Preliminary pool play at this year’s World Juniors is over and things went about as well as they could have for the United States. The Americans were a perfect 4-0-0-0, capped off by a big 3-1 victory over rival Canada on New Year’s Eve to finish first in their group.
For better or worse, Team USA insists on building a team to play with a lead. That can be incredibly frustrating to watch when the team falls behind and needs offense to get back into the game, as they have in the knockout rounds of each of the past three tournaments. But when things go according to plan—the US has not trailed at any point through four games of this tournament—it is incredibly impressive to watch.
That said, the number one key to success for the United States so far in this tournament for me has been the play of Clayton Keller and Colin White. They’re the leading scorers for the US with seven and five points respectively. But more important to me has been the timeliness of their scoring. They’re scoring big goals early in games to give the US the lead and allowing the US to play the game on their terms. Of Colin White’s four goals, he has one in each game and they’ve given the US leads of 2-1, 2-0, 1-0, and 1-0. No disrespect to players like Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews who are obviously great players, but the US hasn’t gotten production like that in key moments from their top guys in a while.
The other big key to success is that they’ve gotten solid goaltending from both Tyler Parsons and Joseph Woll. They’ve both come up with some big saves in key moments, but more importantly, have avoided soft goals that can put a team in a hole and really change the complexion of the game. While the defense in front of them has been good, it hasn’t been perfect. But it’s much easier to overlook a mistake or two when the goalie can bail them out with a big save. It’s not clear-cut which of Parsons or Woll should start the elimination games, but I wouldn’t question the decision to start either, which is a great position to be in.(Conversely, Canada started Connor Ingram yesterday vs. the US and he wasn’t great. I’d expect Carter Hart in net from here on out, which could be a boost to Canada in a potential rematch).
The combination of building early leads and strength in goal allows the US to play a more conservative style that is really tough to beat. The big advantage of a team made up mostly of college hockey players is that they’re much more familiar and comfortable with collapsing three guys in front of their own net and taking away passing and shooting lanes. There were a few nervous moments in the third period against Russia, but Canada wasn’t able to get much of anything going 5-on-5 once they fell behind.
Playing with the lead has allowed them to keep everybody involved as well. It’s a little less stressful giving the fourth line ice time when you don’t need a goal, and a mistake isn’t fatal. Every player on the roster had at least one point in the preliminary round. Troy Terry has been incredible on the fourth line. And after spending the past five years saying Jordan Greenway looks less impressive every time I see him, the light definitely seems to have come on for him. He’s provided the secondary scoring threat the US needs and is having a huge tournament.
Hopefully the US is able to keep that up now that the games really matter in the single elimination. They’ve put themselves in the best possible position by winning their group. Their path to gold is guaranteed to avoid one of either Canada or Sweden, who are the two next best teams in the tournament. A rematch against Russia looms in the semifinals, and the Russians are always much tougher when the games really matter, especially when facing the US, but you can’t really ask for a much better match-up in the semifinals of this tournament.
If they continue to play the way they have, they’ve got a great shot at winning gold. There’s a good chance they face some adversity and fall behind somewhere along the line in the next three games, and how they respond to that will likely ultimately determine how this team is remembered.