GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The U.S. National Junior Team got off to a good start in defense of its world championship, downing North Dakota 3-0 in an exhibition game at Ralph Engelstad Arena Sunday.
“It’s good to get that first game out of the way,” said U.S. forward Patrick O’Sullivan, playing in his third World Junior tournament.
“There was some physical play and good chances both ways,” he said. “For the younger guys who haven’t played internationally, it was a good game for them to develop some chemistry.”
The World Junior Championships start Dec. 25 in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, Minn., and run through Jan. 4. The tournament features the best under-20 players from 10 international teams, including Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.
Last January, the U.S. team, coached by Mike Eaves of Wisconsin, won its first-ever gold medal, defeating Canada 4-3 in Helsinki, Finland. This year’s team is coached by Scott Sandelin of Minnesota-Duluth and includes 14 U.S. college players.
Michigan’s Al Montoya was the difference in the game, stopping all 15 of the shots he faced for two periods. Cory Schneider of Boston College replaced Montoya in the third period, making eight saves.
U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter, who played for Wisconsin last season, scored the game-winning goal at 16:52 of the first period when he rifled O’Sullivan’s drop pass in the slot past UND goalie Jake Brandt.
The U.S. went up 2-0 at 1:33 of the second period on a goal by forward T. J. Hensick of Michigan. Dan Fritsche intercepted a UND clearing pass and quickly relayed the puck to Hensick, who was all alone in front of Brandt.
The final goal came at 11:18 of the second period. Less than a minute after Philippe Lamoureux replaced Brandt as goalie, Sioux forward Brady Murray turned over the puck directly in front of the UND net, leading to a goal by O’Sullivan.
The Sioux outshot the U.S. team 23-22 and didn’t lack for scoring opportunities. Montoya and Schneider made big saves on UND’s top goal-scorers, and it didn’t hurt to have a little luck.
Early in the first period with Montoya down, Robbie Bina had the puck on his stick and a wide-open net. But his shot hit the shaft of U.S. defenseman Jeff Likens’ stick and deflected outward. Later in the period, Sioux defenseman Nick Fuher rang a hard slapper from the point off the post.
The Sioux played their third game in three days after sweeping a series against Canisius College Friday and Saturday. UND looked noticeably tired late in the second period.
“Fatigue became an issue,” said UND coach Dave Hakstol.
It didn’t help that the Sioux were without the services of sophomore Drew Stafford, their third leading scorer. The 6-3, 205-pound forward is playing on the U.S. junior team for the second consecutive year.
Stafford, who had two assists in the game, said, “It’s exciting and always an honor to represent the U.S., but it’s also awkward to play against your own team.”
Because of injuries, Sioux forwards Mike Prpich (shoulder), James Massen (knee) and Erik Fabian (shoulder) were also out of the lineup. UND’s fourth line was comprised of converted defensemen Lee Marvin, Scott Foyt and Bina.
When asked about UND’s depleted roster, Hakstol shrugged and said, “You just have to go out and play. We haven’t dressed a full lineup for 17 games in a row.”
UND will get some much-needed time for rest and recuperation. The Sioux are off until Jan. 7 when they play a two-game series at home against Minnesota State.
Sioux captain Matt Greene thinks the American team has the depth and the talent to make another run at the gold medal.
“As an American and as a U.S.A. alumni, I’d like to see them go all the way,” he said.
Montoya is looking forward to his second World Juniors.
“It’s definitely going to be great in Grand Forks with the entire community revolving around this rink and hockey,” he said.