2012 WJC: USA vs. Finland Reviewed

There’s plenty to be taken away from Team USA’s 4-1 loss to Finland. The U.S. got Finland’s best game as expected and didn’t respond with enough to react to that. Now, the U.S. National Junior Team faces a more difficult path if it hopes to make it to the medal round.

Sami Aittokallio came up big for Finland. (Photo: Dave Arnold)

Team USA’s Friday afternoon contest against the Czech Republic is about to as close to a must-win as it gets after today’s loss.

Finland had a terrific game plan coming into the game and got great goaltending from Sami Aittokallio and certainly earned that win. However, the U.S. has plenty to point to as reasons it lost this hockey game. All that and more after the jump…

What Happened?

Finland scored four goals in the hockey game. How many of those goals came off of U.S. mistakes? All of them.

You cannot give a team with elite forwards any gifts.

Finland’s first goal was a result of five American players running around their own zone like  it was a men’s league game. After a failed pass up the half-wall, Team USA got all crossed up in their own zone and Miikka Salomaki was so wide open he could have had a late lunch before wiring the puck past John Gibson.

After Team USA had tied the game right away in the third period, it seemed like the tide was turning and the U.S. was going to have an easier time offensively after being stymied for much of the contest.

Mikael Granlund (Photo: Dave Arnold)

If you want to pinpoint one spot as the turning point of the period, it was right after Team USA ended up on the power play. John Gibson got in the way of a forward trying to coast just above the crease and was whistled for interference, killing a big chance for the U.S. with the man advantage.

It was a bad decision and took the wind out of Team USA’s sails a bit, or at least tempered the momentum.

With both teams skating four a side, Joel Armia took advantage of a Derek Forbort turnover and skated through a diving poke check from Jacob Trouba, then beat Gibson five hole.

Just 29 seconds later, Mikael Granlund won a battle along the boards and threw a puck towards the net that went off of Jon Merrill’s skate and in. You might chalk that up to bad luck, but after that Armia goal, the U.S. seemed to tighten up.

Then another D-zone turnover led to Joel Armia’s second goal that somehow found it’s way under and through Gibson.

Gibson not to blame for loss. (Photo: Dave Arnold)

There’s plenty of blame to be dished around, but I saw far too much of it being heaped on John Gibson on Twitter. Perhaps the last Armia goal is one he’d like to have back, but I wouldn’t call any of Finland’s other goals soft.

Salomaki has a terrific shot and when he’s given the room, it’s going in. Joel Armia scored twice from point-blank range and one went off a defenseman’s skate. There’s not a lot he can do about those. You can certainly look at the awful penalty Gibson took at one of the worst possible times, but if you say the reason Team USA lost was because it played Gibson and not Jack Campbell, I disagree.

Still, Gibson, being the player that he is, took sole responsibility for the loss in his post-game comments.

The turnovers and mistakes in key situations, oftentimes mistakes by multiple players on the ice, are easy things to point to. You still can’t heap it solely on that though. The U.S. put up 39 shots and only mustered one goal with all of that fire power and that is a real sticking point.

Dean Blais made sweeping changes to the lines from the Denmark game. That wasn’t necessarily surprising as its still early in the tournament and you’re trying to find what works.

Perhaps it was lack of familiarity with linemates or just a lack of being comfortable, but the forwards never seemed to click. I wouldn’t hang the loss on juggling lines either, because these players should be good enough to execute no matter who they’re playing with.

Blais made adjustments to the lineup, especially at the start of the third period, and it paid off immediately with Charlie Coyle winning a faceoff to Emerson Etem and Brandon Saad beating his man to the net early in the third.

Team USA never really took advantage of getting that early third-period goal, though. It was an opportunity to seize control of the game and they just didn’t.

The U.S. was generating plenty of shots over the course of the game, but how many of those shots were quality scoring chances? Not many. Team USA never took control.

Finland never once allowed the U.S. to consistently dictate the pace of the game and made it difficult for the American forwards to get to the net. Instead of trying to keep up with the U.S., the Finns focused on containment and they executed wonderfully.

Every time the U.S. got the puck into Finland’s zone, the Finns protected the slot and allowed very few uncontested shots. Most of Team USA’s shots ended up coming from outside of the prime scoring areas and very little was accomplished below the circles.

Because of that, Team USA was never able to establish sustained pressure for more than a few shifts at a time at various points in the game. That’s not going to cut it.

