It’s been a surprising run for the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2013 IIHF World Championship. With a roster short on superstars and long on inexperience, the fact that Team USA has managed a 5-0-0-1 record with one game left to play in the preliminary round is rather remarkable.
As of Monday morning, Team USA has sole possession of first place in the Helsinki Group, leaving it well positioned for a more favorable draw in the quarterfinals (Germany or Finland). A win of any kind against Slovakia on Tuesday clinches the group for the U.S. A loss opens the door for a quarterfinal bout with either Finland or Russia, so it should be a spirited final preliminary-round game.
Catch up with Team USA’s progress at the World Championship after the jump with how they’ve had such success so far and some of the biggest storylines around the team to date.
There are several key factors at play for Team USA’s success. First off, the line structuring by Joe Sacco and his staff has paid off extremely well. Loading the top line with David Moss, Paul Stastny and Craig Smith has been extremely effective offensively and the trio gets a ton of ice time each game. Having a go-to line in short tournaments is huge. Depth is important, but strength at the top is crucial to tournament success.
Additionally, the younger players on the team are getting more guarded minutes, but being given a chance to contribute, which is huge for the latter stages of the tournament and future national teams.
The biggest factor in the team’s success however may be the fact the players seem to not only want to be there, but to compete. That’s not always been true of these World Championship teams and that has contributed to a near-decade without a medal. The biggest hurdles remain for Team USA in the medal round, but the fact that they’ve put together a tournament like this so far is huge.
Let’s be honest. This isn’t a tournament that captures a lot of attention. That means there’s little pressure on the players from a public opinion standpoint. They are really only accountable to themselves at this point and sometimes that can be a powerful motivator. It’s as if the team is playing with a bit of a chip on its shoulder and has something to prove, it seems.
One more preliminary game against Slovakia and a forthcoming quarterfinal match-up with a yet-to-be-determined opponent will give the U.S. ample opportunity to turn some heads.
Here’s a look at some of the best storylines so far for Team USA…
Paul Stastny’s Dominance
He wears the C for Team USA and has been its best player throughout the tournament. With nine points through six games, Stastny is the squad’s leading scorer and is tied for third overall in the tournament. He has been a factor in every game at both ends of the ice and is looking like the leader he’s been chosen to be.
With the Colorado Avalanche, Stastny is much-maligned for his offensive production not meeting his annual $6.6 million cap hit. He’s paid like a top-line scorer in the league, no question, but Stastny’s value far exceeds his offensive capabilities. Maybe not $6.6 million worth, but his actual talent is overshadowed by the contract.
In a top-line role in Helsinki, Stastny is thriving at both ends of the ice. He’s scored four goals, each of them important, and has also been showing off his two-way capabilities. Stastny is averaging 18:38 of ice time, which trails only top defenseman Justin Faulk.
Stastny is playing at an Olympic level in Helsinki, which should only solidify his position on the 2014 team for Sochi. He won’t be the top-line center there, but he should play a sizable role. He’s been tremendous internationally for USA Hockey and they’ll go with someone they trust.
Gibson is Golden
John Gibson’s place on the roster seemed more like a chance to give a young goalie more of a learning experience. With NHL goaltender Ben Bishop on the roster and AHL netminder Cal Heeter both on the roster, it wasn’t necessarily a sure thing Gibson would ever see the ice.
However, he’s dressed for every game and has made two sensational starts for the Americans. With his performance in those two starts, it’s very possible Gibson has earned the chance to be the No. 1 goalie going forward.
Gibson made his World Championship debut in front of a sold-out Hartwall Arena in Helsinki against host Finland. The Anaheim Ducks prospect didn’t flinch. He made several key stops throughout the game, including one that even made SportsCenter‘s top plays (at 1:11 of the video below) and allowed just one goal as Team USA pulled off the big 4-1 win.
Team USA went back to Bishop, who saw limited shots and gave up two goals against France in the very next game. Gibson then started against Germany, making 30 saves and recording a shutout in a 3-0 win.
Gibson’s numbers in two starts are quite good, obviously. In 120 minutes of action, he has seen 62 shots and made 61 saves for a .984 save percentage and 0.50 goals-against average.
Bishop has made four starts, including against weaker clubs in Latvia, France and Austria, and has been average at best. He has an .875 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against average in 237-plus minutes. While he’s the one with NHL experience, Bishop has been out-played by his young backup.
The big thing about Gibson is that he played seven high-pressure games on an Olympic-sized ice surface in Ufa, Russia, at the World Juniors this year. The wider rink is an adjustment for goalies and Gibson’s played on a lot of Olympic sheets over the last three years through the World Juniors and Under-18s. That experience, with his gold-medal pedigree from winning at both levels, is a big advantage over someone with more NHL experience.
