The World Junior tournament is over for the United States, much earlier than expected, or at least hoped. There's no doubt that the US is coming home with a disappointing result. But how about the actual team's performance?
It was really a tale of two tournament's for the United States. They looked incredible through their first three games against Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany. But the US couldn't get things done against Canada, which earned them a tough quarterfinal match-up against a good Russian team, and once again, they couldn't get things done against a top quality team.
Maybe this result isn't so surprising. I'll go back to my assessment of this team from the day after last year's gold medal victory:
That sounds about as accurate as anything that I could write today. Of course, the US went 0 for 3 on getting those big name players back from the NHL. Nikita Zadorov played a handful of games with the Buffalo Sabres before they eventually decided to send him back to juniors--in part because it meant he'd get an opportunity to play a big role at the World Juniors. It's not hard to imagine an alternate universe where Jacob Trouba is the one blasting slap shots on the power play, and maybe this is a cheerier post.
Add in some injuries to players that could have played a huge role on this team like Patrick Sieloff and JT Compher, and the US depth may have been stressed a little too much in a year where they didn't have as many top-end guys.
But even without all those guys, this was still a group that could have a medal, possibly even gold. Prior to the tournament, we looked at what the US would have to do to get there. Let's look at how they stacked up in those areas:
1. Goaltending: Jon Gillies was fine in this tournament, but not a difference-maker the way that John Gibson was last season. I can't find too much fault in any of the four goals against Russia. The first two were second-chance opportunities that came because of defensive breakdowns in front of him. The last two were just absolute bombs by Zadorov. I'm not sure you could find any goalie at any level that could stop those. Say what you will about a goalie stealing games, but when so much importance comes down to such a small sample size, sometimes it's out of the goaltender's hands.
2. Keep Things Simple on Defense: Again, I'd say good, but not great. As mentioned above, the first two Russian goals came off some poor defensive play. Overall, I thought the defense was pretty good, but the margin for error was so small that those few mistakes were death.
3. Win Games with Special Teams: This is the area that really cost the United States. Their power play looked incredible early on the in the tournament, but couldn't capitalize at all in their final two games against faster, more aggressive penalty kills. That's where the lack of really high-end skill was the most glaring. Coming into the tournament, the US thought they could play even with anybody 5-on-5, and they did. But they lost the special teams battle in each of their final two games, and that ended up being the deciding margin.
4. Take Care of Business Early: The US did an excellent job of this, winning their first three games easily. The problem was that Russia threw a monkey wrench into things by sleepwalking through the preliminary round, especially in a loss to Finland. Finland certainly wouldn't have been a cakewalk, but I'd take my chances with them over a team with the high-end talent of Russia, in a game that has their full attention, every time. Any game against Sweden or Russia was going to be a toss-up, and it was better off if that potential match-up came later in the tournament.
All in all, the randomness of a single elimination tournament makes it hard to draw too many strong conclusions, other than the fact that Russia just happened to be a little better than the United States today. The US came into the tournament a little bit behind in terms of overall talent, which wasn't necessarily crippling, but was just enough that they needed to catch a few breaks in order to produce a good result, and those breaks didn't come their way this year.
Tomorrow, we'll turn our focus towards next year's US World Junior team, with our first look at the candidates for a US team that should be, at least on paper, much stronger than this year's squad.
- 2014 World Juniors: Special Teams Cost United States in Quarterfinal Loss to Russia
- World Junior Championship: Canada beats USA 3-2, wins group A (GIF)
- 2014 World Junior Championship: Matt Grzelcyk Shows Offensive Flare from Blue Line for USA
- Gophers Hockey: Minnesota is keeping an eye on teammates abroad