Sami Aittokallio made some big saves, but he didn’t have to make any of those game-saving stops. He simply stopped the ones he was supposed to and that was enough. Still, 38 saves is a pretty incredible accomplishment for any goaltender.

Every team in this tournament is going to face some kind of adversity. It’s what they do after it that matters. This could be a big wake up call for the U.S., or at least it better be.

The Positives

There are a few positives to be taken out of the game.

Jarred Tinordi was named U.S. P.O.G. (Photo: Dave Arnold)

Jarred Tinordi has been Team USA’s best defenseman through two games. He earned the Player of the Game honors today. Some of the plays he made with his stick were just incredible. He also had a few nice shifts and if he made a mistake, he recovered with a smart play. He was a bright spot.

Jacob Trouba, the 17-year-old draft-eligible, may have been Team USA’s second best blueliner. Some of the plays he made showed off why he’s a likely Top-10 pick next June. His tremendous physical presence and skating were on display today. He even showed off the hands. He’s a minus-2 on the scoresheet, but I don’t think he was at fault on either of the goals against.

T.J. Tynan was a spark plug for most of the evening, particularly in the last 40 minutes. He played the game with speed, was tenacious in his backchecking and created some opportunities. He got more ice time as the game went on and made the most of every shift.

The U.S. definitely was strong in transition. They did a good job of getting pucks up ice quickly. Only problem was when they got it into the offensive zone, they couldn’t keep it there. Finland forced Team USA to take some bad shots.

Team USA generally shut down Finland’s top line of Mikael Granlund, Teemu Pulkkinen and Markus Granlund for much of the game. That’s a tough trio to stop and the U.S. limited them to one goal. However, Finland’s second line was the one that ended up doing some serious damage.

There was a good amount of contact, but the U.S. should be a physically dominant team with its size. The Finnish D were a little too comfortable in their own corners. So it was good to see the physical game get established, it just needs to remain consistent.

What Needs Work

The defense clearly needs to shore up quite a bit. Key mistakes from defensemen resulted in the puck in the net. The decision-making needs to be better on the back end. The turnovers were unforgivable. Could be a long video session for this group.

Team USA took two unnecessary penalties in the game including a slashing penalty on Jason Zucker and the obvious Gibson interference. It didn’t hurt by way of power-play goals against, but certainly can in the future. Special teams is huge in international tournaments and you can’t give up any freebies.

Cohesion. It never felt like, at least to me, that the U.S. forwards were on the same page. If they had been clicking, we should have seen more of that sustained pressure. Once Team USA was in the offensive zone, things became disjointed and even a little scrambled. In a short tournament a team needs to come together quickly… time is running out.

Team USA wants to be a puck-pressuring team. They didn’t pressure enough consistently today, allowing Finland to get comfortable in their own zone. If the forecheck has more teeth, the U.S. is able to force more D-zone mistakes by their opponents. A stronger forecheck against a young Finnish D might have allowed this game to end differently.

Lastly, Team USA has to put together a 60-minute game. They haven’t done that through two games and Finland took advantage of about a seven-minute gap where the U.S. just couldn’t seem to do anything. Against any of the top eight teams in this tournament, lapses like that of today’s third period could prove costly.

Looking Ahead

The U.S. will meet the Czech Republic at 3:30 p.m. EST Friday and will have to come out fired up. The Czechs beat Denmark 7-0 Tuesday and face Team Canada Wednesday night. It’s a team the U.S. should beat, but after a game like today, nothing can be taken for granted. Should the U.S. lose Friday, it can say hello to the relegation round. Scary thought, but that’s what happens when you lose one of the first two preliminary round games.

If you caught the broadcast on NHL Network or NHL.com, they showed a glimpse of Connor Brickley’s morning skate and it wasn’t pretty. The forward looked to be in pretty significant pain in testing out his leg that was cut by a skate in the Denmark game. He’s the type of player that can help set a physical tone for Team USA. The U.S. believes he will recover soon and he’s an incredibly tough athlete. Only time will tell if he’s healed up enough to contribute.

I’ll have a full preview of USA-Czech Republic Friday morning.

Coming up Thursday, we’ll briefly switch gears on USofH to preview the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the U.S. National Under-17 Team USA Hockey is sending to it. The U17 Challenge is the biggest international event in that age level and is a terrific training ground for future World Junior Championship stars. So be sure to check that out tomorrow.

