The first day of competition at the World Junior Championship came to a close after three tight matchups and one comical blowout.
The U.S. National Junior Team avoided an early scare, using a third-period comeback to earn a 2-1 win over a Slovakia squad that got some spectacular goaltending. In other action, Sweden defeated Finland 2-1; the Czech Republic squeaked past Switzerland in overtime, 2-1; and Canada rolled over Denmark 14-0 (I am totally fine with Mr. Worldwide, but if I hear Pitbull’s ‘Don’t Stop The Party’ 14 times in the span of two hours again, my ears will start bleeding).
But we’ll focus on the U.S. first and I have a few other thoughts on the rest of the tournament that I’ll share a little later. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Alright, so if you don’t know, I’m starting the tournament observing games in Vancouver. I’ll get to Victoria later in the week to catch USA’s two biggest games — against Sweden and Finland. I did, however watch Team USA’s game on TV and have rewatched it with fewer distractions around.
Based on what I saw, the game didn’t look a lot different than many first games of the tournament. That was Team USA’s first game with that lineup all in there. They hadn’t made cuts prior to the last pre-tournament game and I think that showed. With the new administration led by John Vanbiesbrouck, getting every bit of information they could out of the camp process was prudent. You just have to be that much more prepared for that first game when you finally do have the full roster.
Speaking of the full roster, here is how USA lined up in their first game:
There was some disjointedness to start. The U.S. owned the puck for most of the game, but they weren’t crisp enough to finish chances and complete plays. There was some poor puck management and a few times lost puck battles and puck races nearly cost them. Slovakia’s lone goal came off of a play where USA had numbers and still lost the board battle.
The power play looked fine for the most part. Even when it wasn’t firing on all cylinders, they were generating good chances. Oliver Wahlstrom and Jason Robertson had a few chances to get their elite shots off. The puck moved around the zone well. But it really came alive during the third period when Mikey Anderson’s shot from the center point flew into the upper left corner. That goal came on the heels of some expert puck movement and great use of the open ice, particularly by young Jack Hughes.
The important thing is that the U.S. got better in the third period. When they had to make plays, they did. Evan Barratt’s confident backhander for the go-ahead goal was a thing of beauty and an ample reward for a game in which I thought he was a driver for Team USA.
The Americans also got to see what Kyle Keyser was all about. He made key stops throughout the game, some of which where he showed his athleticism and ability to battle and then a key penalty shot save that basically sealed up the win for the U.S.
All-in-all it was a game to build off of and probably not a lot more than that. I think there is still a lot more to learn about this U.S. roster and they didn’t come close to playing their best hockey. That’s often the case at the start of the tournament and there is something to the old adage that you want to get better as the tournament progresses. There’s plenty of room for improvement.
The U.S. has today off and then it’s a game against Kazakhstan on Friday. Their schedule is pretty backloaded, which means Team USA has to make sure Friday’s game isn’t just a lazy slopfest against an inferior opponent. Watching the way Canada rolled through Denmark, it was businesslike, cold and probably effective over the long term for them as well.
Here are some player notes from the game against Slovakia…
Evan Barratt (CHI): The first Penn Stater to make the U.S. National Junior Team made his presence felt immediately. Barratt is one of USA’s more physical and strongest players. He was good on the walls for the most part and provided good puck support. He also scored the game-winning goal and was the screen on Team USA’s game-tying goal with good net-front presence. USA had a hard time getting to the middle of the ice against Slovakia, who played very disciplined in their own end. Barratt scored his goal from the middle of the ice, surprising the goalie with a quick backhander. Barratt is using his size well and playing the exact style of game USA needed him to.
Jason Robertson (DAL): I thought Robertson was excellent over the course of the game in doing his job. He generated some great chances, earned a penalty shot and was at least a threat on the power play. The thing that stood out the most however is that he played with jump. His skating has improved over the last few years and he closed on pucks and showed some separation skill that was aided by quicker feet. He’s not going to win any speedskating contests, but his footwork is really helping open up his offensive game even more.
Ryan Poehling (MTL): A natural center playing on the wing, I thought Poehling rewarded the coaching staff for the decision they made to put him with Josh Norris and Jason Robertson. He is a natural playmaker and his heady-play showed the maturity he’s earned since the last time he was in this tournament. Poehling also did well on the walls and made patient plays. He and Robertson look like a good match, with Norris serving as the disrupter, giving his wingers more room to make plays.
Quinn Hughes (VAN): USA’s No. 1 defenseman, Hughes played 19:26 and got one shot on net. When the U.S. was down 1-0 in the third, I thought Hughes elevated his game even more. His ability to get the puck up ice and especially out of the U.S. zone remains one of his best qualities. He didn’t play a perfect game as he had a hard time hitting the net when he had some looks and there were a few turnovers that I think you just have to live with in the way Hughes plays. He also had a pretty decent defensive stick in the game, disrupting Slovakia’s attack at times. He is a key player and the coaching staff is letting him play his game.
