It’s a big one tonight, folks. The U.S. National Junior Team finds itself in a must-win situation if it wants to earn a bye to the semifinals. Finland trounced Slovakia, 6-0, earlier today to improve to 3-0-1-0 (W-OTW-OTL-L) and have 10 points in the standings. The U.S. can win in either regulation or overtime to secure the points necessary to finish group play on top.
Standing in the Americans’ way is a Swiss team that has had a bit of an up and down tournament. Tonight’s opponent has a 2-0-0-1 record and has already secured a spot in the medal round. A regulation win over the U.S. would mean second place in Group A for the Swiss and a chance to play the lower seeded of the cross-over opponents from Group B (Russia). So a lot on the line here for them as well.
However, the U.S. is in control of its own destiny, and I think that may be a dangerous thing for the Swiss. A motivated and improved U.S. squad will give Switzerland all it can handle tonight. I’d expect to see Jack Campbell back between the pipes, and as I mentioned earlier today, he looks like he’s hitting his stride. That’s bad news for everyone in the tournament. When he’s on, he’s next to unbeatable.
We started to see just what Team USA is capable of in the last two games. Puck possession and speed are big parts of their game and they should be able to continue that trend against a Swiss team that just may be a step slower than their American counterparts. The Swiss probably match-up with the U.S. better skill-wise than either Slovakia or Germany, so that will put added pressure on the U.S. defensive corps, which I also think is just beginning to tap into their potential at this tournament.
Let’s take a closer look at Team Switzerland:
The name everyone talked about coming into the tournament for Switzerland was none other than Nino Niederreiter, fifth overall pick by the New York Islanders in 2010. He was a hero for the surprising Swiss last year and was thought to be a driving force to getting them into the medal round. His three points don’t sound like much, but he’s been a difference maker for this team. He’s a constant threat and can be difficult to shut down.
I’ve been a fan of Swiss goaltender Benjamin Conz since I saw him at the 2008 U18 Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid. He was outstanding in that tournament against snipers like Jeremy Morin, Mikael Granlund, Toni Rajala and Kyle Palmieiri, but got little offense from his teammates there. He’s played every minute for Switzerland at the World Junior Championship. Conz has posted a 3.67 GAA and .896 save percentage. The U.S. cannot allow him to get confidence early, otherwise Conz can get on a bit of a roll. Scoring early has never been more important for the U.S. in this tournament than it is tonight.
The reviews regarding 2011 Draft-eligible defenseman Gregory Hofmann have been pretty positive. He has three points to lead the Swiss blue liners. Hofman was by far their best defenseman at the 2010 World Under-18 Championship in Belarus; a tournament in which the Swiss beat Canada in the preliminary round. He’s had experience and has tasted a little bit of success, so he should be a solid contributor for Switzerland going forward.
Inti Pestoni is actually the leading point-getter for this team with four (2-2). He’s undersized, but skilled. Having produced at this tournament, he’s probably got some confidence. It’s going to get tested tonight.
Now Back to the U.S.:
The pressure is on a little bit tonight. We saw how Team USA reacted when challenged against Finland, so it’s not like they haven’t faced adversity in this tournament. As long as the Americans are able to stick to their game against Switzerland, I don’t think there will be many problems getting the bye. The way the U.S. coaching staff has handled this team doesn’t lead me to believe there will be any mental breakdowns out there.
The U.S. has made so few mistakes, and when they have, they’ve been able to recover quickly.
I expect to see another big night for Team USA’s defensemen like Jon Merrill and Justin Faulk. They should get some chances. I keep wondering when I get to write about Nick Leddy. He’s been good, but hasn’t really stood out. Sometimes that’s a really good thing. I love the way he skates and moves the puck. Will he be one to breakout?
As astutely mentioned by PotvinRocks in the comments of this morning’s recap of USA-Germany, the Ryan Bourque-Nick Bjugstad-Emerson Etem line hasn’t produced much in the way of goals, despite generating a ton of chances. I’m not really that concerned about it. I think that those three are good enough to be able to avoid frustration and just keep working out there. They’ve all put a ton of shots on net (22 all together) and have two goals as a group. We might see Keith Allain split them up a little bit if he feels the need to get any of them going offensively, but I really don’t know that its necessary. It will come. Patience is a virtue in this tournament and those three should have it.
In a bit of an update, Jason Zucker DID skate today during practice, but his status for the game is still not known. In any event, the fact that he was practicing is a good sign. Hopefully he’s back tonight, but if not, it’s beginning to look like he’ll be healthy enough for the medal round. That’s great news. Having the U.S. back to full strength (knock on wood) for the medal round is going to be a nice boost. We haven’t seen the full 22 on the ice since Finland, so who knows what that could look like with the way the squad has improved as a unit.
So here are tonight’s key’s to victory:
– Get to Conz early and don’t let him build confidence
– Contain Switzerland’s highly skilled forwards with tight checking
– Pressure the defense with speed and physicality
Here’s some pre-game links for you on this New Year’s Eve:
Patrick King of Sportsnet.ca had some words of advice for his fellow Canadians after lacking a bit of class in the Norway game. That’s pretty brave. Here’s Nathan White’s tale of the more friendly variety of Canadian fan.
Canada and Sweden are in a rather big game of their own today.