2014 IIHF World Junior Championship: USA vs. Czech Republic Preview

USAvsCZE

2014 WJC Primers: World Juniors General Preview – Full Team USA Preview – U.S. Roster

After all the previews and scouting reports and other prep work, it’s finally time to drop the puck. The 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship opens for the defending gold medalist United States against the Czech Republic Thursday. You can catch the game live on NHL Network or streaming live on NHL.com in the U.S., starting at 11:30 a.m. ET.

As is the case with the first of anything, there’s always that hint of nerves and even perhaps a little uncertainty as the games go live a the World Juniors. For Team USA, the first game offers quite a test. The Czech Republic has been a fairly average team at this tournament in recent years, but there is enough skill in this Czech group to not take them lightly.

This could be a bit of a trap game for the U.S. if they don’t come into it ready to play. Team USA just made its final cut Christmas Day, so they haven’t even had a full day of practice with the finalized roster. This group has been together for 10 days however, going back to training camp, so they should at least feel familiar enough with one another.

Getting a good start to the tournament is always important. In an ideal world, teams would just be able to be at their best right away, but that’s not how it works when you bring a team together for a 10-day tournament. The smoother the team starts out, the more quickly they can take the next step. Getting the team into a rhythm early helps smooth out the play as the tournament progresses.

Every coach is going to preach getting better with every game in an event like this, so if the first game is Team USA’s worst, they’ll probably feel pretty OK about that. Thing is, the Czechs can be an opportunistic team and in years where they’ve gotten at least a little goaltending, they’ve pulled some surprises. They’ll need just that this year, especially early against Team USA.

Knowing that the preliminary round should be easy to at least get out of — with all but one team in each group making the playoff round — every win is important for seeding. There’s no longer a bye for winning the group in the prelims and the U.S. is going to end up with a tough quarterfinal draw no matter who they play, but they’ll still be aiming to win Group A. They won’t be able to do it without a win in the first game. So the pressure is on right away against an opponent that should put up a good fight.

The U.S. is the deeper of the two teams at pretty much every position, so they’ll have to come out swinging and hope to take over the game right away.

Team USA Update

The U.S. finalized its roster Christmas Day by sending Tyler Motte home. Motte, along with Adam Erne, missed both pre-tournament exhibitions in Sweden, due to health issues. But at least in Erne’s case, that appears to be resolved as he has resumed skating with the team.

Getting Erne back and healthy makes Team USA’s forward lineup a lot more formidable offensively. He is likely to slot in on Team USA’s second line with Jack Eichel and Ryan Hartman, which can be an overwhelming line for a lot of teams in terms of speed and power.

It appears Jon Gillies will be the starter in net for the opener. His experience having been in the WJC last year and the fact that he’s looked the best in pre-competition to date makes him look very much the go-to guy. If the U.S. is looking to set the tone early, having the No. 1 between the pipes right away is probably the way to go.

Here’s the complete tournament preview for Team USA and a player-by-player look at the roster for more detail.

More from USA Hockey:

About the Czech Republic

You may recall two years ago, the Czechs sent the U.S. to the relegation round with an upset win in the preliminary round thanks to some brilliant goaltending from Petr Mrazek. More recently, however, the U.S. downed the Czech Republic 7-0 in the quarterfinals of last year’s tournament en route to gold. So it’s anyone’s guess as to where this Czech team falls compared to those two.

Led by Radek Faksa, the Dallas Stars first-rounder who is playing in his third WJC, the Czechs have some quality forwards up front that should be able to create more of a scoring threat. Jakub Vrana is another guy who should be a big threat teams will be keying on when playing the Czech Republic.

The defense is probably on the average side for a WJC team, but there are some quality players back there like Jan Kostalek and David Nemecek, who should see some big minutes. They may have trouble with the mix of speed and power the U.S. has on its roster this year.