USA Hockey’s been doing a great job with making its video available on YouTube, so I’ll leave you with the thoughts from Team USA’s players and head coach Dean Blais on Wednesday’s loss.

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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.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL, NHL Draft, NTDP, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, World Junior Championship. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to 2012 WJC: USA vs. Finland Reviewed

  1. Anonymous says:

    you are a john gibson apologist. he sucked plain and simple

  2. Anonymous says:

    Merrill has been the best USA def without doubt. Trouba has been 2nd best and probably tinordi would round out top 3!

  3. I didn’t see enough of the game to comment on individual play, but I’m going to put this one on the coaching staff. You have such a small window in which to develop cohesion and chemistry so why have such sweeping changes in your forward lines? I’m thinking they pretty much out coached themselves and over thought this one.

  4. Martin Breen says:

    Wow, where to start. Okay here goes. USA has some highly skilled, excellent hockey players. Unfortunately, hockey is not an individual sport, it is a team sport, basically a 5 man team sport like basketball. USA exhibited no team play at all. I honestly cannot recall any more than 1 or 2 passes at a time. Certainly there was not a lot of continuity at the forward position. To me it looked like a team that has never met before with players that are selfish and entitled. In other words, we are great hockey players we don’t need to give our best tonight kind of entitled.

    And the coach didn’t help the situation, with his stoic demeanor and lack of passion. How about getting in the face of Jason Zucker when he all but disappeared from the game after a few poor shifts? Instead the Coach benches him and Zucker sulks his way to a horrible performance.

    And, Gibson was very weak. He actually could have stopped all the shots but his crease depth was too shallow all night so he gave the Fins huge spots to shoot at.

    On the bright side, Jacob Trouba played very well.

    While I am not hoping we lose, I think we may not do too well here. I have not followed a lot of these birth years but I have watched a ton of 94-97 hockey and I am very worried about the type of players that our advancing to the highest level of the game.

    I wonder if anyone else has any concerns about the “new breed of American hockey player.” Suffice it to say, I grew up in a blue collar town and loved when I played the rich, prep schools kids because I knew they didn’t care about anything but themselves and they would quit when things didn’t go their way. Now we have a bunch of super wealthy kids who get daily private lessons, workout trainers, nutritionists, agents at 14 and 15, no wonder they don’t care about the team or the honor of playing for your country.

    Let me frame it this way. When I played, no one really thought about the NHL or Juniors as everything centered around the team and contributing to the whole. Being the High School stud was enough. Now, maybe because of travel teams, every kid (and parent) thinks their kid will play in the NHL or Juniors so they don’t need the team, that they are bigger and better than the team. If I have to hear another coach tell my kid scouts don’t care about if you’re on a good or bad team again, I am going to scream.

  5. John O'Bannon says:

    This U.S. team looked like it was trying to be way too cute with the puck. One pass too many, and no drive to the net when their goalie was coughing up rebounds. Very dissapointing game. I agree with some of the replies, Gibson was not great. He takes a dumb penalty and looked rattled after that point. It indeed looked like a team that thought itself to be superior, and got caught with it’s pant down. Meanwhile Canada continues to display elite level talent played in a “meat and potatos”
    manner. When will we ever learn?

  6. Bump says:

    Whatever one’s thoughts about the USA, the entire Finland team and their coaches certainly deserve considerable credit for a fine game plan well executed.

  7. We came in knowing defense would be this team’s weakness, and it had shown to be true. Tean USA does not have 6 solid dependable d-men. Their goaltending and offense were supposed to carry the day. What happened yesterday was their goaltending and offense let them down. The forwards did not go to the hard areas. They seemed to busy trying to make “pretty boy” plays. They did not get traffic to the front of the net, get a gritty goal or two and make the Finnish goalie uncomfortable. They allowed him to see the shots and stay comfortable the entire game.

    Contrast that with how Canada has played. They are more physical, seem more determined and are always creating traffic in front of the net and going hard into the corners after pucks. They never let their opponents feel comfortable. On top of that, to this point, both of their goaltenders have looked strong.

    It’s not impossible, but it’s going to be a long road for Team USA to medal in this year’s Tournament. And Canada is looking very “Golden” at this point. But, there’s still two Pool games left to play. Let’s hope the boys respond as true athletes do and elevate their game to where it can and needs to be from here on in.

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