The lead-up to Tuesday’s World Juniors gold medal game felt like preparations for a coronation. The World Juniors, after all, is supposed to be Canada’s tournament. The Canadians had walked through this year’s event virtually untouched. The only real question left was where this team would rank in the pantheon of past great Canadian champions.
NHL Network, for some reason, did a live interview with Trevor Zegras on his way into the arena prior to the game that instantly became part of USA Hockey lore:
"We're kinda going on all cylinders right now and I think we're going to catch them by surprise." - @tzegras11 is READY for tonight's Gold Medal Game.@usahockey | #WorldJuniors | @Jill_Savage pic.twitter.com/TdeSbTqHyP— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) January 6, 2021
Zegras’ interview was stunning. I had the TV on in the background and literally stopped what I was dong and came in from another room to confirm that had actually just happened. Not just because in the ultra-vanilla world of hockey this was the equivalent of cutting a WWE promo. But because this is the World Juniors, and there is a certain amount of deference to be shown any time it comes to the Canadians. “They’ve had some success, but they haven’t seen us yet” is how Canada is supposed to talk at their tournament, right before John Tavares snaps his fingers and erases an early three-goal lead or Jonathan Toews coolly deposits a dozen consecutive shootout attempts into your net.
But you know what? He isn’t wrong. Old guys like me that have done this for a long time like to talk about the changing expectations for USA Hockey internationally over the past however many years. For Zegras and his generation, those are just the expectations.
The World Juniors has been televised in the US and been a Big Deal, at least in hockey circles, for the majority of his life. He was a few months shy of nine years old when John Carlson scored the overtime winner in 2010. He grew up watching Gaudreau and Gibson, Terry and Parsons. Walking into the arena, the US had already clinched their eighth medal in the past 12 tournaments, and was tied with Canada and Finland for most gold medals over that span.
Zegras was the sixth overall pick in the NHL Draft. He saw two American teammates get picked ahead of him, and six fellow Americans get picked after him in the first round of the 2019 Draft. The Canadians maybe had a few more first rounders, but the gap wasn’t nearly what it has been in years past. The US had the talent. Zegras had every reason to believe what he said.
The recent, but increasingly significant history of this tournament says this is tournament belongs to the US as much as anyone else. Trevor Zegras doesn’t have to apologize for standing in Canada’s way. He doesn’t have to hope they can maybe steal Canada’s gold medal. Trevor Zegras doesn’t have to defer to anyone, because when it matters most, he can back it up.
Notes and Thoughts
-To speak a little more to the above narrative, members of the Old Guard felt this tweet:
In year's past, that McMichael chance went in 100% of the time.— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) January 6, 2021
Referring to Connor McMichael stealing a puck at center ice for a semi-breakaway with about five minutes left in the third period. Drew Helleson chased him to take away his time to make a move, Spencer Knight was aggressive to cut down on his shooting angle and McMichael never really got off a good opportunity. Canada had their chances, but the US was good enough to answer.
I will say the pandemic and the fact that they had to play in an empty arena played very heavily into the US favor. Canada’s push that started about mid-2nd period through the end of the game would have been way more difficult to defend against if the Canadians have the added momentum of a full partisan arena behind them.
-The 2001 class had been The Year for the United States for a long time. I still remember watching one of their first games at the NTDP U17s at the NAHL Showcase in September 2017 and it was already evident that this group could be something special.
That group came up just short in the bid for U18 gold, getting stonewalled by Yaroslav Askarov in the semis two years ago. And it looked like it might not happen here after any number of bad breaks: No Jack Hughes, Toronto pulling Nick Robertson off the US roster for no decent reason, the weird pandemic year, losing Johnny Beecher, Thomas Bordeleau, Robert Mastrosimone, and Alex Vlasic to Covid protocols.
But when it came down to crunch time, the guys that Team USA needed to be their best players, were their best players. Alex Turcotte scored in both the semifinal and final. Arthur Kaliyev had the big game-winner in the semifinal. And of course, Zegras had a hand in nearly everything the US did.
-To this point, John Gibson had the been the US standard for a goalie just dominating in this tournament. But after last night, Spencer Knight has taken the mantle. After the extremely shaky first game against Russia, there was some question if Knight would be the guy in net for the US this tournament, but this has been Spencer Knight’s tournament for the past three years. He was the one with the potential to turn in a truly dominating performance and he delivered on Tuesday.
Knight didn’t necessarily make a lot of amazing stops, though this one comes damn close, but part of that is because he made everything look so easy. There was never any panic in Knight’s movement, just trust that his size and athleticism and positioning would get him where he needed to be to make the stop. The US gave up a lot of first shots as a trade-off for not allowing any second or third chances, which they could do because nobody was beating Spencer Knight on the first shot.
-That was a really, really defensive effort by the US blue line, which was the one area that may have been considered a weakness for the US heading into the tournament. Again, having Knight behind them certainly helped. But they did an excellent job with their coverage to make sure Canada was one-and-done all night long. Cam York made some really big defensive plays. Ryan Johnson made one particularly impressive play in the third period where he got caught in a rough spot in front of his net and was able to win a battle over two Canadians to clear the zone.
There’s a bit of a transformational shift here. This US group didn’t really have at least one big, thumping defensive defenseman that I think past US teams would have made a priority to have. But I think this group showed that a bunch of guys that skate really well and can handle the puck when they get it on their stick more than makes up for that.
-This was fun. As a reminder, we should do games like this more often.