The United States technically won their opening game of the World Juniors Tournament earlier today with a 2-1 shootout victory over Finland. It's not a bad result. The two points puts the US in strong position to finish no worse than second in their group.
But it's tough not to be concerned with the result a little bit. This was absolutely a game that the United States should have won. They controlled play for much of the game, but just couldn't put the puck in the net enough to put the game away. Instead, let Finland--who to their credit, played a very disciplined, defensive game--just keep hanging around to the point that Finland had some very good chances to win late in the third period and overtime. It's great that the US got the shootout victory, but it was very dangerous that they let it get to that point.
Today was the embodiment of concerns I've had about this team since day one. When offensive-minded players like Kyle Connor and Jeremy Bracco were cut, I had reservations, but said I'd wait to see how it played it out. Today, it played out like I feared. It's really hard to score goals, and it's even harder when you decide to rely on just two lines to handle all of the scoring. Would the result have been any different if the US had decided to choose a more offensive-minded line-up? Maybe not. But it's frustrating to know how much talent the US has at their disposal and still see them assemble a team as if they're bound by some sort of salary cap.
Other thoughts I had on the game:
-It was a bit of a shaky start for the US, including for goalie Thatcher Demko, but I'm not going to worry about it too much. This tournament is a big deal, and these are still young kids. It's a shame that they gave up that early goal, because Finland didn't do much offensively after that. But that wasn't the problem today. Scoring only once was the problem.
Demko really settled in after that first goal, even though he didn't have a ton to do. He was solid when he needed to be, which is a good sign going forward.
-In his first game in the spotlight, Jack Eichel lived up to his billing. He was the best player on the ice for either side. His assist was a thing of beauty. He controlled things on the power play. He tried to force things a little too much and take on too much responsibility late in the game, but overall, I thought he had a good game.
-Auston Matthews had an up-and-down game. A lot of people will point to the penalties that he took, which were bad. There were also some real positives there too, including creating some great scoring chances. Hopefully that was just some early tournament jitters that he can work through and become a more consistent offensive force for the US team.
-Speaking of which, as good as the US power play looked today moving the puck, I'd kind of like to see Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews work on the power play together at some point. Eichel is going to create space and Matthews' shot can be absolute deadly.
-One thing I didn't like was having JT Compher centering the fourth line. Compher is too valuable to be seeing fourth line minutes. One of either him or Dylan Larkin needs to move back to the wing to get Compher on the ice more.
-Anthony Louis had a really great game. He came into the game as the 13th forward and played sparingly to start the game, but got a shift in the second period where he was just phenomenal, creating scoring chances and helping draw a power play. He also did some excellent work on the penalty kill. As a result, Louis saw his ice time grow in the second half of the game, including a key shift in overtime where he almost scored the game-winning goal. The bench shortened later in the game, but it seemed as though Miles Wood was the one to drop into that 13th forward position.
-Young defensemen Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski had nice games, including Werenski manning the point on the top power play unit.
-Dan Byslma is in the booth providing color commentary for the tournament this year on NHL Network and the results were pretty rough. While Dave Starman might not be everyone, there's no denying his passion for the game and the effort he puts into his broadcast. Bylsma sounded bored and his commentary didn't add a ton of value. Hopefully either that was just first game jitters too, or the New Jersey Devils will hire him before the end of the tournament.