The semi-annual New Year’s Eve nightmare is no more as Team USA earned a 3-1 win over Canada to win Group B and reverse a trend that has derailed some previous American teams at the World Juniors.
Team USA and Canada have met eight times since 1998 on New Year’s Eve, with the U.S. losing each of the last six meetings in what has become a marquee game for the World Juniors. Previous U.S. teams, some really good ones even, have been humbled in this game and it was very difficult for them to recover after losing such an emotional contest. That won’t be a problem for the 2017 squad as the U.S. won their group for the first time since the 2011 World Juniors.
Additionally, in the historical context department, this win helped the U.S. achieve something it had never done previously at the World Juniors. Coupled with last year’s win in the tournament opener over Canada, this is the first time in the history of the WJC that Team USA has beaten Canada in the preliminary round in consecutive years. The victories over Canada in the preliminary round have been so few and far between, this is a positive step for USA Hockey.
It’s also a big win for Bob Motzko and his staff, because I thought they game-planned for this one just about perfectly. The way Team USA defended and how they handled the emotional swings of this game comes with preparation. The players still had to execute, though, and they absolutely did. That was particularly true on special teams.
Team USA got goals from Colin White, Jordan Greenway and Jeremy Bracco, while Joe Woll made 25 saves in the win that ensures them first place in Group B. They’ll await the Switzerland, who finished fourth in Group A, in the quarterfinals. That game is slated for Monday and I believe it will end up being played at 5:30 p.m. ET in Toronto. Hoping for confirmation on that soon.
Here are the key takeaways from the win:
1. USA defended well in key areas, particularly in handling Canada’s forecheck/transition
Team USA ended up with only one goal at even strength, so they needed their defense to be sharp and was it ever. Coming off of the incredible game against Russia, where the U.S. blue line dominated, they were excellent once again in this win over Canada. So was the way the U.S. forwards supported in the defensive zone.
To me, that was the biggest difference in this game among many others. The support provided by the forwards on both the backcheck and once Canada got set in the zone was superb. Every player was committed in that department and it made for a much tougher day for Canada once they got into the U.S. zone.
I wish I could see the blocked shots stats for this tournament because it feels like Team USA blocked a ton of them today. There were so many sticks on pucks and bodies flying all over the ice. Passing lanes just weren’t there for Canada and if they opened up, there was backup with a forward getting aggressive. They rarely had a free look at the net without a stick right there to go for the deflection.
The best things the U.S. defense did, however, were the way they were able to keep Canada’s forecheck and transition under wraps. Canada never established a tremendous forecheck, which is a huge part of their game. The U.S. blueliners were getting to pucks and taking hits, but not making panicked plays. Despite the pressure, they kept everything behind their net until they were ready to attempt a transition.
They also forced a lot of loose pucks when Canada attempted to work it down low in the zone. It allowed Team USA to keep their opponents to the outside and they very rarely got set at even strength.
Meanwhile, their play dealing with Canada’s transition was some of the best I’ve seen out of a U.S. team in a while. USA has wanted its D to be aggressive in the offensive zone, but you could see each blueliner recognize when it was time to pull off and protect the neutral zone. They made sure they had numbers back, which was an astute observation by NHL Network color commentator Dave Starman. Then there was always a forward providing support with a backcheck down the middle in the neutral zone and then they stayed high to eliminate high passes once Canada entered the zone.
Very, very little got behind the U.S. today and that made a huge difference in Canada’s inability to establish their offensive game. That was really impressive to me.
2. Special teams played a seismic role in the game
Considering the fact that the U.S. scored each of its first two goals on the power play and the largest swing of the game came during a questionable penalty call, this was the deciding factor of the game.
Team USA struck when given the chance on back-to-back power plays, showing off tremendous puck-movement on the first goal by Colin White and then caught Canada making a mistake on the second one by Jordan Greenway. Those goals set the tone for the rest of the game and allowed the U.S. to make it more difficult on Canada, quieted the crowd and gave Joe Woll a chance to settle into the game.
As great as those goals were, the work the U.S. did on the penalty kill is probably the single biggest reason they won the game. It was a point of emphasis coming into the contest and it was an area that had to be sharp with Canada entering the game with a power play operating at a 57 percent.
They sure got a workout in the second period. There was a really controversial call with Luke Kunin getting a five-minute major and game misconduct at the start of the second period. While I thought it was a terrible call, I went back and looked at the IIHF rule book to be sure. It was the right call. Kunin injured Philippe Myers with a late hit. Rule 150 says a player who injures another on an interference penalty, that player gets an automatic major and game misconduct. The referee called it by the book and Myers was unable to return to the game.
By the way, because Myers was injured and because of the interference rule being what it is, there remains a possibility that Kunin gets suspended. I don’t think he will be, but Myers reportedly suffered a concussion and may be done for the tournament.
With that penalty, Team USA lost their No. 1 shutdown center and their top penalty killing forward. That meant others had to step up. They had to step up even bigger when Charlie McAvoy was whistled for tripping.
Canada managed to score on the 5-on-3 power play, which gave them life, but that was all the U.S. allowed all game. They killed off another 5-on-3 and ended up finishing 5-for-6 on the PK.
It was a tremendous effort by the American PK unit. They blocked so many shots and made sure that Joe Woll was able to see pucks. But Woll had a tough job to do and he did it incredibly well (much more on him in a second).
3. Response to swings in the game became critical
That Kunin penalty could have absolutely killed the U.S. We’ve seen things go south for them after something like that, but because of a strong PK and already having the two-goal lead, they didn’t let it effect them.
However, the goal Jeremy Bracco scored in the second period off of a long rebound was one of the most important moments in the game. It was not long after Team USA saw its lead shrink and they had just spent the last five minutes killing a penalty. Bracco’s goal settled things down after Canada had seemingly taken over the period thanks to their power plays and the zone time they were beginning to establish. It was a monumental goal that helped put the U.S. in position to slow the game down.
