2017 World Juniors: USA beats Switzerland in tough quarterfinal; Greenway, Bracco, Parsons among standouts

usawjcSurvive and advance. At this point of the World Junior Championship, that’s all that matters. With heavy emphasis on survival, the U.S. will count themselves lucky to be advancing.

In a 3-2 win, the U.S. can’t be at all happy with the way it played amid an absolutely relentless Switzerland that controlled the second half of the game pretty handily. A third-period goal by Jordan Greenway scored 18 seconds after Switzerland had tied the game, proved to be the difference as the Americans advanced to a Wednesday semifinal date with Russia.

The game had started just fine as the U.S. got a pair of first-period goals to put Switzerland on its heels early. Jeremy Bracco finished a nice backdoor pass from Troy Terry to open the scoring on the power play before Luke Kunin doubled the lead with his first goal of the tournament.

From then on, it was the Nico Hischier show, with the U.S. falling into counter-punch mode over the last two periods. Hischier scored a pair on the power play and was the best player on the ice the entire game. It looked like Switzerland had taken control of the third period after Hischier scored his second goalie.

Then they gave the game right back to USA after an unfortunately-placed stick led to a tripping call. USA scored seven seconds into the power play thanks to Greenway’s excellent net-front play (see below) to make it 3-2.

Meanwhile, Tyler Parsons was excellent as the last line of defense, making several huge saves in the final four minutes of the game, none bigger than his glove-handed robbery of Hischier who was completely left alone in front. He finished the game with 19 saves, but the quality chances he faced were far greater than this U.S. team should have allowed.

Here are five takeaways from USA’s uneasy quarterfinal game.

1. This wasn’t the same team that beat Canada

Thanks, Captain Obvious.

The U.S. had played near-perfect games back-to-back when it beat Russia and Canada. All of the things that made them successful in that game seemed to fall by the wayside against Switzerland. Team USA certainly did not look like a team that had rolled through its preliminary round without a loss.

Perhaps it was overconfidence or maybe they just weren’t ready for how hard Switzerland was going to be on them at both ends. On top of that, the U.S. wasn’t making the simple plays that they thrived with in games against more skilled opponents. But the Swiss had just enough talent in their lineup to make Team USA earn everything.

There just wasn’t a lot the U.S. did well and then it seemed as though they kept declining as the game wore on. They needed the Swiss to make mistakes because they just weren’t good enough at even strength. Lucky for them, they pounced when their best opportunities presented themselves.

2. Switzerland also played a really great game

I don’t want this to seem like it was just the USA’s fault that this game ended with the score it did, because that would not be fair to how well Switzerland played. They came in with a desire to be aggressive and push the pace offensively, but to also play a really physical game where they were taking away time and space from the Americans with a tremendous level of success.

On top of that, Nico Hischier is an exceptional talent and will no doubt be among the first five picks in the draft this year. He very nearly tied the game with what would have been his third goal. His first goal was a thing of beauty as he just weaved right through the U.S. defense who could basically only watch him go by.

The Swiss have been getting better and better as a hockey nation. They’ve usually had to lean heavily on two or three players to get them through. That’s still true, but the supporting cast is far better than it was before. The game plan seems to be better, too. They executed extremely well and limited their mistakes.

Additionally I thought Joren van Pottelberghe was really good between the pipes, allowing just one goal at even strength.

Unfortunately for the Swiss, they’re still facing a deficit against the power countries. They had enough to contend today, but they didn’t quite have enough to finish. It was still a remarkable effort. There’s a reason USA only had 17 shots on goal.

3. What needs to be cleaned up before the semis

There’s a lot that the coaches are going to need to go over with the U.S. players before they meet Russia for the second time. An effort like that is going to end their gold-medal hopes as the Russians are far more opportunistic and have a lot more players that can hurt you.

One of the more alarming things about the game was how the U.S. was making a lot of low-percentage plays very early in the game. That’s especially true of the defensemen, who were not helping matters with their passing early on. But then it just kept getting worse. There were a lot of pucks turned over, which is something the U.S. had been limiting previously.

Having been so precise against Russia and Canada, and having had so much success winning puck battles, it was a bit jarring to see the U.S. lack any amount of crispness and lose as many one-on-one battles as they did. There were a lot of errant passes, poor decisions and forced plays, especially bad-angle shots that ended up as a Swiss transition the other way. Switzerland was letting the game come to them more.

This is why I think the U.S. may have come into the game a bit overconfident. They got away from the things that got them there. Part of that was how well Switzerland executed, but there were so many things that just seemed off about Team USA.

Another area of concern, after having done so well in the last two games, was the American PK. They got awfully loose and ended up giving up a pair of goals while down a man. The other key is obviously not giving up too many chances on the power play and the U.S. took far too many offensive-zone penalties.

One other area that really stuck out to me, particularly in the third period is how loose Team USA’s D-zone coverage was. There were a lot of Swiss players making uncontested plays in the U.S. zone. You think back to the Canada and Russia games and they weren’t letting many plays go uncontested in their zone. This was as panicked as we’ve seen Team USA’s defense and it only got worse as the game went on.