Bishop will be given the benefit of the doubt as one of the NHL guys that said yes to USA Hockey when others said no. That said, Gibson looks like the guy that gives Team USA the best chance to win at this point.
Gibson should get the start against Slovakia Tuesday, just to be sure, and barring a poor performance, likely should have the keys to the car.
Galchenyuk, Oshie Added
With the Canadiens and Blues ousted from the playoffs, the U.S. squad got an influx of skill for the roster going forward.
Alex Galchenyuk, the Habs rookie sensation and a gold medalist with this year’s U.S. National Junior Team, arrived Sunday. He dressed for warm-ups, but did not play in the game against Germany to give him some rest after the long travel.
He apparently practiced with Tim Stapleton and Bobby Butler Monday, which had previously made up Team USA’s second scoring line with Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc.
T.J. Oshie was also added to the roster this weekend. According to USA Hockey, Oshie was scheduled to arrive in Helsinki Monday evening. It is unclear if he will be available for Team USA’s game Tuesday, but obviously he should figure prominently in the medal round.
For Oshie, this could be a brief audition for a spot at the Olympic training camp. He’s certainly in the mix at forward and could do himself a favor by jumping in and contributing immediately. It’s a lot to ask after a grueling playoff series and season, but just saying yes to the invitation goes a long way to helping his cause.
Justin Faulk in Featured Role
The Carolina Hurricanes sophomore is proving to be Team USA’s go-to defenseman in all situations. He plays on all special teams and is the only player on the squad getting over 20 minutes of ice time.
He’s not been perfect in the tournament, but has still made a big impact for Team USA. He gets a lot of ice time against top lines, plays physical and continually shows some top-end puck moving capabilities.
The fact that Faulk is being utilized more than 2010 Olympian Erik Johnson, who has been quite good in Helsinki, and Matt Carle, the team’s elder statesman on the blue line, says a lot about the faith the team has in Faulk.
He has six assists so far to lead Team USA and his six points is tied for most among all defenseman in the tournament.
The 21-year-old defenseman is showing well for a spot at the Olympic orientation camp. He may not get an Olympic nod this year, but he has to be in the mix.
Erik Johnson Playing at Olympian Level
One of the more intriguing and perhaps encouraging developments is just how good Erik Johnson has been at the tournament. He has four points, including a pair of goals and is second on the squad with a plus-6 rating.
Johnson is excelling on the big ice, showing elite-level skating again and making plays all over the ice. He has played physical, sound defense and is doing quite well in transition going both ways.
His career has been sidetracked repeatedly by injuries, but there’s a lot left in the former No. 1 overall pick’s tank. He’s still young and showing that his game can still grow from here. He’s been really good and a big reason for Team USA’s success.
Odds and Ends
— Craig Smith has been outstanding once again at the World Championship. It’s his third straight year being on the team and he’s made a noticeable impact each time. His speed and tenacity on the puck have helped him to a seven-point tournament, good for second on Team USA behind linemate Paul Stastny.
— David Moss has five points, including three goals in the tournament. He’s gelled well with Stastny and Smith, giving Team USA that go-to scoring unit.
— Jacob Trouba was scratched in Team USA’s last game to make room for Galchenyuk, who only took warmup. It’s been a good experience for Trouba, but at times his youth has shown. The 19-year-old defenseman is coming off his freshman year of college, so it’s not a real surprise to see him struggle a bit with the adjustment. To his, and more directly to the coaching staff’s credit, he’s been given a lot of opportunities to get ice time and play in key situations. Trouba has an assist and seven shots on goal, while averaging 13:17 of ice so far. At times he’s struggled with the pace of decision-making, but not necessarily to an alarming degree. The Winnipeg Jets top prospect may be scratched more with the two big roster additions, but he’s played adequately and is getting some very valuable pro-level experience.
— The U.S. leads the tournament in scoring efficiency with a 13.77 team shooting percentage. Team USA’s 23 goals are second only to Switzerland, which is in the middle of a remarkable undefeated run in the Stockholm Group.
— Special teams have been a strong suit for the U.S. The power play has been deadly thus far, with Team USA scoring eight goals on the advantage for a 34.78 percent success rate, good for second in the tournament. The penalty kill has also been sound, allowing just two goals on the disadvantage, for a 90.48 penalty kill rate.
— Lastly, here’s an interview with Jim Johannson, Team USA’s GM and USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations talking 2014 Olympics and World Championship.