The best part is, however, that they didn’t rest on their two-goal lead. They continued to attack, but started getting more conservative with how they attacked. It allowed them to keep pressure on Canada and never allow their opponents to get anything positive going in the last half of the game.
4. USA has the best kind of problem with their goaltending situation
Coming into this game, I was almost certain that Tyler Parsons would start after his brilliant performance against Russia. Coming out of this game, I don’t know what to think.
Joe Woll was simply brilliant in this game. The only goal he allowed was on a 5-on-3 power play and I don’t know if Canada ever looked real close to beating him again, save for a few missed nets and blocked shots. The poise this 18-year-old goalie showed in the game was simply remarkable.
Here’s a Maple Leafs draft pick playing in Toronto, playing against Canada, playing in just his second WJC game and it’s with first place on the line. By his body language and how in control he was all evening, you would have thought it was a summer pickup session.
Woll finished the game with 25 saves and he made a lot of them look easy. His technical skills are outstanding and played a big role in the way the game went. He was just in front of everything.
So what does USA do now? Do they go back to Parsons or do they let Woll build off of the most impressive goaltending performance of the tournament for any U.S. goalie? Bob Motzko has already said that he expects to play Parsons in the quarterfinal to keep the goalie rotation going.
We’ll see where things go from here.
5. If they meet again, USA better be ready for an even better Canadian team
Watching this game, Canada wasn’t at all bad in it. They didn’t have a great first period, but after that, they settled in and it was a big challenge for the U.S. to contain them.
Team USA had the game plan that worked, but they’re going to have to prepare for the possibility of meeting Canada again. The soonest they could meet is the gold-medal game, but if it happens, Canada’s staff will have made the necessary adjustments to better compete.
The U.S. has never beaten Canada twice in the same tournament at the World Juniors. Then again, the U.S. hasn’t beaten Canada a lot in the preliminary round, period. They can go into the next matchup with confidence, if it happens, but they better expect a much, much tougher challenge if gold is on the line.
Stats of Note:
- Team USA has not trailed at any point during the 2017 World Junior Championship.
- Caleb Jones led all U.S. players with 23:29 of ice time. Charlie McAvoy was next with 22:01. Colin White led U.S. forwards with 19:11.
- The U.S. spent 11:48 of the game playing shorthanded.
- Team USA won just 39.6 percent of its faceoffs in this game. Jack Roslovic was Team USA’s only center to finish in the positive (58.3 percent).
- Clayton Keller picked up two more assists to extend his team lead to seven points through four games. Colin White has scored a goal in each of the four games and is one off the tournament lead.
Players of note:
Charlie McAvoy (Boston U, BOS): I’m starting with Team USA’s defensemen, because they were so good in this one. McAvoy was especially great early on in the game. He was a big part of USA’s ability to thwart Canada’s forecheck. If not for the two penalties he took, he’d probably have been USA’s ice time leader. Late in the game, it seemed like he was out there a ton and was, playing 8:10 in the final frame.
Casey Fitzgerald (Boston College, BUF): Another strong showing after his best game of the tournament against Russia. USA was more comfortable using Fitzgerald in key situations and he was out there doing a little bit of everything well. I thought his best decisions came at the offensive blue line, when he made the right reads to back off and prepare for the Canadian transition.
Ryan Lindgren (Minnesota, BOS): Named Team USA’s player of the game, Lindgren had incredibly effective shifts. He blocked a lot of shots, but also was really good when it came to gaining control of the puck in the defensive zone and finding an outlet. There were a lot of instances where he was under heavy pressure and just didn’t flinch.
Caleb Jones (Portland, EDM): Team USA’s ice-time leader was another one of those guys who did a lot of things well throughout the game. Jones was great in his own end and really strong when it came to getting pucks up the ice. All the responsibility he has been given shows the maturation in his game over the last year. You can always feel comfortable with Jones out there.
Colin White (Boston College, OTT): Four games, four goals. White has been consistent throughout the tournament and has been a great match with Clayton Keller. Those two stoke the offense and really seem to play off of each other well. Additionally, White was one of the best two-way forwards in this game. He blocked a shot that I think probably saved a goal on that extended PK and filled the gap left by Luke Kunin. He is one of the emotional leaders of this team and it shows.
Jeremy Bracco (Kitchener, TOR): It was nice to see Bracco get rewarded with the goal because I think he’s had a pretty solid tournament, even if the numbers aren’t coming for him. Bracco makes a lot of good quick reads and when he has time to make a play, he usually makes a good one. He didn’t have a lot of time to get that shot away and he gave the U.S. one of their most important moments in the entire game.
Jordan Greenway (Boston U, MIN): The way Greenway has developed over the last two years should give a lot of hope to Minnesota Wild fans. He played like the power forward he was brought onto this team to be, using his frame to get pucks to the net and make some plays. The move he made to score Team USA’s second goal showed his combination of power and finesse. You need guys like that to impose their will on a game and I thought we saw that more today from Greenway than any other time in the tournament.
Joseph Woll (Boston College, TOR): I already said enough about Woll, but I’ll continue to praise his poise. I don’t know how he felt internally, but on the outside, he exuded confidence. You can’t pinpoint any one save as “the one” that saved the game because he just kept it simple. Now the U.S. has to figure out what to do next.
I could probably write about just about every guy on the roster and maybe when I review the game again, I’ll take a look at a few more. But for now, we’ll leave it there.
It was a really tremendous team effort for the U.S. and now they have a chance to go on a deep run. If they continue playing like this, they have a great shot at bringing another gold medal back to the U.S.
Happy New Year, everyone. We’ll be back with you soon.