World Juniors: Win Or Go Home

Today is the day the U.S. team enters the single-elimination portion of the World Junior Championship, and it’s the day the Americans can start to rely on their NCAA players for their experience in this area.

The schedule they have been playing is much more in synch with the major junior members of the roster. They played two exhibitions on the 21st and 23rd, then tourney games on the 26th, 28th, 30th and 31st. That’s six games in 10 nights after a four-day minicamp in which they skated twice a day (except one days on which they only skated in the a.m.). That’s much more like a major junior or even a pro schedule than the college guys are used to, and in the Canada game the entire team, especially the defense, looked tired.

They were at the rink Thursday to start the process of looking ahead after their 7-4 loss to Canada on New Year’s Eve.

James van Riemsdyk, who plays at New Hampshire, has been in this situation before with two different U.S. teams.

“The two other WJC teams I was on were two very different situations. The first time we were heavy favorites, started slow and snuck into the crossovers,” said the big winger, who has four goals and three assists and a team-leading 19 shots in four games. “We ended up winning that and gained some momentum then lost to Canada in a very good game. Last season we just steamrolled everyone and ran out of gas against Canada. Maybe it was nerves … two very different spectrums there.”

What is different about this team is its size. However, that size needs to be utilized a little better than it was against the Canadians. While the U.S. played tough, Canada was better was in the physical area. Canada has huge defensemen and the U.S. has big physical forwards, but the U.S. didn’t chip, chase and hammer Canada’s backliners the way the Canadian forwards did to the U.S.

While the big hits Canada dished out early might have appeared to fans as attempts to get the crowd going, what they did in reality was wear the U.S. defense out over 60 minutes of its second game in two nights and fourth in six nights. It worked as the U.S. looked a little worn out at a time it needed the most energy.

Where the U.S. found success the other night was in its secondary scoring. While Canada as a group did a nice job on the big line of Colin Wilson-Jordan Schroeder-van Riemsdyk, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jimmy Hayes and Jim O’Brien all scored in the opening period and defenseman Jonathan Blum scored the fourth goal. The trio combined for a goal, an assist and seven shots on goal.

Canada’s big line, which in reality has been the Boychuck-Hogson-Eberle line, was 3-2–5 with eight shots (including one empty-netter). The star of the show was the likely No. 1 or No. 2 overall choice in next summer’s NHL draft in John Tavares. He had a hat trick.

Team USA is focused ahead and not behind now, and the message was delivered to the team Thursday to forget the Canada game and focus on the playoffs. This situation is similar to what college hockey fans are used to: win and play on, lose and go home.

Should the U.S. win today as the No. 2 seed in the A pool, they play the winner of the B pool Saturday in the form of a 4-0 Sweden team. That is a medal-round game and if they win it they play for gold on Jan. 5 against the winner of a likely Canada-Russia matchup. Canada won the A pool. Russia is the No. 2 seed in the B pool and plays the No. 3 seed in the A pool, the Czech Republic, today. If the U.S. loses tomorrow it plays one more game in the relegation round, a consolation-type game.

You can’t buy experience but the U.S. has a lot of it in this situation at the WJC, starting with van Riemsdyk and his linemates. Colin Wilson, for one, had a great tourney last year but sees it in a much different light.

“Having played in one gives you great experience, especially with what happened last year at this tourney,” said Wilson, of Boston University. “I still have emotions from last year losing to Canada and Russia and people saying ‘You had a good tourney, but just a bad ending,’ and that drives me crazy. I could have had zero points last year and if we had won a gold medal everyone would say, ‘You had a great tourney.’ The emotion allows you to be driven to win this tourney, and the vets feel that way.”

They’ll need that leadership, but also the message to be laid out very clearly by those who have experienced it. One bad bounce (McDonagh’s stick breaking on a breakout pass and the puck going to Tavares, who scored), one bad call (the minor against Canada for a hit from behind which should have been five and a game), one bad shift (or shift change, which resulted on a too-many-men call against the U.S. and a game-tying goal for Canada), one mental mistake (Blake Kessel accidentally putting the puck out of play on a clearing pass that resulted in a delay-of-game penalty and a five-on-three disadvantage) and it could be curtains for the American gold-medal hopes.

“It’s do or die once you get into those crossover games and the college guys know how that works and are more used to it. The major-A guys know how to grind it out over a 70-game season and that’s where we have a pretty good mix,” said Matt Rust of Michigan. “And you can’t conserve much; it’s not like you can make one game any more important than any other. If you don’t win early and set yourself up for success then the latter part doesn’t matter.

“The hardest thing in this tourney is to be able to be stay mentally focused and to be able to put everything you have into every single game. That’s why it’s such a mentally and physically grinding tourney. You are so worn out by the semifinals it’s ridiculous.”

Rust has been here before, as have Ian Cole and the big line. Cole can be a devastating physical force on the blue line as can his teammate Teddy Ruth. Those two from the Fighting Irish will be counted on to return the favor when crashing forwards look to punish the American defense.

“When Teddy is hitting and being physical, he makes our team much better and the team feeds off that,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, the patriarch of the U.S. National Team Development Program. “Ian is similar — he is a big, physical kid with an offensive upside.”

“We came into the Canada game as the underdog. Canada always puts great teams together; they just have guys come out of the woodwork for this and they always are great,” said Cole. “We have to look at this as playing good road games now. Like with Notre Dame: we went to Boston College this season, played a simple, smart road game and beat them — and they were No. 1.

“A lot of our guys understand that mindset. There are teams that will take advantage of every mistake you make in this tourney, but we still feel we can skate and play with anyone.”

While looking ahead, there are memories to learn from in the medal round last year, and motivation to go with it.

“Last year was a big letdown in our eyes and other people’s eyes. We were so successful in the first four games and we got embarrassed by Canada, and then we came out flat against Russia and [ended up] not medaling. I want a gold medal and I think we can get it,” said Rust. “Both the U.S. and Canada had a good game plans going into that semifinal game but at key times they just outworked us and they beat us to pucks.

“They wanted to win more than we did and in watching video of it, they were better in more important areas.”

The fact that the team is still a tightly-knit group is vital here. One thing that has surfaced is the closeness of the group, which will be a factor as they regroup for their 3:30 game today against the Slovaks. That is a tribute to the coaching staff and guys like Jim Johansson and Ken Martell, who have been with this group since they convened in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“The one thing that is stressed in the USA Hockey program is that a team beats a team and that is our theme here,” said Minnesota defenseman Cade Fairchild. “The best team always wins and if you have guys there that are not for the team, then you really hurt your chances of winning. In a tourney like this you can beat yourselves and that is usually what happens because it is such a long grind.”

The quick-talking but always-insightful Fairchild paused, and put it in perspective.

“Mental toughness is a huge thing here.”

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.

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