Team USA won’t be coming home from the 2014 World Junior Championship with another gold medal.
A 5-3 loss to Russia in Thursday morning’s quarterfinal eliminated the defending champs. It made for a disappointing end to a tournament that saw the Americans get off to a 3-0 start before consecutive losses to their biggest rivals, Canada and Russia, sent them packing without a chance to compete for a medal.
Here are a few quick observations from the contest:
• As coach Don Lucia said after the game, “The guys gave us everything they have. Other than 10 minutes of this tournament, we played the way I hoped we would play.”
Fair enough, but that 10-minute lapse highlights how unforgiving this tournament is, and why it is so damn hard to win once, let alone repeat. The U.S. knew coming in that discipline would be critical, but they handed the Russians six power play chances, including consecutive five-on-threes in the second period that turned the tide of the game. With the Americans up 3-2, Sabres draft pick Nikita Zadorov struck twice for Russia and that was pretty much the game.
There may be some complaining about the officiating, but the way the game was called over there shouldn’t have caught anyone on this team by surprise. You get your stick horizontal to the ice, you’re going to hear a whistle.
• The biggest failing of the U.S. against Canada and Russia was an inability to control the middle of the ice, especially in the attack zone. From the slot on down, Team USA couldn’t establish any kind of consistent presence, and that limited the quality of goal-scoring chances, especially on a power play that went without a point in the two final games.
That’s something that Olympic coach Dan Bylsma and his staff might want to keep an eye on ahead of Sochi. If the senior U.S. team has a weak spot, it’s down the middle, so it could be susceptible to the same problem on the big ice in February.
• Team USA’s top three players for the tourney: defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (a 2012 draft pick of the Bruins), center Andrew Copp (Jets, ’13) and Hudson Fasching (Kings, ’13). No quarrels with those choices, especially Fasching, who was a bull around the net and looks like another great pick by L.A.’s scouting director Mike Futa. Still, it’s hard to overlook the performance of Jack Eichel. The 17-year-old center won’t be eligible for the draft until 2015, but he was fantastic in his WJC debut, ranking second on the team with four assists, and fourth with five points. He was Team USA’s most creative forward, and a real truck on the puck. And with the game against Russia on the line, he was the center who Lucia sent out to take two must-win face-offs. That says it all right there.
Afterwards, Lucia said he was impressed by Eichel’s defensive awareness and two-way game. Those are certainly important qualities, but his offensive tools will be what everyone talks about when he battles Connor McDavid to go No. 1 in the 2015 draft.
• Ducks draft pick Nic Kerdiles looks NHL-ready after leading the Americans with five assists and seven points. His goal on Thursday against the Russians was a piece of work: He knocked the puck out of midair at the blue line, took one stride and then hammered a shot past goalie Andrei Vasilevski. It was a world-class display of hand-eye coordination. The Wisconsin sophomore can play center or wing, and with his mitts and his big-league build, he’d be a nice addition for Anaheim when the Ducks make a Stanley Cup run this spring.
• You can see why Stefan Matteau (Devils) and Connor Carrick (Capitals) have already earned a cup of coffee in the show. Both took control at various points of the tournament, with Carrick earning Player of the Game honors for a terrific effort on Thursday. Both are smart, solid, physical players who could be back in the NHL before the playoffs end.
• Goalie Jon Gillies (Flames) was up against it in this tournament in that he had to follow John Gibson’s act from 2013. No one was going to match that bit of magic. Overall, Gillies was solid, but he looked shaky in the first period today before settling down as the game wore on. He probably could have stopped Zadorov’s second goal, but it certainly wasn’t his fault that the U.S. failed to medal. He still looks like a high-end prospect for Calgary.
• That Ryan Hartman is a piece of work. Physical, aggravating, fearless. Easy to picture him lining up with Andrew Shaw a few years down the road for the Blackhawks to form the league’s most annoying duo. He’s going to take some heat for his response to some Russian taunting after their empty-net clincher, but I don’t blame him a bit. I’d take a kid like that on my team any time.