BUFFALO, N.Y. — This year’s American entry in the World Junior Championship may have been better than your parent’s Team USA, but when Canada is the opponent, it seems once again that doesn’t matter.
Despite putting out one of the more experienced and talented entries ever by an American team, it was Canada that earned a victory on Monday in the semifinals to earn it a date with Russia in Wednesday’s title game. Canada will be in search of gold medal 16, more than any other country has or will have total after this year’s tournament is over. The U.S. is once again relegated to consolation play.
When you think of the promise and hope for this year’s Team USA, one that was loaded with college hockey talent and future NHL greats, that’s more like being sent to relegation play.
This wasn’t supposed to be the outcome for an experienced U.S. team that entered as defending champions and earned four victories in the preliminary round. The American roster was stacked with returning players like Kyle Palmieri and Chris Kreider, as well as Jack Campbell in net, who until Monday looked like a brick wall (though all were quick to say Monday’s loss was hardly Campbell’s fault). Add to that newcomers like Boston University’s Charlie Coyle, who entered the semis with the team lead in points, you’d think this should be the year that Canada is hoping for bronze, not gold.
On the other side of the coin, the Canadian team was one that many felt wasn’t as good as last year’s runners-up. Sure, the offense continued to be potent in qualification play but the defense and goaltending for O Canada seemed suspect throughout. This team, as most know by now, finished in second place in pool play and needed to beat Switzerland on Sunday to even survive until Monday.
But that may be why on Monday Canada beat the U.S. with an approach many wouldn’t have expected. Early in the game, Canada was intent and content with playing the game in the neutral zone and waiting for the U.S. to make mistakes. This wasn’t the all-out attack most might expect from the high octane neighbors to the north, more a style of wearing them down with physical play and taking advantage of errors.
“One of the things you do as a coach is that there are different systems and you have to adapt that system to your team,” Canada coach Dave Cameron said. “It happens that the best hockey players in Canada right now are big, strong power forwards. That’s what we devised our game plan around.”
The U.S. obliged with mistakes, particularly in the neutral and defensive zones. A missed cover early left Curtis Hamilton alone for the opening goal less than three minutes into the game. Late in the frame, the U.S. got caught on a line change when Canada transitioned the puck quickly and bingo, bango, bongo, it was 2-0.
The Americans couldn’t even rely on home ice advantage to aid a comeback in the second. Much of the capacity crowd at HSBC Arena was clad in Canadian sweaters, probably the inherent danger in hosting a tournament within a Mike Weir drive of the Canadian border.
Even the U.S. power play, which had been successful throughout the tournament, went to sleep. Center a pass? A Canadian was waiting in the slot. Find your points? That’s a whole lot of pressure from Canada.
The man advantage got a great look in the third when the U.S. was already down, 3-0, as Brian Dumoulin redirected a pass over an empty net. Of course, 37 seconds later, Canada’s Zack Kassian was in back of the USA defense for a breakaway goal and a 4-0 advantage.
By the time the buzzer sounded and the final score read 4-1 in favor of the hosts … er, um, I mean visitors, the Americans found themselves in a coin-flip situation at best whether they will even medal in a tournament most thought they could win.
“It’s disappointing,” said USA and Yale coach Keith Allain. “Individually, our guys were working hard but collectively our team game wasn’t where it needed to be.”
So now the question as to what happened is one that may need asking. Some may say that Canada simply was a more battle-tested team and, judging by the four teams that faced off on Monday, that might just be the case. The U.S. didn’t exactly cruise through a bracket that many considered easier than Canada’s, while the Canadians were a shootout goal away against Sweden from winning what most are calling the bracket of death. Three of the five teams from Canada’s bracket were left standing come Monday, while the U.S. was the only team from its bracket, and it got there via a bye.
Now the U.S. attention must turn to a bronze medal. After Russia upset a Sweden team that is arguably faster than Canada in Monday’s opening semifinal, the U.S. must set its sights on a Swede team that won that bracket of death.
“One of the things I said to the team [after the game] is as bad as we feel right now, the beauty of it is we do have an opportunity to play another game and let people see how good we are,” Allain said. “We’ll appeal to their pride. We’ll let them mourn tonight’s game tonight and try to have an upbeat practice tomorrow and move forward as a hockey team.”