Normally exhibition games are next to meaningless. A chance to work on things, get familiar with teammates and fine tune the team, is usually the order of the day in a non-tournament game. That won’t be the case tonight for the 22 U.S. National Junior Team candidates that will suit up against Russia tonight in Red Deer, Alberta (7 p.m. MST). For several players, this game could be the difference between making the team and being sent home.
It’ll be a nice change of pace for the U.S. team that has had six ice sessions in the last four days. Instead of going head-to-head with the guys in the USA crest, they’ll get to hit some guys in different colors for once. It just so happens the guys they get to go up against tonight are ones the U.S. players generally don’t like.
Sure, this is a pre-tournament game, but that doesn’t mean emotions won’t run high.
For the U.S. coaching staff, it’ll be mostly for evaluation purposes. For the players, especially the ones fighting for their World Junior lives, this is going to be war. They have to show they’ll compete tonight.
In a way, the U.S. couldn’t have asked for a better opponent for its first of two pre-cut exhibitions. The U.S. candidates will be competing against each other for spots, but getting a crack at a rival definitely ups the stakes a little bit. Perhaps it’s just that little bit of added motivation that will make this game a little more exciting for the guys on the ice and the people in the stands.
For the U.S. players, tonight means business. It’s not just a “practice game.” This is fighting for a job.
As Dean Blais explained to The Pipeline Show’s Guy Flaming after practice Monday:
“No one here has played their way off the team which is kind of unusual when you get 28 or 29 guys competing.”
That is pretty unusual, and I don’t think that’s just coachspeak. Blais isn’t usually one to mince words, so the fact that all 28 guys are still in the mix makes for some incredibly difficult decisions.
However, when these players get into game action, there will be some separation between the ones that belong and the ones that don’t. That will be especially true against Team Russia tonight.
The Russians are the defending champs at the World Junior Championship and come into this year’s tournament with arguably an even more talented team than last year. Russia is particularly stacked at forward and is likely the most skilled team in the entire tournament.
The roster boasts the two players likely to go No. 1 and No. 2 in this year’s NHL Entry Draft in Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko. Then there’s the lesser known, but equally dangerous, Nikita Kucherov, who set the Under-18 World Championship scoring record last year in Germany. Throw in uber-skilled Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Alexander Khokhlachev, Vladislav Namestnikov and more and you have one frightening forward line up.
Russia’s defense and goaltending may be a bit of a concern, but with all of that firepower up front, it may not matter much. Russia is a sure-fire contender for gold. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, for Team USA, Russia is on the other side of the bracket in the tournament. So if the U.S. is to meet Russia again, it would be in the medal round.
The good news is that Team USA has an opponent that will really push them tonight. The skill and speed of Team Russia will show the U.S. staff just which players have the pace to keep up with some of the world’s elite. Russia can really exploit its opponent’s weaknesses.
This could be a particularly telling night for the defensemen, who will have all they can handle when the puck drops in Red Deer. If the D is able to hold some of Russia’s elite forwards in check, that bodes well for the U.S.
The American forwards will have to show that they can skate with a group with good team speed like Russia. One thing you can always count on from a Russian team is that it will take risks for the sake of offense. The U.S. forwards have to capitalize on mistakes and show that when they get the chance, the pucks going in the net.
For the goaltenders, their spots are already safe, so it’s just a matter of locking in and staying sharp.
This game will serve as Dean Blais’ best evaluation tool yet for the group that’s been assembled.
Normally, in a team’s first game, mistakes could be excused maybe. A lack of familiarity, nerves, or anything like that won’t be a good enough excuse. Every shift matters and every mistake will too. The roster is scheduled to be announced Thursday morning on USAHockey.com. Tonight is going to give the American staff a very good indication of its final roster, with maybe the last 2-4 spots determined after Wednesday’s exhibition against the Swiss.
Pay special attention to tonight’s scratches for the U.S. This is just speculation, but some of the guys that don’t dress tonight might already be part of Team USA’s plans. With the significance of this game for evaluation purposes, it wouldn’t make much sense to send out guys you know you’ll have, unless you want to see how they play with some other candidate. That’s purely speculatory, but keeping an eye on the scratches is never a bad idea at this stage. They’ll always tell you something, even if you’re not sure what.
