Team USA closed out pool play in the 2019 World Juniors, and the year 2018, with a confident 4-1 victory over Finland to finish in second place in their group.
Tyler Madden scored twice, while Jason Robertson and Ryan Poehling each added a goal to build a 4-0 third period lead. Finland got one back in the third period, but not mount the type of comeback Team USA was able to in their previous match-up, an overtime loss to Sweden.
Team USA will have the day off, then play the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal of the tournament on January 2nd.
Notes and thoughts from the win, plus some thoughts on pool play as a whole.
-Last night’s game took on a little extra importance after watching the lead-in game between Canada and Russia. Those two were very impressive and looked a clear notch above everyone else in the tournament. After pool play, I’d grade it Russia/Canada/big gap/Sweden/small gap/US/huge gap/everybody else.
A loss to Finland would have meant the US would be playing Canada in the quarterfinals. It wouldn’t have been impossible for them to win, but they would have likely been facing three straight games where they were solid 60/40 underdogs on their path to gold. This way they at least get a quarterfinal they should win before it’s time to start praying to the Puck Gods for a couple breaks.
-The good news was that Finland just wasn’t that good. The US had an ugly first 50 minutes against Sweden, but even in there, there were some promising moments. Finland just got rolled by Sweden up-and-down the ice for all 60 minutes. The Finns, for whatever reason, just weren’t up to the level of the other top teams this year, and it showed over the course of this game.
-At the beginning of the game, I said that Tyler Madden seemed like a guy that was due for a goal. He has had a couple Grade-A chances in every game, and last night, he finally got rewarded with a pair of goals.
-The biggest play of the game was the first goal of the game, which Jason Robertson scored in the final minute of the first period. The US had the advantage in possession up to that point, but it’s still a scoreless game, and if Finland could have hung around, they were generating some chances on the power play and could have maybe stolen the game. But it was a much different game with the US playing with the lead.
Anyway, Finland’s Samuli Vainionpaa was getting dragged for his ill-fated drop pass that led to the turnover and goal. Obviously not a great play, but I also think he got hung out to dry by his winger. Here’s a look at the drop pass:
Vainionpaa is coming up the middle of the ice. If he cuts left, he’s probably able to gain the red line and dump the puck in. But once he starts to go right, he draws two defenders to him, and if Ylonen is paying attention and fills the center lane that Vainionpaa vacates, he gets that drop pass and is through the neutral zone and attacking easily. Instead, Ylonen is just going for a skate and watching the play and isn’t ready to get that pass. I think that’s a system thing Ylonen didn’t read as much as it was a bad idea to make that pass.
Ryan Poehling is skating hard on the back check, then makes a great pass to Robertson and the US takes a huge lead into the locker room after the first period. Full goal is here.
-Kaapo Kakko wasn’t much of a factor last night for Finland, but with him having a decent tournament while Jack Hughes hasn’t played much due to injury, I suspect there will be a lot more discussion on who is going number one overall in the draft next summer. I still think it slides back to Hughes when all is said and done, but there will be a lot of debate between now and then.
-The US draws the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, and gets to stay in Victoria where they’ve played their pool games, and where there will presumably be a smaller anti-US crowd. The book on the Czechs is that they’ve got some really talented forwards at the top of their line-up that have really underperformed in this tournament. The US depth should be able to carry them in this game, with the caveat that guys like Zadina and Necas could break out of their slump and go ham to pull off an upset.
Wrapping Up Pool Play
The US played almost exactly to expectations. If you had said before the tournament that the US would lose in OT to Sweden and win the rest of their games, I would have believed it, especially since the Swedes are unbeatable in pool play. I never would have guessed how they would end up losing in OT to Sweden, but after all the craziness, the end result made sense.
This team showed some serious flaws and reasons for concern. I have zero confidence in the defense outside of Quinn Hughes(offensive end of the ice only) and Mikey Anderson. And Jack Hughes’ mysterious departure due to injury is still a big concern. Everything coming from Team USA has sounded positive; he’s progressing, he will play again in this tournament. But at this point, if he does come back, I’m beginning to wonder a) if he’ll be 100% and b) how effective he’ll be reintegrating into the lineup after having not played much in this tournament.
But I also saw a lot reasons for optimism, mainly out of the forward group. Ryan Poehling has played like the beast he has been in the NCAA this season. Sasha Chmelevski, Tyler Madden, and Jason Robertson are all making plays and being effective at forward. I think the US has enough guys that can put the puck in the net that they’ve got a fighting chance against anyone in the medal round.
The US has also been very strong in goal. Kyle Keyser and Cayden Primeau each got two starts, though Keyser’s ended up having a much higher degree of difficulty. I would stick with Keyser in the quarterfinal, and ride with him as long as it works.
The US heads into the elimination game as underdogs, but with a decent shot at taking home a medal, which given the limitations of the roster this year, is probably all they could have hoped for. These last few games of the tournament will define how this year’s group is remembered. But up to this point, they seem to have done the best they could.