- or third-tier players in the U.S. talent structure. The fact that a team like this can compete with essentially Russia’s first- and second-tier talent is big.
At the end of the day, it’s one game, but the fact that it comes with such a young team, with somewhat limited World Championship experience, is highly intriguing. If the U.S. can find a way to the gold-medal game, it will be a somewhat monumental feat as USA Hockey’s depth begins to show.
Paul Stastny is having one of the most productive tournaments in USA Hockey history at the IIHF Worlds. He has 13 points on six goals and seven assists. Craig Smith has 12 with a team-best nine assists. Only six U.S. players have had 12 or more points in a World Championship since 1981, according to USA Hockey. Having two on one team is huge.
John Gibson‘s save percentage sits at .953 over three starts. He has a 1.33 goals-against average and one shutout as well. Those numbers are better than his IIHF career over three previous tournaments. Coming into the World Championship, Gibson had a 1.98 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 14 appearances.
Joe Sacco lost his job days after being named U.S. Men’s National Team coach. That’s a tough pill to swallow right before having to lead a relatively unheralded U.S. roster in a tournament it rarely does well in. The structure of the lineup, the usage of the defense and the big decision to go with 19-year-old Gibson in net all were spot on. He and his staff, which includes Phil Housley, Tim Army and Danton Cole, have done an incredible job in this thing.
Team USA has not won gold at the IIHF World Championship since 1933, unless you count the 1960 and 1980 Olympics. Despite that lack of golden success at the Worlds, there are nine players on this club with previous gold medal success in the younger tournaments. Here’s the rundown…
Matt Carle (2002 U18, 2004 WJC), Justin Faulk (2010 U18), Alex Galchenyuk (2013 WJC), John Gibson (2011 U18, 2013 WJC), Matt Hunwick (2004 WJC), Erik Johnson (2005 U18, 2006 U18), Danny Kristo (2010 WJC), Jamie McBain (2006 U18), Jacob Trouba (2011 U18, 2012 U18, 2013 WJC)
Even those are from the U18s and WJC, it’s important at this stage of the tournament. Knowing how to close out in international hockey is important. With such parity in the tournament, that little extra experience helps.
The semifinal against Switzerland is going to be tough. The Swiss have yet to lose at the World Championship, so it should be a fun one. Check back soon for a full preview of Team USA’s big semifinal match-up.