Team USA shines in World Junior rout of Canada
The Canadians said all the right things before their World Junior semifinal match against the Americans on Thursday morning. They talked about not repeating the mistakes of last year's crushing 6-5 loss to Russia in the semis, about getting a quick start and keeping their edge after earning a bye into the contest with their perfect 4-0 record.
But that's all it was. Talk.
Team USA, on the other hand, was all action in a convincing 5-1 win that sent millions of Canadians back to bed (the game began at 4 a.m. Eastern time) and propelled the Americans into the WJC final for the first time since 2010 with a chance to win their third-ever gold medal at the tournament. Sweden awaits after beating Russia, 3-2, in a shootout.
This may have been the finest, most complete game ever played by an American side at the U-20 level, but it also was an odd one from the start. Canada-US contests tend to be emotional affairs, marked by hard hits and chippy play. Not this time. Coming off a 2-1 preliminary round loss to the Canucks on Monday, Team USA focused instead on quick feet, quicker puck movement and a relentless forecheck.
And Canada, dull and passionless from the opening faceoff, was left to play catch-up.
The Canadians were soft and scrambling in their own zone when Buffalo Sabres prospect and team captain Jake McCabe cruised unmolested into the high slot and beat Malcom Subban high glove to give the Americans a 1-0 lead just 7:18 in. They were still chasing their tails less than seven minutes later when McCabe made it 2-0 on a nearly identical play. (It's worth noting that McCabe, a defender, has just two goals all season for the Wisconsin Badgers.)
Two goals is hardly an insurmountable lead for a team loaded with 11 NHL first-round picks, especially with 40 minutes to play. But it was the Americans, who have outscored their opponents 14-0 in second periods thus far, who took control in the frame.
Johnny Gaudreau, the (maybe) 5'-9" Boston College star who was criticized for selfish play earlier in the tournament, made it 3-0 with a nifty toe drag that undressed Ryan Murphy. Then Jimmy Vesey (Predators) danced around Xavier Ouellet (Red Wings) and Griffin Reinhart (Islanders) before sending Subban to the showers with a wicked wrister.
Gaudreau salted it away late in the third, beating backup Jordan Binnington (Blues) on a breakaway with a top-shelf wrister that had to leave 29 NHL teams wondering how they let the mighty mite winger slip past them at least three times before Calgary tabbed him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.
He now has seven tallies in the last three games -- all must-wins for Team USA -- and is just one off the American tournament record of eight set by Jeremy Roenick.
If Gaudreau is not the leading candidate for tournament MVP, it might be American goaltender John Gibson. The Anaheim Ducks prospect was scarcely tested through the first two periods, but made the stops he needed to. He then was magnificent during a third period penalty kill as Canada tried to battle back, slamming the door on point-blank bids by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Dougie Hamilton (Bruins).
Gibson will certainly be on the All-Tournament team, and it's likely he'll be joined by two of his defenders. Jacob Trouba (Jets) and Seth Jones (2013 draft eligible) were effective in their shutdown roles, but McCabe's markers were more indicative of the confident American approach. No surprise from a Phil Housley-coached side, but they were active and aggressive, constantly stepping up on the attack. Effective, too. They now have 10 of Team USA's 31 goals for the tourney and give the team a decided edge in the final. (USA vs. Sweden, Saturday, Jan. 5, 8 a.m. ET, NHL Network, live stream on NHL.com)
"We got the start we wanted, scoring the all-important first goal," Housley said. "We wanted to dictate the pace of the game early and we were able to do that and then it carried into the second period. We're going to enjoy this win tonight and then start thinking about the gold medal game tomorrow."
Meanwhile, there will be a lot of questions asked about the failure of Canada's lockout-enhanced Dream Team, which is now left to challenge for a second consecutive bronze medal after 11 straight years of battling for gold.
The reality is that in a single-elimination tournament, games like this happen. No need for a parliamentary subcommittee on the state of the sport. It was a bad day for a talented group of kids. A really bad day.
Still, there will be plenty of fingers pointed at the goaltending after yet another meltdown in the nets. Subban, a first-round pick by the Bruins in 2012, was supposed to be the one who stopped the bleeding, but outside of a strong performance against Russia, he never gave the sense of being a game-changer the way Gibson did for the Americans, but it's unfair to pin this one on him. His numbers today look brutal -- four goals allowed on just 16 shots -- but every one of those goals was precipitated by a calamitous defensive zone breakdown that led to a premium scoring chance. Could he have adjusted his sightline to avoid a screen, or reacted more quickly as the angle of attack shifted? Maybe. And maybe one more stop keeps Canada in the game.
But probably not. This was a complete team loss, as surely as the game against Russia was a complete team win.
Outside of Binnington, whose brilliant relief effort should earn him the start in the bronze medal game on Saturday (4 a.m. ET), there isn't anyone on the team who can say he was ready to play in this one. Guys like Hamilton, Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome (Islanders) and Jonathan Huberdeau (Panthers) were supposed to prevent this team from coming out flat. They failed.
The bye probably didn't help, either. The extra day off is supposed to be a bonus for winning the group, but it didn't work out that way for the Canadians. Of course, it hasn't worked out for many teams lately. Five of the last eight finalists have played through a quarterfinal match, so it's not just a convenient excuse.
The bye will be eliminated starting with the 2014 tournament in Malmo, Sweden, but that doesn't do anything for Team Canada now.
A bronze medal might, though. No, it's not what they came for, but they'll have to knock off Russia, a very good team to claim it.
And it beats going home empty-handed.
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