The U.S. opened the World Junior effort with a 6-1 win over Latvia, starting the tournament on the right foot in the standings, but there will be a fair amount to work on before the team gets into the meat of its preliminary round schedule.
Taking advantage of a Latvian team that had quite a bit of defensive discipline, but a lack of precision offensively, the U.S. skill shone through. That said, it was far from a pristine effort, which is more or less to be expected in the tournament’s opening game. It gives the staff some time to make adjustments and for the players to settle in to their surroundings and gel a bit more with their teammates.
I don’t think there was much wrong with the effort or competitiveness of the team, but some of the decisions and Team USA’s inability to establish and set the pace the game needed to be played at were among the concerning takeaways from this one.
You want to start off with a win and avoid any traps, which the U.S. did, but it’s just fair to expect them to play a lot better on Wednesday against Slovakia.
Here are some takeaways and some thoughts on some thoughts on the notable player performances.
1. Top forwards performed at a high level
While the U.S. started slow, you could see many of their top players carrying the play. Team USA’s top line of Clayton Keller, Colin White and Tage Thompson were a continual threat. Each of them were making big plays and giving the opposing defenses fits.
Keller in particular seemed to get better and better as the game wore on, while White and Thompson made some key plays. Accounting for three of the goals Team USA scored, this trio looks like they’re poised to be leaned on heavily and have a big tournament.
The other lines seemed to start clicking more and more late in the game, which is what you want to see in the first game regardless of the opponent.
The way the lineup is structured, there is skill on every line. Kieffer Bellows was threatening a lot in the game while playing a lot on the fourth line. He was one of the guys who missed the net on a few key chances, but he’s going to bury more of those than he isn’t.
Jeremy Bracco had some nice moments in the game, too, including scoring a goal on a sneaky shot. He spent most of the game on the third line and plays a key role on the half wall on USA’s second PP unit.
Meanwhile, USA’s first goal came from 13th forward Patrick Harper, who I probably would have liked to have seen get more ice time. He and Joey Anderson seemed to rotate in on the fourth line.
2. Puck-movement issues plagued USA early
Whenever you hear about teams playing fast, it’s not just about skating. A lot more of it has to do with the quickness the puck moves up and down the ice. The U.S. rarely was able to dictate the pace because of sloppiness in the puck-moving department.
It wasn’t all game, but particularly early, they’d see many of their rushes either fully stopped or slowed down through the neutral zone. Latvia played pretty disciplined in the middle, which made it more difficult, but that’s the kind of things you have to fight through in the tournament and against more skilled teams, those mistakes get amplified.
Team USA’s blue line bears a lot of the responsibility for the inconsistencies in puck movement. I like how aggressive they were being, but the number of turnovers they were committing could get them burned in the future. We can chalk it up to first-game jitters, but it’s worth watching going forward as the more opportunistic teams (like Russia) tend to make those kinds of mistakes hurt a lot more.
The good news for Team USA is that they got a lot better at moving the puck and playing fast as the game wore on. This team is going to be one of the better skating teams in the tournament. If they can add some precision to their puck movement, then they’re a more deadly team.
3. Other areas for improvement
Some of the areas that head coach Bob Motzko highlighted at the end of the game on NHL Network that he wanted to see improve included penalties and how much the team missed the net.
Team USA took seven minor penalties. Many of them off of stick infractions, which shouldn’t happen as frequently against opponents like Latvia. Several of those penalties came directly off of turnovers and one retaliation penalty caused the U.S. to lose out on a power play. Those should be relatively easy to clean up.
As for missing the net, that’s something that should improve as the team settles into the tournament, but it was kind of alarming at how many quality chances the U.S. blew up because they missed the net. Motzko counted somewhere around 15 missed shots.
In tighter games, the U.S. can’t afford to miss when they have open looks.
4. Third period inspires more confidence
If we’re trying to figure out what Team USA is going to look like in the tournament, you’d have to think the third period is the closest example to what this team is as opposed to the first two.
That’s where we started to see more pace, started to see the power play get more comfortable and some of the depth players get a little more jump. The defense calmed down a great deal, too.
