Happy New Year, everyone! Now the real fun begins at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. From here on out, it’s win or watch your tournament end. The U.S. National Junior Team will meet Russia in the quarterfinals at 6 a.m. ET. The game will be carried live on NHL Network with a free live stream on NHL.com for fans in the U.S.
The U.S. faces a tough road if they want to repeat as gold medalists at the World Junior Championship. Running into Russia in the quarterfinal is certainly a difficult draw coming off of the disappointing 3-2 loss to Canada in the preliminary round.
Russia presents a unique challenge to the U.S. as a highly-skilled team with an excellent goaltender between the pipes. Russia’s defense is only OK, but as a team they’ve had some solid games in the tournament. A 3-2 loss to Sweden and stunning 4-1 loss to Finland is how the Russians ended up in third place.
It’s not as well known as the USA-Canada rivalry, but at the U20 level and below, USA-Russia is a very solid rivalry in its own right. These players have gone head-to-head since they were about 16 and there have been some classic match-ups between the two sides. Notably, the Russians beat Team USA 2-1 last year at the World Juniors, putting the U.S. in a tough spot. This game is going to be unpredictable and probably very close to the end. It should be a great quarterfinal in the most evenly-matched of the games in the opening stage of the medal round.
Team USA Update
The U.S. has to quickly shake off the sting of losing to Canada and get ready to go against a very good Russian team. The U.S. didn’t play altogether poorly against Canada, but they struggled in the latter half of the second period and early in the third, which put them in a hole. They can’t afford the same fate against Russia with big Andrei Vasilevski in net.
The U.S. once again should have all hands on deck heading into the game with its full lineup. The bench got shortened up quite a bit late in the game. The U.S. hasn’t had too many other instances where they weren’t getting four lines rolling consistently. They will need the whole lineup against a speedy, skilled Russian squad.
This will also be the earliest game the U.S. has played at the WJC this year, in terms of time of day. The noon local time start is not ideal for either team. Those early games sometimes take a while to get settled down as the routine for the players gets muddied a bit. A team that gets off to a quick start could have an advantage in the game.
Team USA is the least penalized team coming into the playoff round, but they’ve had some costly ones in terms of when they happened. Team USA has 36 minutes in penalties, all of which have come on minors. That type of discipline will matter against Russia, which has a great power play.
This game is obviously huge for both teams. Anytime you’re in an elimination game, everything gets tighter. The nerves get going and there can be mistakes for some players. For others, the intensity of the situation sharpens them. Where will the U.S. fall on that scale? Well, there are a lot of guys who have played in this situation in other tournaments and have had some success. That certainly helps heading into Thursday.
The U.S. hasn’t met Russia in the playoff round in some time at the World Junior Championship, but have an 0-4 record in elimination games against Russia. So the history isn’t favorable, but the U.S. has been a lot better at this tournament in recent years. The U.S. has won six of their last seven trips to the quarterfinals.
Russia finished group play with a somewhat surprising 2-0-0-2 record. They rolled over Switzerland and Norway with relative ease, but ran into a pair of hot goalies in Sweden and Finland respectively.
The team’s most important player in this and any game for Russia is goaltender Andrei Vasilevski. The Tampa Bay Lightning first-round pick has been excellent in the KHL this year and is in his third World Junior Championship. He has great size and the experience certainly counts for something. He sat in the 4-1 loss to Finland, which ended up being a bad decision, and then played very well in a tough loss to Sweden.
Up front, the Russians have a lot of high-end skill led by their top line of Mikhail Grigorenko, Anton Slepyshev and Pavel Buchnevich. Other guys that can really make things happen include Bogdan Yakimov and Ivan Barbashev. If you give any of Russia’s forwards time and space, they can make you pay. As a team, they have a lot of guys that can finish the chances they’re given. That is especially true on the power play.
Russia has scored on eight of 17 advantages in the tournament, which is good for second behind the U.S. They are good at drawing penalties with their skill and essentially live off their power play in tougher games.
The defense is OK for Russia. They won’t wow you and they could get overwhelmed by Team USA’s speed. Nikita Zadorov, who spent time with the Sabres this year, is a high-end player on the back end though, so having a guy like him makes them a bit tougher on the back end.
Here’s a look at the highlights from Russia’s last game against Sweden.
Official USA Lineup vs. Russia
USA Hockey released its lineup here.
17 Kerdiles – 10 O’Regan – 11 Barber
23 Matteau – 15 Eichel – 21 Hartman
19 Erne – 9 Copp – 22 Fasching
14 DiPauli – 13 Hinostroza – 25 Shore
3 McCoshen – 7 Grzelcyk
2 Skjei – 28 Carrick
4 Butcher – 16 Santini
Not Dressed: 35 Demko
Three Keys for Team USA
Stay Smart — If the U.S. starts taking penalties in this game and lets Russia’s power play work their magic, it’s going to be bad news for the Americans. They should be the better team 5v5 against most of Russia’s lineup, so avoiding penalty trouble and not giving Russia anything cheap is going to be a big key. Team USA got sunk by third-period penalties against Canada and will probably have learned from those mistakes. Staying disciplined and letting their speed do the work instead of their sticks will be important.
Own the Middle — This Russian team does very well when they get looks at the net. If the U.S. can control the middle of the ice in their own zone, they’ll limit chances and keep the Russians to the outside where it will be tougher to score. The U.S. has to have a presence at the net front at the other end as well. Allowing Vasilevski clean looks at the puck is going to make him tough to put it past. The U.S. has too many strong forwards up front not to be getting to the net and making things difficult. Being the better team between the dots will lead to success.
Battle — This has a couple of meanings. The first is that the U.S. should be able to win a lot of the battles in the game. Puck battles along the boards and at the net front should be where the U.S. is often the better team. They’re too strong for Russia to push them around, so they have to be ready to go there. The second meaning is that the U.S. has to keep its battle level up for 60 minutes. The Americans were dominant against Canada early and when Canada pushed back, the U.S. didn’t respond emphatically enough. The U.S. has to be the more competitive team with their backs against the wall. Settling nerves and doing the work right away will make this U.S. squad tough to beat.
All games will air live on NHL Network Thursday. USA-Russia will also simultaneously stream live on NHL.com. All Times Eastern
USA vs. Russia — 6 a.m.
Finland vs. Czech Republic — 8:30 a.m.
Canada vs. Switzerland — 11 a.m.
Sweden vs. Slovakia — 1:30 p.m.
– USA Hockey’s official game notes for the quarterfinal matchup (USAHockey.com)
– Tournament scoring leaders include Anthony Mantha of Canada and Slovakia’s Martin Reway and David Griger, who all have 10 points. (PDF via IIHF.com)
– USA leads the tournament in power-play efficiency with a 50 percent success rate (11-for-22). Here are other team stats. (PDF via IIHF.com)
– Team USA has five Illinois natives on the roster, showing growth of the game in the state and a sign of where it is going in the future. (USAHockey.com)
– Mike Morreale previews USA-Russia (NHL.com)
I’ll have a full recap soon after the game, so be sure to check back and as always, I’ll be tweeting throughout the game if you’re waking up.