The goaltending is expected to be a weak link for the Czechs this year, though Marek Langhammer is probably capable at this level, if he is the choice in net.

Their strength is up front, and that is where Team USA has to be ready. The Czechs can be a very opportunistic team, pouncing on mistakes and taking advantage on the power play as well. They will struggle with Team USA’s speed throughout its lineup, but will bring a good work ethic to the ice to try and slow things down.

This Czech team is quiet enough to be overlooked, but skilled enough to make teams pay for doing so. Team USA can’t fall into that trap.

Official [UPDATED] Lineup for Team USA vs. Czech Republic

USA Hockey has released the lines for today’s game. Jersey numbers are included for your viewing assistance. The IIHF released an updated lineup closer to game time.

17 Kerdiles – 10 O’Regan – 11 Barber
19 Erne – 15 Eichel – 21 Hartman
23 Matteau – 9 Copp – 22 Fasching
26 Stepan – 25 Shore – 13 Hinostroza
14 Di Pauli

2 Skjei – 28 Carrick
4 Butcher – 16 Santini
3 McCoshen – 7 Grzelcyk
6 Slavin

32 Gillies
29 Stolarz

Not Dressed: 35 Demko

Three Keys for Team USA

Fast Start — It seems like an easy enough task, but a fast start is far from a sure thing in the first game of the tournament. The Czech Republic is the kind of team you don’t want to let hang around, because they certainly can sting you if their goaltending holds up. Coming out of the gates flying and attempting to overwhelm the Czechs with some speed and physicality should lead to early goals. The U.S. has to prove it can create offensively and should be able to do that adequately against the Czech defense. This is a game that will only get harder as it progresses unless Team USA can strike quickly and try to put the Czechs out of the game as quickly as possible. It won’t be an easy task.

Establish Efficient Transition — This U.S. team has to be able to transition quickly and with purpose. If they can do that right away, they’ll be in good shape. Puck movement through the neutral zone and good first passes out of the D zone are going to be some of the prime areas that could take some time to smooth out. Accomplishing that in the first game should lead to good results not only against the Czechs but throughout the tournament. Chemistry between linemates and defense partners usually show up a bit more in transition, when everything moves a little bit faster and the slightest mistakes can prove most costly.

Speed — The U.S. has the speed to out-skate the Czechs for 60 minutes. Playing the game fast is the way to level the playing field in games where the U.S. is out-skilled. I don’t know that the Czechs as a whole are more skilled than the U.S., but it doesn’t make the speed factor any less important. To play the game fast, you have to play clean, so this ties into the second key as well. If the U.S. can overwhelm the Czechs early with speed, there’s no reason they can’t do that against quicker more skilled opponents down the line. This is a team that wants to be energetic and that energy should translate to offense right away against the Czechs.

LINKS

- USA Hockey’s official game notes for the opening game are here.

- USA Hockey’s new World Junior Championship site is worldjuniors.usahockey.com.

- Here’s the IIHF’s preview for Team USA:

- All of the teams have submitted rosters for the IIHF World Championship. A few teams have left a few spots open due to injury uncertainty, but most are complete. You can see them all here.

- The complete World Junior Championship Schedule is here.

- I previewed Team USA with Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show on TSN 1260 in Edmonton. You can listen to the podcast of the segment here.

- Mike Morreale offers his terrific preview of Group A for the WJC. (NHL.com)

- All of NHL.com’s WJC coverage can be followed here. Morreale and Adam Kimelman do a great job with this tournament annually.

- Team USA would like to wish their families and you a Merry Christmas.

Well, it’s almost time to drop the puck on another World Junior Championship, the fourth I’ve covered at United States of Hockey. As always, you can expect previews and recaps for every game as well as other posts on happenings throughout the tournament. I’ll also be providing some running commentary throughout the tournament on Twitter, so if you’re not following yet, you can do so here.

It’s a great day for hockey. Enjoy the World Juniors, everybody.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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