After registering just 15 shots through the first two periods total, Team USA put 15 on net in the third alone. It was night and day from the first 40 minutes. If they play more like that, they’ll be mostly OK.
5. Stats of note:
- Charlie McAvoy led all U.S. players with 20:12 of ice time. Luke Kunin was second with 20:11.
- Team USA won 74 percent of their faceoffs. Colin White and Luke Kunin were particularly dominant by winning 80 percent of their draws.
- Jordan Greenway, named U.S. player of the game, led Team USA with seven shots on goal in the game, many of them coming from in tight. He had five shots on net, including a goal, during the third period.
- Team USA allowed only 12 shots on goal in the game, including just two in the first period. Tyler Parsons made 11 saves.
- USA killed all five power plays against them.
- This was the 10th consecutive World Junior Championship that started with a win for Team USA.
Players of note:
Colin White (OTT): Even when the U.S. was struggling, I thought White rose above it a little bit. He has really good speed and makes Team USA’s top line more defensively responsible. He scored off of a nice rush play to pick up right where he left off from the last World Juniors. As one of the leaders of this team, White is going to be important in so many ways, but he got off to a really good start with a goal and an assist, while logging 19:39 of ice time.
Clayton Keller (ARI): One of the key offensive performers for this team coming into the tournament, Keller made good on that expectation with a pair of goals. Because of the amount of penalty killing the U.S. had to do in the game, his ice time was down from where it probably should be. He was more dangerous as the game wore on and made a really nice play for his second goal, stripping a Latvian player of the puck before wiring a wrister past the goalie. Him getting going in the first game is a great sign for what’s to come for Team USA.
Tage Thompson (STL): For such a big guy, Thompson has developed great touch. He was making plays with both his size and his hands, and probably had his best moment on the assist to Colin White’s goal that made it 2-1 (see above). Thompson, however, was one of the players that was missing the net on a few really good chances, either because of blocks or just going wide. He’s a goal scorer, so the U.S. needs him to bury those chances, but all in all, he was a big part of why the top line was so dangerous.
Jack Ahcan (2017 eligible): I thought Ahcan was one of Team USA’s most consistent defensemen from start to finish. He made a lot of good decisions and has some solid puck-moving ability. What also stood out to me was his defensive responsiblity and his willingness to engage physically. He is the team’s smallest defenseman, but doesn’t play like it as he has a lot of sturdiness to his smaller frame. Ahcan finishedthird among U.S. defensemen in ice time in the game and could see his role continue to expand if he plays as he did Monday.
Tyler Parsons (CGY): He didn’t have much work, but Parsons made a couple of really strong saves and only got beaten on a breakaway. I think the U.S. would like him to be the guy for the tournament and he did nothing to disqualify himself from handling that job. We’ll see if the U.S. goes back to him against Slovakia or saves him for Russia, which will come on back-to-back nights. They have the depth to split those Wednesday-Thursday starts, with Joe Woll likely to get the start if USA chooses to go that route.
Jordan Greenway (MIN): The U.S. is going to be looking for Greenway to use that big 6-foot-5, 230-pound body of his and he did that against Latvia. He is the net-front guy on the top power play unit and often found himself parked in the middle at even strength. The U.S. has not had a ton of guys over the years that are able to be a true net-front force. They may have that with Greenway, who is going to take as much punishment as he dishes out with the role he’s been asked to play. He was named Team USA’s player of the game for his one-goal, seven-shot performance.
Troy Terry (ANA): Terry very quietly had a nice game. He ended up with two assists and I thought he was one of the players that was able to establish some pace at various points in the game. Terry got some power-play time and also showed some of the versatility that got him on this roster.
Adam Fox (CGY): While he didn’t play a perfect game, Fox made some really nice decisions with the puck and ended up being second among U.S. defensemen in ice time. His best attribute is his puck-moving and that was on display, as was his patience. He was one of the only U.S. defensemen that didn’t get caught trying to force plays very often. Fox should be a transition weapon for this team.
Here is the IIHF’s full highlight package for the game: