Team USA Ends Round-Robin Unbeaten; Faces Russia in Quarters

The United States finished round-robin play in the World Junior Championships with a 4-4 tie against Slovakia on Sunday, and now prepares for a quarterfinal match with Russia on Tuesday.

Team USA finished with a 2-0-2 record, tied for best in Group ‘A’ with Slovakia and Sweden. Slovakia won the tiebreaker with the U.S. for the top seed, based on goal differential. Russia was the third seed in Group ‘B’ with a 2-2-0 record.

The United States, led 3-2 after one period against Slovakia, getting power-play goals from Boston University’s Ryan Whitney, and Michigan State’s James Slater. Brett Lebda, who plays for Notre Dame, scored the other goal in a see-saw opening 20 minutes.

Slovakia scored the only goal of the second period, then took the lead on its third breakaway goal of the game, six minutes into the third. Lebda scored again to regain the tie with six minutes remaining.

“We’re not satisfied with the tie,” U.S. National Junior Team head coach Keith Allain said. “We play every game to win, but there were a lot of positives for the team. It was an exciting game with a lot of action on both sides. Now we’re looking forward to the playoff round to begin.”

Saturday, the U.S. rolled over winless Belarus, 5-2. Belarus actually led 1-0 after the first period, but the U.S. outshot its opponent, 24-3, in the second. Boston University’s Gregg Johnson tied the game, before Belarus regained the lead with a power-play goal. Kris Vernarsky re-tied it late in the period.

The U.S. came out firing in the third, and took the lead for good with goals from Yale’s Chris Higgins and Notre Dame’s Rob Globke. After goalie Jason Bacashihua stopped a penalty shot, Minnesota’s Keith Ballard put the game away with his first of the tournament.

It’s been impressive tournament so far for the Americans, who have never won this most prestigious international amateur event.

On Christmas Day, the Americans defeated the two-time defending champion, and host, Czech Republic, 3-1. It followed it up with a 2-2 tie against Sweden on Thursday night.

The U.S. scored 18 seconds apart in the first period of the game against the Czech Republic, played in front of a hostile crowd of 8,500. Vernarsky opened the scoring, followed by one from Higgins. That lead was extended to 3-0 just 19 seconds into the second period, on a goal from Chad LaRose.

The Czechs scored late in the second for their only goal, and were held to just five shots on Bacashihua in the third period. Bacashihua was strong early when needed most, and stopped 30 shots.

“I have a lot of respect for the Czechs and what they’ve accomplished in the last few years at the tournament, so to win this game is a big achievement for our team,” Allain said. “I’m very proud of our squad, and most of all, impressed with how the players played together as a team.”

Against Sweden, Team USA followed up a scoreless first period with a power-play goal by Higgins, a native of Smithtown, N.Y. Just over a minute later, LaRose scored his second goal of the tournament on a shorthanded breakaway.

Sweden scored twice in the third to tie it, including a power-play goal with less than two minutes remaining.

“Nobody likes to tie, especially when you’re up by two goals, but I think it was the right result for this game,” said Allain. “This was a very even contest and I’m proud of how our players played with intensity through the whole game, but we will need to be smarter to win games.”