In their second game of the tournament, Team USA looked more like a squad that had settled in. After an easy, but somewhat sloppy win over Latvia, the Americans took the game right to Slovakia and earned a 5-2 win to improve to 2-0 in the tournament.
There was a lot to clean up from that shaky opener, but it looks like the U.S. put the work in to do it. Execution was far better, the pace was faster and the Americans were doing a better job of finishing plays and staying disciplined. They might have taken their foot off the gas in the third period a bit, but overall, it was a superior performance for a team that has its toughest tests ahead of them still.
Team USA got goals from Tanner Laczynski, Colin White, Tage Thompson, Charlie McAvoy and Troy Terry, while getting pretty much the entire lineup involved in the offensive attack, pouring 50 shots on Slovakian goalie Matej Tomek.
Now the U.S. has to get some rest and prepare for an important game against Russia Thursday. Team USA has that unfortunate short turnaround, going from playing at night to going against a well-rested opponent coming off of an off day in the afternoon. The young players are resilient, but that does up the difficulty against an opponent that has had Team USA’s number in this tournament of late.
With a win over Russia, USA would finish no lower than second in Group B, while setting up a chance to win the group against host Canada on New Year’s Eve.
The good news for the Americans is that they’re coming off of a game where they established their game far better than in their first try.
Here are some takeaways, highlights, stats and standout players from Team USA’s big win over Slovakia.
1. USA’s lineup shuffling worked extremely well
The U.S. didn’t waste any times changing their forward lineup and it paid immediate dividends. By shuffling the right wings, particularly moving Tage Thompson away from the top line, coach Bob Motzko was able to balance his forward lines a bit better.
Thompson moving off of the top line wasn’t a demotion, but a chance to give Thompson a chance to be the feature player on his own line. Clayton Keller and Colin White stayed up on the top line, mostly with Joey Anderson on their wing. Thompson spent time with both Luke Kunin and Jack Roslovic in the game and it freed him up to do more creating on his own. With Keller, Thompson and Jeremy Bracco as primary puck handlers on their respective lines, the U.S. doesn’t have much overlap with its most dangerous offensive players.
Meanwhile, the U.S. dropped Troy Terry down the lineup, making their fourth line a little more dangerous and kept floating 13th forward Patrick Harper in and out of the bottom two lines.
Motzko also shuffled the lines around a bit during the game, which I thought helped stoke the offense in a big way. It also spread out the workload, as every forward saw the ice with a regular shift down the stretch. That’s key for staying fresh Thursday.
Plus, this game showed that there is enough skill on this roster that they can mix and match as the situation dictates and everyone seems to be on the same page.
2. This is the kind of pace the U.S. needs to play with
If the U.S. takes a snapshot of this game, they’re going to look at the second period as the template for how they want to play. They dominated the period from the drop of the puck and just skated Slovakia out of the building.
They owned a 19-2 shot edge in the period and kept up a relentless attack.
I’ll get to them in a little more detail in a second, but it’s important to address the role of Team USA’s defense in this game. The puck was so rarely in Team USA’s zone because the blueliners kept everything contained. They defended the offensive blue line superbly, allowing the forwards to get sustained pressure.
The third period wasn’t as crisp for the U.S., but you can live with that with a 5-1 lead at that point and Russia waiting tomorrow afternoon. But if the U.S. plays more periods like that second period, they’re going to be able to hang with the top teams in this tournament.
3. USA improved in penalty department, but…
One of the key areas Motzko wanted Team USA to improve on from Game 1 was the amount of penalties they took. There were only two the whole game, which is a good sign.
Despite only taking two penalties, the two penalty kills were not great. The Slovakians had 12 shots in the first period, and my guess is that eight or nine of them came on their two power plays. Slovakia also scored on their second power play, taking advantage of USA’s PK getting all out of sorts.
This is a little nitpicky for this game, but the PK is going to be crucial against Russia and Canada. Those two teams can kill you on special teams and you know that there are going to be penalties in both of those games. Team USA won’t have any time to practice that PK before Russia, so they’ll just have to try to adjust on the fly after two really shaky PKs.
4. Team USA’s blue line had a really strong bounce-back performance
This was perhaps the most important development of this game. Team USA’s defense was not great against Latvia. They didn’t get burned by their numerous mistakes because it was Latvia, but their performance against Slovakia was night and day.
