Bouncing back will be on the minds of the U.S. Men’s National Team ahead of its Thursday match-up against Belarus. It’s not that bouncing back would be good for Team USA’s self esteem, it’s starting to become a necessity. Over the last two off days, the U.S. has dropped to fifth place in the Helsinki group. The U.S. still has four games to play in the group stage, but at its current spot in the standings, each game’s level of importance increases.
Team USA has to avoid a letdown against a Belarusian team that includes just one NHLer (Mikhail Grabovski). With back-to-back tilts against Belarus and Kazakhstan before a pair against defending champ Finland and Switzerland, which currently sits fourth in the group, the margin of error is thinning.
Coming out of the disappointing loss against Slovakia, the U.S. has had plenty of time to regroup and should be well prepared for Belarus. Meanwhile, Belarus is still within striking distance of a spot in the playoff round.
Belarus is no slouch, either. Each game they’ve played has been decided by one goal, including a 1-0 loss to Finland, 3-2 loss to Switzerland and a 3-2 win over Kazakhstan. This is a team that has played tough in every game.
Coming up after the jump, more notes on this match-up as well as key players for both sides, links and a U.S. roster update.
With a lot on the line for both teams, it should be a spirited hockey game. The U.S. likely got a bit of a wakeup call, while the Belarusians are upset minded. Team Belarus will get Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn on Friday, which means they can help themselves out a great deal with a win Thursday. Getting those two solid NHLers in time for the Saturday game against Slovakia will give Belarus an even better shot at advancing.
The Kostitsyns arriving Friday won’t leave them available to play the U.S., but Team Belarus knows a loss to the U.S. likely renders the brothers irrelevant for a medal hunt. They’ll want to make those additions count for something bigger, for sure.
Team USA will have to prepare for a relentless attack and has to be the team that makes the fewest mistakes. The battle level will have to be higher than it was against Slovakia and the U.S. has to be ready from the drop of the puck, unlike Monday.
The good news is, is that Team USA has two games it can point to where it was able to get things clicking offensively and played a much more consistent style. Being able to look back and focus on the things they did well through two games should help a lot against an inferior opponent on paper, but one that will bring a concerted effort for 60 minutes given the stakes.
The U.S. has had plans to slot in Richard Bachman in goal in one of these next two games. Kazakhstan is winless so far, so it’s likely that’s when Bachman goes. Jimmy Howard has been good enough in his previous starts and with the importance of the game against Belarus, it’s likely he’s the guy again Thursday.
Belarus has an interesting decision as Vitali Koval got the first two starts in goal, however Andrei Mezin, a Belarusian national team staple, was in net for the team’s only win. Who gets the nod is anybody’s guess currently, but both are serviceable netminders with international experience.
If the U.S. takes Belarus too lightly or makes some of the same bad mistakes from the Slovakia game, it could have disastrous results. There’s simply too much on the line for each team to come out flat. Expect a good energy level from both sides and a relatively exciting hockey game.
Bobby Ryan — We’re still waiting to see Bobby Ryan bust out and be the go-to scorer the U.S. has clearly expected him to be. He sees plenty of ice and a good amount of power-play time as well. It’s not that Ryan has played poorly, because he hasn’t. He just hasn’t made the impact you’d expect from a guy that has had as much NHL success as Ryan. That said, his line with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty is a consistent threat. Perhaps this is the game Ryan busts out.
Justin Faulk — After scoring against Slovakia, the 20-year-old defenseman is tied for second on the squad with four points (1g-3a). He had a few tough shifts defensively against Slovakia, but for the most part, Faulk has been a steady presence on the back end and a threat from the offensive blue line. The only player seeing more ice time than Faulk, who is fresh off his rookie season, is Jack Johnson. That’s an impressive level of comfort in Faulk from Scott Gordon. Expect him to continue to flourish in this well-deserved top-four role.
Nate Thompson — The fourth-line center has been a bit of a revelation in this tournament for me. As someone who hasn’t seen Thompson play a great deal, I have continually been impressed with his aggressive, gritty game that has made life tough for opposing defenseman. He’s responsible enough defensively, but it is the general grit he’s shown at both ends that makes him effective. Belarus is going to try and establish some sort of physical game and they’re going to have a tough time matching the energy Team USA’s fourth line brings. That energy starts with Thompson.
Mikhail Grabovski — The lone NHLer on the team (for right now) has hit the 20-goal mark three times in his NHL career. The Toronto Maple Leaf will be an offensive threat for Team Belarus and has a lot of skill. Team USA will have to be aware of him at all times. Grabovski has just one goal, but leads Belarus with 12 shots taken. Only two defenseman have seen more ice time than Grabovski for Belarus. He’s taken 92 shifts in just three games, so Belarus obviously sees him as the go-to forward.
Dmitri Korobov — Korobov has been a workhorse defenseman for Team Belarus, logging over 72 minutes of ice through three games. He’s rewarded his team, posting an even plus-minus for a team that hasn’t scored a lot of goals. He was a stalwart for Dynamo Minsk in the KHL and will play for a rebuilding Lokomotiv Yaroslavl next season. Korbov is also pretty young. He’s just 23 years old and is already a top defenseman for his national team. He should be very intriguing to watch.
Vladimir Denisov — The 27-year-old Belarusian captain has logged a bunch of ice for his squad and has registered an assist. Additionally, he’s also at an even plus-minus. Belarus has been fairly stingy as a team, allowing just seven goals through three games. By keeping teams close and wearing them down, they give themselves a chance to upset. They’ll try to do the same with the U.S. and it will be up to Denisov and Korobov to make it happen.
Smith Added to U.S. Roster
The U.S. may also get a shot in the arm from a new addition. Nashville Predators rookie Craig Smith has been added to the U.S. roster. It is unclear if he will be available for Saturday’s contest.
Smith finished second on last year’s squad with six points (3g-3a) and his performance at the 2011 Worlds was a big factor in Nashville offering him a contract a year earlier than expected. He might not be a big-name addition, but he had a solid rookie campaign (14-22–36 in 72 GP) and was excellent in last year’s tournament. That experience will prove awfully helpful down the stretch. It’s a nice addition for Team USA’s forward group.
It will be interesting to see where Smith gets slotted, as he is a natural center. Team USA’s centermen have been pretty good for the most part, so Smith may have to move to a wing spot. We’ll see how Scott Gordon slots him in, but he can certainly help. J.T. Brown will most likely end up as a scratch, as he’s played two shifts total in the last two games.
Ryan Lasch led the Finnish Elite League in scoring this past season with the Lahti Pelicans. He spoke with USAHockey.com about what its like representing his home country in the country he’s called home for the last year.
Team USA captain Jack Johnson took part in a twitter chat Wednesday through USA Hockey’s twitter feed. Here are his answers.
Speaking of Twitter, USA Hockey created a list of all the players on Team USA that have twitter. You can follow that list here.