It’s always a better end to the story when the team that makes the miraculous comeback also wins the game. That wasn’t meant to be for the U.S. that recovered from an astonishingly poor performance through the first 50 minutes to earn a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to Sweden. The Swedes now have won 47 straight preliminary round games with their last loss coming Dec. 31, 2006 when they lost in overtime to the U.S.
If you turned off the game after Erik Brannstrom easily weaved through USA’s defense to make it 4-0 in the third period, no one would have blamed you. The U.S. was not getting anything going offensively as Sweden’s defensemen were exceptional at limiting chances and getting the puck out of their zone. As Quinn Hughes noted after the game, Sweden had the puck almost the entire first and second periods. Brannstrom was among the most dominant players on the ice, making plays with his feet or quick passes.
The U.S. looked like they were toast. Scoring chances were few and far between, sustained zone time was essentially non-existent. And then the U.S. got a power play when Josh Norris was interfered with by Filip Westerlund. The only other power play the U.S. had was not much better than hapless.
One of the players who really stepped up in the third period was Sasha Chmelevski. He made an incredibly patient play, cutting to the middle before dishing it off to Mikey Anderson for a nice one-timer that snuck through Samuel Ersson. From that moment on, the game flipped on its head.
However, it wasn’t until the U.S. earned another power play after Tyler Madden was knocked down by Isac Lundestrom with 6:57 to play in the game that the U.S. really had life.
Just 22 seconds into that power play, Chmelevski found Oliver Wahlstrom who had Ryan Poehling all by himself for an easy tap-in. It’s 4-2 with 6:35 to play and suddenly things seem more manageable.
Team USA kept buzzing and finally were pushing the pace and for the first time in the game had the Swedish defense on their heels. With goalie Kyle Keyser out of the net, the U.S. put five forwards on the ice with Quinn Hughes, who was absolutely buzzing on that shift. He sent a shot to the net, it got tipped by Wahlstrom and the rebound went right to Poehling who went top shelf to cut the deficit to 4-3 with a mere 37 seconds left. They couldn’t get one more could they? Well…
Of course Poehling was out there again. Defenseman Adam Ginning, who had been excellent for most of the game, tried to make an outlet pass. Poehling got a stick on it the puck and deflected it to Joel Farabee. Poehling then broke for the net. Farabee put it right on his tape and in the immortal words of Joel Quenneville, “Peanut Butter.”
I can honestly say I’ve never seen a U.S. team put together that kind of comeback effort in this tournament. That’s a big positive about the makeup and character of this team. That was the fun part. The less fun part, however, was the 50 minutes that preceded the comeback and the result, which was a 5-4 overtime loss courtesy of a great odd-man break by Adam Boqvist and Lucas Elvenes.
Here are the full highlights from the game:
So let’s get into the analysis portion of the recap…Embed from Getty Images
Before it got good, it was really bad
I can’t tell you how many times over the first two periods I turned to my good pal Mike Morreale from NHL.com saying “I can’t remember the last time a U.S. team got this badly outplayed.” Sweden absolutely owned the puck. Outside of maybe the first three minutes of the game where the U.S. was establishing a forecheck, the Swedish players were winning puck races, dominating board battles and exiting their zone with unsettling ease.
Every defenseman on Sweden’s roster can move the puck and did they ever over the first two periods. They made the American team look slow and while this U.S. team is not as fast as some of the recent teams, but they could not skate with Sweden until they finally got rolling. That’s a concern, but one that could be mitigated slightly if Jack Hughes — who has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury — returns. He’s the team’s fastest skater by a country mile and he can change the dynamic of their lineup when he’s back, assuming he comes back. It is believed he will return at some point.
One of the more concerning things I thought was how many times the U.S. would lose board battles and spring a transition for Sweden. USA is a bigger, stronger team theoretically, and those are the situations where size has to matter a little. Sweden was just better on the puck.
Also, the U.S. was pretty dreadful with their puck management early. A lot of turnovers, a lot of missed passes and bad decisions cost the U.S. Even Quinn Hughes who is usually pretty sure-handed with the puck on his stick had a turnover that ended up in the back of the U.S. net. Those kind of mistakes are really tough to recover from.
“We weren’t handling the puck the way we need to,” captain Mikey Anderson said. “We had countless turnovers going through the middle, we weren’t getting pucks in deep, didn’t have a whole lot of sustained zone time. In those last 10 minutes, everything switched. We started getting pucks behind their D, getting after it, throwing pucks at the net. We doubled our shots the last 10 minutes there. Once we started playing a heavier game, things started going our way.”
The difference was in the defense
If there was an area where the Swedes were far superior than Team USA, it was among defensemen. Four first-rounders (Adam Boqvist, Rasmus Sandin, Nils Lundqvist and Erik Brannstrom), two second rounders (Ginning and Westerlund), and a projected first-rounder in 2019 (Philip Broberg) showed the value of skating and puck-movement among the blueliners.
“We have really good puck-moving D. It’s a lot of fun to see,” said Sweden captain Erik Brannstrom in the understatement of the tournament. “We just try to get the forwards the puck and it worked well today.”
The U.S. has a high-end offensive defenseman in Quinn Hughes and the rest of the group can move the puck fine. Mobility, however, became an issue. Sweden’s speed challenged USA’s defense, even some of their more seasoned guys like Dylan Samberg and Mikey Anderson. It really seemed to challenge USA’s top shutdown guys, Phil Kemp and Mattias Samuelsson as well.
If there was an area where the defense has to be better, it is probably in how they aid the transition. Exits weren’t sharp, puck retrievals weren’t great, and then other areas lapsed.
