Coming into the tournament anyone with a functioning brain — i.e. not a sandbagging member of the Canadian media eager to sell what should in theory be another credible run at the gold medal as some sort of underdog story that is in any way interesting — would have told you Canada is the clear favorite in this and theoretically any other World Junior Championship. All that stuff about how they’ve never lost a game during an NHL lockout and how they have a handful of NHL-ready players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Huberdeau, and maybe Mark Scheifele if you’re being generous, are pretty good arguments for this being the case.
But with that having been said, this US team, which has largely underwhelmed in its last two games, dictated the terms in this one. Apart from an uninspiring first period, during which Canada mustered its meager two goals, there’s a very credible argument to be made that the Americans were the best team on the ice and, results aside, perhaps in the tournament. This, like the Russia game before it, was a tilt they should have won.
Both Canada goals came on miscues by American players, and in quick bursts, rather than the kind of sustained pressure that you might expect from The Most Talented Team In The Tournament. Nugent-Hopkins’ strike to make it 1-0 came on a rare Canadian faceoff win (the US won 40 of 70, 57.1 percent) and JT Miller, who has been invisible for most of his three games despite his top-line role, lost the Oilers phenom in coverage. Not sure how you let that happen, but the finish was predictably lethal.
More of the same on the second goal, too, as Seth Jones pulled up a chair to watch the game-winner for the second straight contest, and Ryan Strome banged home a wraparound attempt from Brett Ritchie.
Even beyond that, the majority of Canadian chances came as a result of opportunism. They drew penalties, particularly late, when the US was trying to work its comeback, and they took advantage of some seriously dumbassed turnovers to get a number of odd-man rushes. John Gibson, who made 30 saves, kept the game close through those breakdowns, which got fewer and farther between as the game progressed.
Obviously, at the other end of the ice, things didn’t go quite as well. The number of times the US-based announcers on the NHL Network noted that the American attack was “out of sync” or “just a bit off” or something along those lines was astronomical, and that has been a problem for pretty much the whole tournament. The passing in this game, as it was against Russia, was abysmal. And though they put 37 shots on goal, the number that actually bothered Malcolm Subban, or even came with a decent amount of traffic in front, was pretty damn low. Not to say Subban wasn’t very good in this one, because he was, but the US didn’t do all it could to make it hard on him, except during the third period.
The difference in the game, apart from America’s continued inability to finish anything at all (don’t delude yourself that Steve Spott magically solidified his team’s defense overnight), was that with the game on the line after Jacob Trouba pulled the US within one, his team started playing like Canada at its worst. That is to say, they took a lot of bad penalties for no reason at all. Canada didn’t score on them — it went 0 for 7 in the game —but along with effectively killing the penalties, the US also murdered its chances to pull even in the crib.
Part of the problem, too, is that Phil Housley has managed his team rather poorly. Alex Galchenyuk, for instance, has been the team’s most convincing offensive player, and yet he still isn’t getting the kind of ice time commensurate to that level of performance. Housley continues to stick with Miller and Johnny Gaudreau, with both Riley Barber and Rocco Grimaldi alternating on their wing, and apart from Miller’s late goal to broaden the Germany blowout, they’ve all done approximately dick in Ufa. None of it makes sense, and it leads one to wonder if a coach with actual experience would have this same roster humming along more convincingly.
As a result of this loss, the US needs to beat Slovakia tomorrow to qualify for the medal round, while Canada plays Russia for seeding only. But the lesson to take from either of these last two games for the Americans is that the gap between it and what were universally hailed as the two favorites this year is minimal. At best.
Finland 5, Switzerland 4 (SO)
Finland may have gotten back on the right track in this one, because as recently as Friday it sure didn’t look like they’d have a chance to win against a team as generally okay as Switzerland, especially because they came back from down 4-2 with less than seven to go in the third period. Both squads now have five points apiece in Group A, a point behind the Czechs and three behind the Swedes, which makes the two games tomorrow (Swiss/Czechs and Finns/Swedes) pretty goddamn interesting. Markus Granlund and Teuvo Teravainen both had two goals in regulation, and Granlund added the only shootout goal. Oh, and Finland outshot the Swiss 56-23.
Czech Republic 4, Latvia 2
Of course, the Czechs only hanging four on Latvia can’t portend good things, because even Finland pumped the worst team in the group for a fiver. Martin Frk had a pair for the winners.
Slovakia 2, Germany 1 (OT)
Peter Ceresnak hammered home the game-winning goal for the Slovaks, who only needed overtime and a power play to beat a team that came in with a minus-21 goal differential. They outshot the Germans 42-18. This wasn’t a good decision for the Slovaks, who now have to play a (potentially) motivated US team in about 18 hours.