World Jr. A Challenge: Preliminary Round Recap

The U.S. Junior Select Team came in to the World Junior A Challenge as three-time defending champ and the likely favorite to take its fourth title. With a team full of USHL players and the two best Americans skating in the BCHL, there’s a lot to like about Team USA.

However, the road to the title hit a pretty sizable speedbump in the form of Oscar Dansk, Team Sweden goaltender and a product of Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

In its first game, Team USA peppered Dansk with 51 shots, including a few on breakaways, but the 1994-born netminder stopped every one of them. With just six seconds remaining in regulation Ludvig Nilsson’s shot bounced off and over goaltender Zane Gothberg and into the net. Sweden took the first prelim round game, 1-0.

The U.S. had 48 hours to stew over the loss and came out guns blazing Wednesday night against tournament host, Canada West. Behind a two-goal, one-assist performance from Wild draft pick and Notre Dame-bound Mario Lucia, Team USA dominated Canada-West, 6-1.

After finishing 1-1 in the prelim round, the U.S. ended up in second place in Group A, meaning Sweden got the bye to the semifinals. The U.S. will meet Russia today at 4 p.m. PST (7 p.m. EST Live on FASTHockey.com for free) in quarterfinal action. Should Team USA get past the Russians, they’ll have to face Group B winner, Canada-East.

Coming up after the jump, a look at some of Team USA’s top performers and overall team analysis…

The 1-0 loss to Sweden had to sting. The U.S. did everything but score in that game. It’s a bad night when you put 51 shots on goal and can’t get a single one to drop. It’s more of a credit to Dansk. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap, and the young goaltender was incredible.

The U.S. carried the pace of the game, dominated in the physical aspects and out-everythinged the younger Swedish club. One bad bounce was all it took for Sweden to win the game. Sometimes it’s just not your night.

Against Canada West, the U.S. put their speed and skill on display. The game wasn’t as physical as one would expect in a Canada-USA game, but it was still entertaining, as the U.S. was able to open things up offensively.

Canada West seemed to match up better with the U.S., and were able to get more chances than Sweden, but Ryan McKay was very good for the U.S. in between the pipes (more on him in a bit).

Team USA’s first four goals came from special teams. The first two were scored on the power play, the next two came shorthanded and finally the last two were at even strength. Special teams is one of the toughest things to get together in a short tournament like this with unfamiliar players. It looks like they’ve settled in.

The U.S. was very opportunistic and did a nice job of making smart plays to get to the pucks to the net and not just shooting to shoot. They looked like they’ve settled in pretty well with each other. That’s half the battle right there.

Here’s a look at some of the top performers…

Mario Lucia — Lucia was pretty solid last night. He was all over the offensive zone making things happen. In the first period, he assisted on Sean Kuraly’s goal, by getting a well-placed, low shot to the net for Kuraly to tip. Shortly after that, Lucia collected a rebound and fired it into the net. His final goal, was actually quite pretty. Coming off of a beautifully timed drop pass from Austyn Young, Lucia rifled the puck into the top-right corner. He’s still tall and a bit lanky, but if Lucia can add muscle to his frame, he’s got the skills to become an offensive presence. After a game like that, there’s no question he’ll be one of Team USA’s go-to forwards in the playoff round.

Sean Kuraly — Kuraly was particularly good Wednesday night. He looked like a veteran out there, winning draws, making good decisions with the puck and creating chances in front. The San Jose fifth rounder is a pretty solid skater and has some great offensive awareness. I thought he has played a pretty mature game so far.

Brian Cooper — The undersized 2012 Draft-eligible defenseman showed what he’s capable of when he’s on his game Wednesday. He’s getting a lot of PP time with Jordan Schmaltz and the pair of offensive Dmen can really move the puck. He skates incredibly well and he has to at his size. I’m still not sold Cooper is going to be a top-half of the draft selection, but he’s proving he warrants some long looks.

Vince Hinostroza — I’ve liked Hinostroza for a few years now, after seeing him at the NTDP tryout camp in 2010. He didn’t end up making the squad, but he showed a lot of spark and that good on-ice work ethic that he still possesses today. He’s really improved his skating and the skills are beginning to develop more too. I liked what I saw out of him at the Ivan Hlinka and I’m liking what I’m seeing at the WJAC. The 2012 Draft-eligible is one of the younger guys on the roster, but has been used in all types of situations and has handled them well.

Ryan McKay — Watching Ryan McKay on Wednesday, he just looks the part. He’s got great body language and always looked in control. The only goal he gave up came on a 2-on-1 that was just perfectly timed. The netminder made 29 saves. He’s an undrafted 1992, but is headed to Miami University, which has been home to some of the best goaltenders in college hockey. He’ll fit right in.

Ethan Prow — An undrafted 1992-born defenseman, Prow has looked impressive so far. He’s logged some important minutes for Regg Simon, who is also Prow’s coach with the Des Moines Buccaneers. I didn’t know much about Prow coming into this tournament, but he’s certainly made his presence felt for Team USA, playing a very steady game on the back end.

Some other notes…

Jordan Schmaltz has not looked like a top-10 or even top-20 pick so far. You still see the skills and the tools that will likely keep him in the first round. However, he’s made some questionable decisions with the puck, most namely an offensive-zone turnover that resulted in Sweden’s goal with six seconds remaining in regulation. Turnovers have been a bugaboo for Schmaltz and something he needs to overcome quickly. This is a tournament in which a first-round draft pick should be dominating and I haven’t seen that yet. That isn’t to say he’s played bad, just not what you’d expect from an elite prospect.

Austin Cangelosi has looked really good in spurts, but hasn’t maintained a consistent level of offense. I love his skating and his puck skills seem to be coming along nicely. He is certainly a threat, but I just haven’t seen as much as I was expecting.

Riley Bourbonnais and A.J. Michaelson  haven’t really made themselves too noticeable so far, either. Michaelson, in his first year of eligibility, seems to continue sliding down the charts. I believed this tournament would be a chance for him to showcase his abilities, but that hasn’t materialized. The situation is more dire for a player like Bourbonnais in his second year of eligibility. He needs to prove he deserves a second look.

Despite being the youngest player on the team and still a year away from draft-eligibility, Ian McCoshen, hasn’t looked out of place to me. He’s still learning and developing, but he could really turn out to be an exciting USHL prospect over the course of these next two seasons.

The U.S. will have a tough job to do against Russia this evening, as the Americans will likely face Andrei Vasilevsky, one of the better Russian goaltending prospects in some time. It’s going to take some high-quality shots to get the puck past the big Russian, who may be one of the top goaltenders available for the 2012 Draft. Without the bye to the semis, it’s a longer road to the title, so the U.S. will have to rise to the occasion if it wants to maintain the championship streak.

Our next World Junior A Challenge recap on USofH will come Monday, when all is said and done. Until then, I’ll be providing updates on Twitter regarding Team USA’s progress, so follow me, why don’t ya?

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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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