Matt Rust came to Ottawa looking to find his offensive game. Outside of Jay Schroeder, he might be the brightest light for Team USA right now.
Rust will admit his first half at Michigan this season has been underwhelming, in his opinion. He has felt that his offensive touch hasn’t been there and he has struggled with consistency. However, he also knows what he brings to the table as a hockey player, and in and understated way up in Lake Placid two weeks ago, he made it clear that he needs to help out in the leadership department.
“It’s easier to stay on a roll. Coach Rolston has stressed that you can’t overlook anything,” said Rust, who has goals in back-to-back games and almost had a third against the Czech Republic.
“Last year we went on a roll, going 4-0 in the round robin. Then we had a game off and it took us out mentally and we weren’t ready for Canada. I bring that example up because you can’t take a minute off. It happened to me twice last season with teams, at the WJC and at the Frozen Four. You can’t look too far ahead and right now we are focused on building a team and getting chemistry and building trust.”
Rust, centering a line with Michigan teammate Aaron Palushaj and Belleville Bull Eric Tangradi has stood out among the three so far. Counted on for his great defensive presence and penalty killing ability, Rust has two of the team’s 12 goals and has given the third line a presence on the scoresheet.
However, considering the skill level and offensive reputations of his two wingers, one would be hard-pressed to believe that after two games he’d be outscoring them both.
Against the Czech Republic, a 4-1 win that moved Team USA to a precarious 2-0 record in the four-game round robin, the U.S. started slowly again and the Czechs were as good as they were in the first period against Canada.
Tied 1-1 midway through a tight second period, Rust parked himself in the high slot after reading that Jon Blum would hold a clearing pass inside the blueline. Blum shot, Rust tipped it past Czech goalie Dominik Furch and gave the U.S. a 2-1 lead. More importantly, he gave them some life.
“It feels good to score,” said Rust. “Our line in game one had some great chances and we either got robbed or had pucks slide off our sticks.”
That made him think back to the first half of his NCAA season.
“In my opinion I had a bad first half,” said Rust, who is as honest and sometimes as brutal in his self-assessment as any player. “I was OK at times but I just couldn’t score. I just feel I have to play better and confidence makes that easier. When you are scoring you just feel that much more confident.”
The U.S. went into Sunday’s game after blowing out Germany and then watching the Czechs get routed by Canada. I asked Rust if the Czechs were a “trap game” for the U.S. with an awful Kazakhstan team and the mighty four-time defending champion Canadians lying ahead.
“This absolutely can’t be a trap game for us,” he said after a spirited practice at Scotiabank Place. “It is important that we are not big-headed and go in overconfident. Coach Rolston said in our meeting that the Czechs would not be a pushover and will play way better than they did against Canada. There are no easy games here; our guys had better understand that.”
That became obvious, and some guys that weren’t major factors in game one stepped up and some that were factors didn’t. Minnesota Golden Gopher Mike Hoeffel was probably the unsung hero of the game for his penalty killing work and former Gopher turned Seattle Thunderbird Jim O’Brien played hard and smart all night.
Goalie Thomas McCollum of the Guelph Storm was more involved than he was against Germany and made several key saves. Of the three that went in, all three were deflected en route to the net.
Conversely, James van Riemsdyk and Eric Tangradi looked tired. The big line of VR, Colin Wilson and Jay Schroeder was good but came back to earth a bit after its utter domination of Germany. Schroeder has been lights-out offensively with three laser-beam goals, all top shelf.
This was the game the U.S. coaching staff needed. The team was dominant in the pre-tourney games and then blew out Germany. Now, after holding on for a 4-3 win that absolutely should not have been that close, the staff now has the upper hand in the dressing room as they take back ownership of a team that was probably feeling a little too confident. Those two late Czech goals and their late flurry that almost tied the game was exactly what the staff needed to prove to their players that they need more than big-game pedigrees to win big games.
“You can’t win on skill alone. Certain guys who have been there know how we have to keep every one focused on the next game and that everyone has to bring their A game,” said Rust, one a core of returning players that include fellow collegians Ian Cole, Cade Fairchild, van Riemsdyk, Schroeder, and Wilson. “It is do or die every night no matter what game you are in. One bad shift or one bad period and it can turn on you quickly. That is why this tournament is such a mental and physical grind. Every game you play is the most important one.”
The Kazakhs should not pose a huge problem, but the Americans must take the college football approach and bury this team by the same 15-0 score the Canadians did. IIHF tiebreak rules have goal differential as the second criterion. Canada is +22, the US is +7. Barring something unseen like either powerhouse losing their next game (if that happens there should be an investigation), both will show up New Year’s Eve 3-0 with the winner getting a bye into the medal round and the loser playing on January 2 vs. the third-place team in the other pool.
That is where the collegians on the roster bring a ton of experience to the table. Van Riemsdyk was on a New Hampshire team that was heavily favored last season at the Colorado Springs regional and fell apart against Notre Dame and lost in a single game elimination. Fairchild and Hoeffel were on that Minnesota team that shocked everyone and ran roughshod through the WCHA Final Five to the title game and then lost to eventual champ Boston College in the Worcester, Mass., regionals in a game that was pretty close.
Michigan had the NCAA’s two best players in (former Team USA captain) Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik and lost to Notre Dame in the Frozen Four. Rust and Palushaj were on that team. Cole and Teddy Ruth were on the ND team that lost the title game to BC. Ryan McDonagh was on the Wisconsin team that upset heavily favored Denver in the Madison regional than lost to North Dakota. They all know the bitter defeat that comes from a single game elimination.
A second bad game costs the U.S. a bye, but Rust pointed out that last year at the WJC, they were 4-0 heading into the medal round. That extra day off took them out of it mentally and they were dismissed by Canada in a single elimination semifinal. However, in a situation now where every game counts in terms of building towards the medal round, you can best Rust and the vets will be counted on heavily.
“This is a tourney where you need your vets and your 19-year-olds to be great,” said Edmonton Oilers Player Development Director Bob Mancini, who has coached on many WJC staffs in the past. “If they aren’t your best players, you are in trouble. Now you can have the occasional coming out party of a younger player and can ride that bit but in the end, it’s a 19-year-old tourney. They have to carry the mail.”
There is every indication the U.S. has the proper mail-carriers in the lineup. Neither hail, nor sleet, nor rain, nor darkness of night shall stay these couriers from their appointed rounds is the mantra of the U.S. Postal Service.
Now we’ll see if the mail, and the message, get delivered from Ottawa.
Dave Starman, USCHO.com columnist and analyst for CBS College Sports, is the analyst for NHL Network’s coverage of Team USA’s games at the World Junior Championship. He is working with CBS partner Matt McConnell, with Fred Pletsch hosting and handling rinkside duties.