“They’re a really good team,” Quinn Hughes said of Sweden. “They had the puck the entire first and second. Credit to them, they’re a really gifted offensively, skilled and smart. Sometimes it’s just going to go that way. I think that’s kind of what happened with a combination of us not playing our game.”
There were probably a few too many instances of U.S. defensemen getting lost in the zone a bit, too, and not handling Sweden’s ability to zip the puck around. If they don’t get some of those areas cleaned up, Finland has enough skill to exploit that. I thought the D corps as a whole just needed to be way better tonight.
Kyle Keyser is an unsung hero in this game
Keyser made 28 saves in this game. Yeah, he gave up five goals, but he got hung out to dry more than a few times. The first goal wasn’t a great one as he was squared up, but Westerlund beat him with a good shot off of a pass on the rush. The second goal came on a breakdown where Rickard Hugg was left all alone in front for a tap in that Keyser very nearly stopped. The third goal came on a breakaway off of the aforementioned Hughes turnover and the fourth came when Erik Brannstrom danced everyone including the usually sound Mattias Samuelsson right at the net front to get a really good look with the backhand. Then the game-winner was an odd-man break.
He stopped the ones he was expected to stop, he made some key saves when things got scrambly and never really seemed to waver aside from a few moments of uncertainty when it came to playing the puck. I don’t think there’s been any reason to doubt his ability as this team’s No. 1.
Finding the second gear
In the ideal game for the U.S., they don’t need to play as desperate as they did in the final 10 minutes of the game. But the good news is that when they needed to flip the switch, they could. That hasn’t always been the hallmark of these U.S. teams. It’s not that they roll over, it’s just that they haven’t really had enough on the personnel side to make the push.
Ryan Poehling was a monster in the last few minutes of the game. So was Quinn Hughes, who kept plays alive and made sure the puck got into the offensive zone and stayed there. He doesn’t usually take the first play available to him and waits for a better one. That was especially true on the 4-3 goal. But the finishing ability Poehling showed in scoring a natural hat trick in the final six-plus minutes of the game was just unreal. The shot he had on the game-tying goal was absolutely stellar. Samuel Ersson gave him just enough room to sneak the shot through. That was a special play.
“I think we were just being more direct towards the net,” said Poehling of the shift in his team’s play in the final 10 minutes of the third period. “I think it was just something that we have to show a little bit of pride and I think we did that. For us to come out there, even though we ended up losing, I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”
– Ryan Poehling did not register a shot on goal until he scored his natural hat trick in the third period. He finished with three shots on net and all of them went in. Poehling also had the secondary assist on Mikey Anderson’s goal, giving him four points in the game. He is Team USA’s leading scorer with seven points through three games.
– Quinn Hughes led all players with 27:23 of ice time, which included 9:53 in the third period and 2:20 in overtime. He was a big part of the U.S. being able to flip that switch as he was able to do many of the things the team as a whole couldn’t early in the game.
– Josh Norris is the team’s go-to faceoff man. He took 22 draws in the game and won 11 of them. When there is a crucial faceoff, he’s likely to take it.
– Oliver Wahlstrom is known more for his shooting ability, but he ended up with two assists on Poehling’s first two goals. The first assist is a play where I’m pretty certain he desperately wanted to shoot as all goal scorers with an open look would. He instead put it right on Poehling’s tape for the deflection and goal. It was a great play where he had to make a split-second decision and it paid off.
– The play that immediately preceded that Wahlstrom pass was an incredible backhand saucer feed from Sasha Chmelevski. He was absolutely flying in the late stages of the game and made USA’s power play better by using his skill to gain the zone and make plays while he was in there. Chmelevski is the fourth-line center, but he saw time with some of USA’s better skill players and I thought he showed he can play a bigger role. He finished the game with 14:30 and I wonder if the U.S. has something with him, Wahlstrom and Poehling together. Because I’m not sure the rest of the fourth line has enough to maximize what Chmelevski can bring offensively.
– The U.S. entered the third period with just 12 shots on goal. They had 15 in the third period alone.
A look ahead
The U.S. likely cost itself first place in the group with the loss to Sweden. Now they’ll be playing for second in the group against Finland, which confidently handled Slovakia in a Saturday afternoon contest.
The U.S. has more depth up front than Finland does, but they have a lot of skill led by draft-eligible Kaapo Kakko. There is no doubt in my mind that Jack Hughes is licking his chops for a chance to go head-to-head with his closest competitor for the No. 1 spot in the NHL draft. The U.S. won’t jeopardize their medal round with pushing Hughes before he’s ready, but I have a feeling — and this is purely speculation — that Jack Hughes would have to be missing a limb to not play in that game. We’ll see, though.
The Finns are going to put a lot of pressure on USA’s defense, but both teams get a day off to prepare and I’m sure we’ll see a much better effort from the U.S. on New Year’s Eve.
Additionally, should the U.S. finish second in the group, it very likely puts them on a collision course with Canada in the semifinal. Finish third in Group B and they might end up with another shot at Sweden. A lot has to happen before we get there though as Russia and Canada play on New Year’s Eve in a game that likely would decide the group. That is assuming Russia beats Switzerland on Sunday (which isn’t a given based on how Russia has played so far). Should Team USA finish second in the group, they would — in all likelihood — play the Czech Republic in a quarterfinal. Finish third and it’s a date with whoever loses the Canada-Russia game. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that it’s kind of a tough road no matter what given Saturday’s result. It also makes Monday’s game against Finland a rather big one.