The Americans want their D to be aggressive, but they were picking their spots better and executing in all zones. The puck-movement was key in keeping up USA’s offensive attack as potent as it was. The best element, however, was USA’s ability to get the puck out of their zone.
Every single defensemen seemed to be getting pucks out cleanly, while making almost every turnover Slovakia committed killed their attack. This game seemed to be far more indicative of the ability of this blue line than the last one.
None of what they did Wednesday will be as easy against Russia or Canada, but this game was such an improvement from the first that it’s a good sign for those two tough tests.
5. Stats of note:
- USA leads Group B with a 2-0-0-0 record and plus-8 goal differential.
- Team USA out-shot Slovakia 50-20, went 1-for-6 on the power play, 1-for-2 on the PK and won 66 percent of their faceoffs.
- Caleb Jones led all U.S. players with 20:09 of ice time.
- Luke Kunin led the way with eight shots on goal
- Clayton Keller won all six faceoffs he took. The natural center has primarily played wing so far in the tournament, but takes draws on his strong side.
- 17 of USA’s 20 skaters have already registered a point in the tournament
Players of note:
Tage Thompson (UConn, STL): The 6-foot-5, 200-pound first-round pick of the Blues has been so good so far in this tournament. Despite that big frame, he is one of the best puckhandlers on this U.S. team and he flashed the hands often in this one. There was no better example than on the absolutely filthy goal he scored to give the U.S. a 3-0 lead. He has been one of Team USA’s most consistent offensive threats.
Clayton Keller (Boston U, ARI): When Keller is on the ice, Team USA is more dangerous. He handles the puck extremely well and is so precise with the plays he makes. He had one assist in this one, coming off of a perfect saucer pass to Colin White. Those two have gelled extremely well together and are making each other better.
Jeremy Bracco (Kitchener, TOR): He didn’t get on the score sheet in this one, but I have really liked the decisions Bracco is making with the puck. He is tremendous at getting the puck into the zone and immediately finding the soft area of the ice and getting himself in position to make a play. Few players in this age group survey the ice as quickly as he can, which means he is going to find the right play most times. I’d like to see him get some more time with some of USA’s more natural snipers, but he makes whatever line he is on a threat.
Charlie McAvoy (Boston U, BOS): I thought McAvoy had a tough game against Latvia, but he was so much better against Slovakia. He scored a power play goal on an absolute rocket, but he was making a lot of smart plays out there, too. This is a guy the U.S. desperately needs to be a leader on the blue line and he looked much more like it in this one. The coaching staff tapered his minutes to keep him fresh for Russia, but he was effective in more limited action.
Joe Woll (BC, TOR): It’s hard for a goalie to stand out in a 5-2 win, but Woll was a huge factor early in the game before Slovakia fell off the pace. He faced 12 shots in the first period and allowed one power-play goal. The previous power-play, he was bailing out his teammates left and right. He also had a key save on a 2-on-1 early that helped the U.S. settle into the game a bit more. I’d expect Tyler Parsons will get the start against Russia, but Woll showed that if the U.S. needs him, he’ll be ready to play.
Caleb Jones (Portland, EDM): Jones was Team USA’s most utilized defenseman and earned the added ice time with his play. He is so aggressive, jumping into plays and getting deep into the zone. He’ll have to pick his spots more judiciously against more skilled teams, but he kept a lot of plays alive by getting a good jump. This should be an affirming game for the coaching staff to hand him the top-four responsibilities they had hoped he would take on.
Jack Roslovic (Manitoba, WPG): Named the U.S. Player of the Game after his two-assist performance, Roslovic was way more engaged in this game than the last. He has such quickness, both with his skating and his ability to move the puck. He kept having linemates jumble around him, but he was extremely reliable in all facets for Team USA.
Joe Cecconi (Michigan, DAL): He’s not going to get a ton of minutes against top competition, but Cecconi had a nice game and was rewarded with two assists. Beyond that, I thought that he was really good at getting pucks up ice. That’s not something he is known for, but he had a really responsible game and allowed the U.S. to extend their bench throughout the game.
Team USA’s top scorers through 2 GP:
Colin White: 2-1–3
Clayton Keller: 2-1–3
Troy Terry: 1-2–3
Tage Thompson: 1-2–3