USA Hockey’s World Junior Blog will be giving live updates for this game as there will be no video of this game available. I’d also anticipate the blog posting Team USA’s line-up, which should be intriguing.
A few final notes on the exhibition:
The game will be played with IIHF rules, which is why the U.S. can only dress 22 players.
Also, any incidents in the game in which a potentially suspendable offense occurs will be reviewed by the IIHF. Any supplemental discipline (i.e. suspensions) would carry over to the actual tournament. So it’s important for all to play within the rules.
Canada met Finland in an exhibition contest in Calgary Monday night. The Canadians took the game, 3-1, and thoroughly out-played Finland for much of the closing 40 minutes. If you care to take a gander at the game, you can watch the archive here. Both Canada and Finland are in Group B with Team USA, meaning the Americans will meet both these clubs in the preliminary round of the World Juniors.
Since it’s the first game for both squads against an international foe, there’s only a little to be learned. Still every little bit helps. So here’s just a few brief notes. Keep in mind, as the tournament nears and the stakes get higher, it’ll be a lot easier to analyze opponents.
Some quick notes on Canada:
They looked mostly like your typical Team Canada out there against Finland, playing a pretty quick, physical game. The Canadians out-skated and out-muscled Finland with relative ease.
This is going to be a very formidable Canadian team, without question. They’ve got a lot of versatility.
Colorado College’s Jaden Schwartz seemed to be the best player on the ice for most of the night, even out-playing budding Finnish superstar Mikael Granlund. Schwartz, who skated for the USHL’s Tri-City Storm prior to heading to CC, is a dynamic playmaker. He created space and set the table for a few teammates. Should have had about four assists with the set-ups he was offering.
Hockey Canada must be thanking their lucky stars that Devante Smith-Pelly was made available by Anaheim for the tournament. He hit everything and was creating some havoc with his feet. He’ll be a dangerous player in this tournament.
Notes on Finland:
The Finns have a plethora of skill in their top-six forwards. Teemu Pulkkinen was the goal scorer for Finland and should be counted on to fill the net a lot for this team. Mikael Granlund was held mostly in check, but he still made plenty of plays and showed flashes of skill.
Finland is also a young team, with several players under 18 still. That youth showed as there were several mistakes made out there by the younger players. The defense also struggled mightily at clearing the zone, controlling rebounds and making good decisions.
The Finns have time to work out the kinks, but one thing that will be a bit of a disadvantage is speed. Canada has a pretty quick team and it overwhelmed Finland in spurts. The scoring chances came few and far between and winning puck races was a chore.
Regardless of performance in what amounts to a meaningless hockey game, Finland has a lot of skill and very well could be threatening to an unsuspecting team in the medal round. I just don’t think they have the goods to stick with the elites.
Mike Morreale had some post-game reaction for NHL.com.
USA Hockey’s World Junior blog recaps Monday’s two-hour practice. In the end-of-practice shootout competition, goaltender John Gibson stole the show stopping 11 straight shooters, including Kyle Rau three times.
It’s linked above, but definitely read Guy Flaming’s report from Monday’s U.S. practice.
Mike Morreale caught up with Jack Campbell to get the veteran’s World Junior Camp perspective. Campbell also had a few kind words for youngster Seth Jones.
After news broke that Charlie Coyle was leaving Boston University for Saint John in the QMJHL, rumors began to swirl about other Americans leaving school. Adam Clendening shot down rumors that he’d be headed to the OHL after the WJC. Rumors regarding fellow USA camper Connor Brickley and his Vermont teammate Mike Paliotta also turned out to be unfounded. Flaming caught up with Brickley regarding that very topic in the link above.
For the latest roster movement among World Junior teams, IIHF.com has you covered.
Say, did you know there’s an official song for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship? Did you know there’s also an official music video for the official song? Why wouldn’t there be?
Germany will return to the top flight of the World Junior Championship after winning the 2011 IIHF World Under-20 Division 1A tournament. With Germany’s next few birth years, they could stick around for a bit this time. Especially now that only one team gets relegated.
Bruce Peter of Puck Worlds recaps Team Germany’s tournament and take a look at other nations earning promotions through the international Under-20 ranks.
The IIHF caught up with Team USA GM Jim Johannson for a video preview of The U.S. National Junior Team and where the junior program is overall.