The U.S. National Junior Team has started the World Junior Championship off right with a pair of wins. That was to be expected with Latvia and Slovakia offering the least resistance to start the tournament. Now the Americans face their toughest test, with an even bigger one looming Saturday.
Team USA meets Russia Thursday (3:30 p.m., NHL Network) in a preliminary-round game that at least has major seeding implications. A win for the U.S. means they can finish no lower in second in Group B regardless of the result against Canada on New Year’s Eve.
More than that, however, Thursday’s game is a chance for this U.S. squad to prove itself against a team that has been one of the most consistent medal threats at the World Juniors. Six straight medals for Russia, with four of them under current head coach Valeri Bragin, shows that they know how to win in this tournament, even if only one of those medals is gold. There’s a lot more than luck going into Russia’s frequent trips to the semifinals.
Russia has been a thorn in the Americans’ side in this tournament for decades, too, but particularly so over the last few years as Team USA enters this contest on a five-game losing streak. Records in previous years may not matter with the high rate of turnover when it comes to players. That said, each of the last three tournaments ending at the hands of Russia has not been by mistake and often feel a little too familiar.
The failure of recent U.S. teams, and this was particularly evident in last year’s semifinal loss, has been not learning from past mistakes. The first is underestimating Russia’s defensive capabilities, because if there’s one thing Valeri Bragin has done, it is make that team tough to score against. That was what really stood out during last year’s semi. With all of the offensive talent the U.S. had, they were only able to muster one goal and couldn’t find the answers.
In this year’s tournament opener, Canada was able to exploit Russia’s lack of defensive discipline in the first game of the tournament. The U.S. shouldn’t count on that to be the case against them, especially with Bragin having some extra time to work with his team. The structure that Bragin’s teams have played with makes teams work hard for their chances.
You have to be creative to get through the Russian defenses. Pace is a huge factor in getting them to break down and loosen up defensively. So is precision in transition, particularly in plays made through the neutral zone. Those two things go hand-in-hand.
Another frequent theme, which was refreshingly not part of last year’s semifinal stumble, is penalties. The U.S. has to stay out of the box against this team. Allowing too many power plays to Russia is asking for a loss. Few teams are more deadly, especially when it comes to 5-on-3 power plays. At that point, you may as well just expect a goal.
One of the other recent hallmarks of Russian teams is the exceptional goaltending they’ve gotten. The U.S. should expect to see Washington Capitals pick Ilya Samsanov Thursday, meaning they’re going to have to try to get things rolling early. He is an extremely aggressive goalie, so the U.S. is going to have to cash in more on those second chances than looking to beat him off the first shot.
Offense off the rush and staying out of the box are going to be two huge keys in this one, but here’s a look at some of the other things to look for in today’s game.
USA’s projected lineup vs. Russia:
Clayton Keller – Colin White – Joey Anderson
Jordan Greenway – Luke Kunin – Jeremy Bracco
Kieffer Bellows – Jack Roslovic – Tage Thompson
Erik Foley – Tanner Laczynski – Troy Terry
Caleb Jones – Charlie McAvoy
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox
Jack Ahcan – Joe Cecconi
Some changes to note from the way the lines started last night:
- Kieffer Bellows sticks with Jack Roslovic and Tage Thompson after starting first two games on the fourth line. Really like this move, based on how the three played after being put together last night. USA basically has two second lines as opposed to a traditional 1-2-3-4, based on the skill level here.
- Erik Foley slides down to the fourth line, which is where it seemed like he should go. That third group brings a lot of energy, but they have scoring punch with Terry on the right side. I think this is a better setup than any previous one.
- Tyler Parsons gets the start after sitting out the game vs. Slovakia. So he’ll be fresh between the pipes.
- Jeremy Bracco is an ideal setup man for big Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin looking to be fed in the slot. He should have a chance to shine more offensively, doing what he does best with bigger, more physical players to help make some space for him.
USA’s defense gets its first real challenge
Team USA’s blue line did not have a great showing early against Latvia, but was miles better against Slovakia. Now they face an opponent that is going to be able to establish more of an attack against them.
They haven’t been forced to make many plays under duress, which is something they better count on for this game. Getting the puck out of their zone and limiting Russia’s ability to set anything up offensively is going to be a huge key.
They’re also going to be a big part of how the U.S. can break through Russia’s defensive setups. Making good reads in breaking the puck out of the zone and not trying to force passes is a huge part of how the Americans can have some success. Russia is as opportunistic as any team in the tournament, traditionally, and they pounce on mistakes. They’ll pick their spots.
We’re going to learn a lot about the seven guys USA Hockey brought to this tournament to patrol the blue line. It’s going to be a tough one to pass, but if they do, it sets up Team USA for a much brighter outlook the rest of the way.
Tyler Parsons better be ready to work
No matter how well the defense plays in this game, USA is going to allow shots. It’s just going to happen. Russia has plenty of skill and speed, so they’re going to get their chances. That means goaltending has to be sharp.
Parsons is expected to get the nod against Russia after having limited work in his debut against Latvia. He didn’t play in last night’s game, so he should be good and rested for what is sure to be one of the more challenging games of his young career.
Parsons has been in pressure situations before, but this is going to be at another level than the Memorial Cup. How he handles the pace and the work load in this one is going to be very revealing about the guy that appears to have Team USA’s No. 1 job locked up.
Keep an eye on USA’s energy level down the stretch
The schedule makers for this tournament did USA absolutely no favors. Playing Wednesday night before having to turn around and play an opponent coming off of a day’s rest in the afternoon is hardly ideal. That said, these are the types of situations you have to prepare for and deal with during the World Juniors.
Head coach Bob Motzko and his staff made sure that the forwards had their ice time distributed more evenly against Slovakia. Everyone was getting regular shifts late in the game, with the U.S. letting their best players sit for longer periods of time. That’s the benefit of turning Wednesday night’s game into a blowout in the second period.
Even though these guys are young and resilient, it takes a lot to play a game on short rest, especially one against a rival with some stakes. It is going to be so important for the U.S. to have a strong start and try to knock Russia off their game early.
I think we might see the U.S. jumble the lines a bit more in this game to try and give Russia different looks, while trying to keep legs as fresh as possible.
This should be a really interesting game, with plenty left to find out about Team USA. It all starts at 3:30 p.m. ET on NHL Network.
Check back later for a USA lineup once it becomes available.