The once-again surging pandemic condensed the World Juniors pre-tournament schedule, leaving the United States with just one exhibition game before they open up this year’s tournament on December 26th. So Thursday was the only opportunity to see Team USA take the ice before they open the tournament. They took on Finland in a game the US led comfortably 3-1 until about three minutes left to play, when Team USA’s Red Savage took an obvious and unnecessary major penalty, putting the Finns on the power play for the rest of the game. The Finns scored twice with the man advantage in regulation to send it to overtime, and then won with a power play goal in overtime to take the 4-3 victory.
It’s an exhibition, so the final result doesn’t really matter, and there were certainly some positives that the US could take away from the game, but still a frustrating end result, to say the least.
Here were some of my thoughts from the exhibition:
-The US is wearing replicas of their 1960 Olympic uniforms, which are unquestionably the best Team USA jerseys. The never-satiated maw of capitalism probably demands the US mix it up every year with different stripes and patterns and whatever the hell they’re wearing at the Olympics, but the 1960s are the ideal, and I’d be fine if they became permanent.
-On the ice, it was an inauspicious start for the Americans with an early sequence that started with a bad turnover by Scott Morrow at his own blue line that created a chance for Finland, and then the Finns winning a number of battles in front of the net to eventually punch in a rebound to take an early 1-0 lead.
-Adding to the ugly start, top line American winger Brett Berard left the ice early on after a leg-on-leg collision with a Finnish defender early in the third period. Thankfully, Berard returned to the ice shortly afterwards, so hopefully nothing serious. But with the US forward group already down Thomas Bordeleau, losing a key player like Berard before the tournament started would have been a disaster.
-Luckily for the US, it was the first game for Finland as well, and the Finns returned the favor from the first goal with an egregious turnover of their own that Tanner Dickinson was able to capitalize on to even the game before the end of the first period.
-Coming out of that first period, in which I don’t think the US played very well, even with the Finns was huge. After that, the United States seemed to find their game a little bit, and even though they weren’t able to score in the second period, it felt like the ice started to tilt in their favor. I really liked the US game and the way they controlled the puck through the second half of the game.
I still think this team lacks some explosive scoring power up front, but they will be tough to beat. I liked the combination of Matt Knies and Carter Mazur playing together. They play a really strong, heavy game. Dominic James contributed a gritty rebound goal. The path to gold likely involves the US keeping games low-scoring with their possession-based offense, and then getting enough of those gritty goals to win games.
-Also helping the US offense is that I think they’re going to generate some offense from the blue line, starting with Jake Sanderson. From the beginning, I’ve said this is Jake Sanderson’s team, and he looked absolutely fantastic yesterday, even though he’s coming off an injury. His skating ability and poise is elite, and he’s going to get his fair share of points.
Brock Faber used his skating to create some space and offensive chances too. Luke Hughes seemed a little quieter yesterday, but that potential is there. So things look on track in terms of what was expected from a very strong blue line.
-Drew Commesso played the first two periods and looked very sharp. He’s going to be the #1 goalie for the United States, and they’ll need him to have a very good tournament. There was legitimate concern after his ugly numbers in the NCAA this year, but he looked good here, which is a great sign.
-I can’t say enough about how stupid Red Savage’s late penalty was. Just completely unnecessary. He might face a suspension from the IIHF, but frankly, is lucky he wasn’t handed a plane ticket home by USA Hockey, even if it was just an exhibition. It doesn’t help that the US has already lost Ty Smilanic from some period of time. But that absolutely can’t happen when the tournament starts.