Jack Hughes (2019): The 17-year-old’s World Junior debut ended with an assist and two shots on goal. That doesn’t necessarily indicate the impact he had on the game, though. The Slovkian team didn’t have many answers for the way Jack Hughes can navigate the offensive zone. He extends plays and give his linemates time to get open or chances for shooting lanes to open for himself. Some of his chances were blocked, but there were few outright giveaways. It was also very clear that Slovakia was trying to be extra physical with the young Hughes. He took some shots in the game, but the important thing is that he got right up from each one looking unfazed. He didn’t shrink a bit on the big stage, but he can and will play better.
Tyler Madden (VAN): I thought Madden had a really strong game. He finished with an assist and played with speed and skill. I think he’s gotten a lot better over the last year and is playing with some great confidence. He has make-em-miss skill, which is a huge benefit. The one area I’d like to see him clean up, and this is something I saw a lot last year and in Wednesday’s game — he has to finish those plays better. He makes the space for himself, but then he misfires on the pass or throws the puck into bad ice. If he can complete those plays, which we’ve seen him do plenty at Northeastern, he’s going to make a much bigger impact on this tournament. That said, seeing him create more ice for himself and making Evan Barratt a bigger threat in the process is huge for his game.
Mikey Anderson (LAK): The U.S. captain had a strong game that included some physical play and the important power-play goal. That goal came off of a nice shot with a little hesitation and through an Evan Barratt screen. Those are the moments you need your returning players to step up and he did in a big way. Anderson also had some tone-setting plays where he took the body and some nice up-ice rushes that showcased how he can be used in transition. He played 19:06 and was USA’s most utilized defensemen in the third period.
Kyle Keyser (BOS): His first start in a game that counted for Team USA at any level, Keyser showed he was ready for the challenge. Without him, the U.S. is likely looking at a really disappointing result. He didn’t face a ton of quality chances, but the ones he did he was all over. That included the penalty-shot save late in the game that basically put USA in the clear. Keyser finished with 13 saves and looked comfortable in the role he’s been given. Based on the way the schedule works out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Keyser play a portion of the Kazakhstan game before being relieved in preparation for the game the following day against Sweden. Should the U.S. give either of their other goalies a look, that would probably be fine, but if Keyser’s the guy, you have to listen to him a bit in what he needs to be ready for the rest of the tournament.
Some other stray thoughts from Day 1
This is going to be a really fun year in terms of the players here. Canada has a loaded team, the Czechs managed to get some stars like Martin Necas (CAR), Filip Zadina (DET), Martin Kaut (COL) to return from last year’s fourth-place team. The Finns got some key returnees like Eeli Tolvanaen (NSH), Henri Jokiharju (CHI) and Urho Vaakanainen (BOS). Russia is going to be led by a superstar line of Klim Kostin (STL), Grigori Denisenko (FLA) and Vitali Kravtsov (NYR). The Americans have the Hughes brothers and a host of other high-profile prospects. Sweden’s D corps led by Erik Brannstrom (VGK) and Adam Boqvist (CHI) is going to be super entertaining. The list goes on. This is a great tournament this year and I think it will only get better as the players get more comfortable.
I am so excited to see this tournament play out and watch established stars thrive and new ones emerge. It’s what makes the WJC great. Yesterday was not a great showcase for the tournament, but the best is yet to come.
On Denmark’s 14-0 loss…
I know that there has been a lot of handwringing, as there often is when Canada blows out one of the bottom two teams. It’s understandable. Those games are not fun to watch and they make you feel bad. But here’s the thing. Denmark is in the World Juniors for the fifth straight season. Their players are being exposed to the best of the best the world has to offer and they have no delusions of grandeur. They want to win, but they also know that just staying in the top division is a victory.
The World Junior Championship is a TV event, which is why I think we often lose sight of the fact of where it actually stands in the pecking order of the hockey world. It is a nice measuring stick for teams, but for the nations that are struggling it gives them far more. It’s a learning experience, a development opportunity and the dividends won’t be paid off for several years.
The opportunities players get at the World Junior and U18 level get carried with them to the Men’s World Championship, to the Olympics and for a select few, the NHL. They get to see how close or how far they are away from teams and what they need to do to get there. For the coaching staff and management teams, it’s a chance to see which players are really part of their longterm future.
It is not fun, but I feel like it’s necessary. Denmark being in the top division this long is not a mistake or a fluke. It has been earned. They understand where they’re at, but they played for the right to learn these lessons. It is a source of pride for those players to keep the streak alive.
It’s not ideal for spectators, but while they still sell tickets and air those games on TV, they’re not really for us anyway.