4. They found a way

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom after this one. Jordan Greenway getting that goal 18 seconds after Switzerland tied it really helped keep things under control. The Swiss had this huge moment to get that goal that made it 2-2 and they had zero chance to take advantage of it before they were trailing again.

The U.S. still hasn’t trailed in any game in this tournament, but getting a test like they just did against the Swiss benefits them going forward. It’s something they can learn from, but they also showed — just as they did when Canada started to get a little life — that they have the ability to respond to the big emotional swings in a game with a shrug. That’s so important in this tournament.

There have been years in this tournament where you can pinpoint the exact moment the wheels fell off for a U.S. team. There hasn’t been anything like that so far in this tournament for the U.S. They just keep playing.

5. This team’s greatest challenge awaits

Coming off of that 3-2 win over Russia in the prelims, this U.S. team can have some confidence, but if they think Wednesday’s game will be anything like that first meeting, they won’t know what hit them.

A U.S. team has never beaten Russia in a medal-round game in this tournament. Seven times, including in each of the last three years, Russia has ended Team USA’s bid for gold. While history may not mean much to these specific players and their chances, there is something to be learned from the past.

One thing you can pretty much guarantee, at least in the World Juniors, is that Russia is going to force their opponent to play almost perfectly in order to advance. They are so good in the elimination round, which is why they have medals in six straight WJCs. Only one of those are gold, but they’ve reached the final four out of those six times. This is when they take things up a notch.

Team USA is going to have to stay out of the box and play even better than they did to end the preliminary round. There’s no question that if they play like they did Monday against the Swiss, they will have to settle for playing for bronze.

Stray notes:

  • Switzerland outshot the U.S. 21-17. USA had been averaging about 34 shots a game coming into the contest. That’s a stunning drop in shots on target.
  • Defenseman Charlie McAvoy and center Luke Kunin led Team USA in time-on-ice, with each playing 21:36.
  • Clayton Keller picked up an assist to extend his team lead to eight points. Jordan Greenway had two points to improve his total to six points in the tournament, good for second on the squad.
  • Despite the tightness of the game, the U.S. was able to use pretty much the entirety of its lineup. All but one skater had at least 11 minutes of ice time.
  • Head coach Bob Motzko hasn’t committed to a starter for the semifinal, saying that he can’t go wrong with either. One thing to consider: the semifinal and gold-medal game are on back-to-back days. If USA keeps the rotation going as they have, they’d be able to leave Parsons as the fresh option. We’ll see where they go with this.

Players of note:

Tyler Parsons (London, CGY): Sometimes you need your goaltender to bail you out and Parsons seemed to do that in the third period. He made seven saves in the third period and all of them were huge. He was under siege in the last few minutes and just kept making saves. The stop he made on Hischier could stand out as one of the most important moments for Team USA in this tournament when it’s all over.

Jordan Greenway (Boston U., MIN): The 2017 World Juniors very well could be remembered in part as the arrival of Greenway as a big-time prospect. The 6-5, 230-pounder has been really tough on opposing teams and he showed why again on his third period goal. His ability to establish a net-front presence, on top of having enough skill to make touch plays near the net is going to make him a challenging opponent at any level. I think he still needs to improve his finish just a little to become a big-time power forward, but all the tools are there for him to do it. He’s had a huge impact on this team with six points so far in the tournament. But let’s take a look at the play he made to essentially win the game for the U.S. This was not an easy tap-in based on his body position.

Jeremy Bracco (Kitchener, TOR): Bracco was one of the few guys in this game who continued pushing his game forward. He’s been a little better in each game in this tournament and he continues to be a threat offensively. He scored Team USA’s first goal on a nice finish, but the play I liked even more was his assist that ended up leading to Luke Kunin’s goal. His footwork is outstanding and when you combine that with his vision and offensive-zone awareness, he’s a difficult guy to keep in check. Here are both of Bracco’s scoring plays.

Luke Kunin (Wisconsin, MIN): Kunin was finally able to score a goal after pouring pucks to the net in his first four games. It certainly wasn’t a pretty goal from USA’s captain, but it was at least good to see him rewarded. He has been such an important part of this team, not just for his leadership, but for his versatility. He shoulders a huge workload for this team up front and is often among USA’s ice-time leaders.  The faith this coaching staff has in their captain has been rewarded time and time again.

Charlie McAvoy (Boston U., BOS): McAvoy has been really good in this tournament. The amount he has to play may not allow him to have a flawless game, because he’s constantly asked to play the toughest minutes. That said, he does a lot of little things well and continued to in this one. One thing that has improved a lot from last year at this tournament is his decisiveness. He’s making better plays and doing it confidently. McAvoy has done pretty much everything this team has needed him to.

Joey Anderson (Minnesota-Duluth; NJD): There hasn’t been a lot of time for Anderson to stand out because he’s not gotten a really consistent shift, but he did against Switzerland and I’m guessing he will in future games, too. One thing I’ve noticed about Anderson is that he’s had some trouble when it comes to finishing plays in the offensive zone. He has just one assist despite playing mostly with Colin White and Clayton Keller. That said, he has consistently been a really strong forward on the back check and in the D zone. Having speed like he does goes a long way.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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