The U.S. National Junior Team dropped a 4-2 decision to Sweden yesterday in pre-tournament action. The Swedes looked to be the more polished team and certainly had the edge on skill, but the result wasn’t exactly an alarming one for the U.S. squad.
In these pre-tournament tilts, particularly the first two including the one at Minnesota State earlier in the week, the results aren’t exactly of much meaning. The team is still getting a comfort level. There are some players that are trying to make the team still and that adds another element as well.
What you can start looking for is how players are adjusting and what kind of role they’re developing into. That starts to materialize a bit more at this stage. The systems start to come together a bit more as well.
That said, the big test will come Sunday when the U.S. meets Finland in a pre-tournament contest. Finland has some good skill players that will challenge the U.S., but there’s a size and speed advantage for Team USA. In this game, even though there are still cuts to make, you should want to see crisper play from the U.S. and more consistency in every facet of the game. After that, the tournament goes live after a few more practices and the final cuts.
Here are some quick thoughts on the team as a whole and a few individual players…
– The U.S. didn’t play with the pace you’d expect them to for much of the game. The second period was the best for the team, where they seemed more on even footing with Sweden. The skill gap was a bit noticeable, which is why speed has to take over. If they can play with pace and burn teams in transition, they have a chance to close that gap. That kind of consistency will come as the team adjusts and should show more against Finland.
– The PK got burned a couple of times in the game, just with a few blown assignments and an inability to take care of the front of the net. Sweden was having way too many opportunities in tight and that’s something you think could be cleaned up with time and familiarity. The team that controls the middle of the ice, regardless of if it’s on the PK, PP or at even strength, will most times win the game.
– Both of Team USA’s goals were on tip ins, which is probably how this team is going to have to score some times. The biggest problem was when the U.S. had good chances in front to shoot, they either missed the net or couldn’t pick a corner. The lack of finish was a big problem throughout the game. You don’t get a lot of golden opportunities, so you have to bury when you get the chance. To Sweden goalie Oskar Dansk’s credit, he was really solid throughout which made it even tougher to put pucks past him. A few posts and missed shots could have been the difference though.
– The defense got caught flat-footed a little too much, not often, but more than they should. Sebastian Collberg’s goal was kind of a play the U.S. made a little too easy for such a highly skilled player. He easily cruised by four players and was able to get a shot off before Ian McCoshen could get a stick on him. That pretty much iced it at that point. You give credit to Collberg for his speed and skill, but the U.S. made it too easy on him. Take a look…
Some thoughts on players…
– Anthony Stolarz got the start and played the whole game in net. He had a pretty solid effort throughout in making 19 saves. The second goal that went in went off a hand and would have been waved off on review, but there’s no review in exhibitions. He made some solid saves, seemed to keep things fairly simple in net as well. There was the instance on the fourth goal against where he tried shaking his helmet off to stop play, unsuccessfully. Might not want to try that in a tourney game. That said, he showed his quickness and size and didn’t give up any real clunker goals.
– Jack Eichel — The young forward was named Team USA’s best player of the game and it’s not hard to see why. The 17-year-old center was generating chances and putting shots on net. He showed explosiveness at times and creativity in getting around defenders. He just didn’t have the finish. I think he could probably try and utilize his linemates a little more, but he showed some terrific skill and looks pretty locked in to make the final roster.
– Ryan Hartman — Scored a goal on a tip-in and made a lot happen with his speed. He’s just a fearless player, which I think is so important in this tournament. You need guys who will crash the net, take some punishment and also make the good plays under pressure. He does that a lot. He had a nice tip-in for his goal and continued to look like the veteran he is.
– Danny O’Regan — O’Regan scored the other goal, also a tip in. I thought he did a really nice job of centering Nic Kerdiles and Riley Barber, which very well could be Team USA’s top scoring line in the tournament. There was some chemistry there and I think that will only grow. O’Regan, Kerdiles and Barber all sat out the last exhibition game, so they were just getting back together for the first time against Sweden and didn’t really miss a beat.
– Nic Kerdiles — Same with O’Regan, Kerdiles looked really strong after not playing the last exhibition. He generated some chances and got a few good shots away, with Dansk getting the better of him. The size, strength and speed that Kerdiles is showing should make him effective in the tournament.
– Jaccob Slavin — Another strong effort from Slavin, who was not in camp in the summer. He has three assists through two exhibition games and is showing some real smarts with the puck. He didn’t seem to be overmatched in the defensive zone either. Slavin just plays so simply and it’s effective.
– Zach Stepan — Stepan was utilized on Eichel’s line as a left wing, which is a change from the last exhibition when he was the third line center. He showed some versatility and made some things happen in a more offensive role. Stepan showed off some good speed and an ability to get behind the defense and I hadn’t seen that side of his game yet. That puts him in position to possibly play as a 13th forward where he can slot in anywhere in the lineup. That was a solid effort from him.
The U.S. will meet Finland Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET. Due to holiday travel, I most likely won’t be able to view the game, but will hopefully get a hold of the lineup and other notes. Cuts and the final roster are expected to be announced Monday. I’ll have full coverage of those decisions.