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US World Juniors: What Went Wrong?

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We should be preparing for another epic New Year's Eve battle between the United States and Canada, but with the United States losing to the Czech Republic earlier this evening, and Denmark probably being Denmark against Finland, the United States is now out of medal contention, and will have to play in the relegation round for the first time since 1999.

So where does the blame go? There's a lot of places to choose from. Here's a listing of some of my thoughts on the tournament.

-First and foremost, the US was tied in the third period of both of their meaningful games, and ended up losing both games. It's a game of inches and to be successful, you need your players to make big plays in critical situations. Nobody did that for the US.

- The defense wasn't expected to be very good, and it wasn't. Spots six and seven on the roster were weak, but more importantly, the top five wasn't good enough to limit the ice time those guys saw. It's no use pointing out individual failures because pretty much everyone had their own moment of failure, and too often, those failures were highlighted by the puck ending up in the back of the US net.

- The decision to start John Gibson against Finland is one that will definitely be scrutinized. Jack Campbell may not have been spectacular heading into that game, but he also didn't give any reason to believe this shouldn't be his tournament. If they were that interested in getting Gibson some action, the time to do it would have been against the Czech Republic after a win against Finland, with the US playing back-to-back days, and already reasonably secure that they'd be moving on to the medal round. Starting Gibson in the first real game of the tournament smacked of the US thinking they could sleepwalk through the preliminary round of the tournament.

-Again on Gibson, I never assign too much blame to a goalie whose team only scores one goal, because odds are he's not winning the game even if he's great, but, if you had to pick the one moment where the wheels really fell off for the US in this tournament, it was Gibson taking a stupid, selfish interference penalty in the third period against Finland. It reminded me of the 2009 World Juniors when the US team imploded after a stupid, selfish penalty from Eric Tangradi to stick a Canadian player in the face.

-Jason Zucker has vowed that the US will beat Canada on Saturday, which would be great, if the game had any sort of meaning. If Zucker had the ability to lead his team to wins like that, he probably should have used it earlier in the week. Zucker is an extremely talented kid, but even after embarrassing himself, he still can't stop running his damn mouth. Hopefully a second straight disappointing tournament will provide a bit of a reality check for him.

-I said before the tournament that Josh Archibald would be a flashpoint if the US team struggled. Archibald definitely held his own and didn't look out of place playing his style of game. But I'm willing to bet every American fan out there thought, "Man, I wish it was X taking that penalty shot" against the Czech Republic, with X being one of about a dozen different players that didn't get a chance at making the team.

-As good as the NTDP looks in years where the US has success, they almost look even better here, because the US was pretty dominant in the '92 age group at the U17 and U18 level (excluding Canada, since they don't really play best-vs-best against the Canadians ever), and yet they were a huge disappointment here at the U20 level.

-It's worth noting that injuries also played a factor. Just judging by how he played, I have a tough time believing Nick Bjugstad was 100%. Charlie Coyle missed a good deal of the Czech game with an illness. Seth Jones more than likely would have helped. Throw in Rocco Grimaldi who I feel would have been a sparkplug if heatlhy. The US has come a long way, but I don't know if they've separated from the pack enough to be able to withstand that many losses.

-Tactically, I thought the US was guilty too often of passing up a good shot to make an extra pass. They put plenty of shots on net, especially against the Czechs, but gave up some quality opportunities by trying to get too cute in the offensive zone. A lot will get made of the defense and goal tending, but the forwards were supposed to carry this team, and they scored three goals in their two meaningful games.

-Next week we'll start looking at who is available for next year's tournament. Not many players from this year's team return, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. Some fresh blood and some lower expectations may be what the US needs to play better hockey in this tournament.