After loss, U.S. finds itself in desperate position at World Juniors

The United States’ backs are against the wall at the 2012 World Junior Championship. The good news for the Americans is that everyone in the U.S. locker room knows it.

Coach Dean Blais said on Thursday that Friday’s pool play game against the Czech Republic is a “desperation” game for the Americans after a 4-1 loss to Finland, the first for U.S. against the Finns in the tournament in six years.

Through Friday’s game technically won’t be a must-win game, as the U.S. could potentially beat host Canada on New Year’s Eve and still advance to the medal round, a loss could put the Americans in a precarious position. A 1-2-0-0 record through three games would take control of fate out of the American team’s hands, requiring not only a win in over Canada but also a Finland victory over the Czech Republic on Saturday afternoon.

For Blais, he’d much prefer that not be the case.

“Certainly, it’s a desperation win [against the Czechs],” Blais said. “If we have to win against Canada to get into the medal round, [it] would really put a lot of pressure on everyone.”

Blais, the head coach at Nebraska-Omaha and the bench boss the last time the U.S. captured World Juniors gold in 2010, said he hasn’t even talked to his players about the standings and the math behind each win moving forward. Instead, their focus right now is on getting the team to simply play better.

“We had too many players who, for one reason or another, didn’t play their game [against Finland],” Blais said. “It kind of steamrolled and got worse. Some players score a goal and the whole team gets motivated, or some player blocks a shot or the goaltender makes a big save, but we didn’t have enough of those plays.”

What disturbed Blais most was his team’s inability to drive the net. Against Finland, the U.S. drew just one penalty, and that was negated almost immediately when goaltender John Gibson was whistled for interference, tripping a Finland player as the U.S. attempted to break out of the defensive zone after just 15 seconds of power-play time.

In Monday’s 11-3 victory over Denmark, it was the power play that sparked the U.S. offense, scoring three times in five chances. Thus, the inability to create scoring chances and force Finland to take penalties was a major disadvantage for the U.S. against Finland.

“We’ve been very good on the power play,” Blais said. “We got lot of shots, lots of opportunities and we only got one power play because we weren’t driving to the net. We didn’t make Finland pull us down because of our lack of second effort.”

Blais still hasn’t made a decision about which goaltender will be in net on Friday. Jack Campbell seems like the likely choice, having guided the U.S. to gold and bronze in the last two World Junior Championships. Gibson, while not playing bad, was unable to make the big stop in the key moments of Wednesday’s game and seems likely to take a back seat.

As for the opponent, Blais feels plenty of reason to be concerned about the Czechs.

Hardworking like Finland, the Czechs are an even more skilled team, Blais said, and will pose plenty of problems, likely generating more offensive chances than either Denmark or Finland.

To counter, Blais hopes to bring team speed that lacked in Wednesday’s loss.

“We’re going to have to use our speed,” said Blais. “That’s one of our strong points. With that speed is the effort needed to score goals.

“We don’t have the gifted scorers we had two years ago in Saskatoon to win it. We’ve got to be able to muck and grind and get those goals the dirty way, the hard way.”

Even with a win over the Czech Republic on Friday, there is no guarantee the U.S. will advance. A loss to Canada on Saturday combined with a Finland win over Denmark on Friday and a Czech win over Finland on Saturday — assuming all games are decided in regulation — would force a three-way tie for second between the Americans, the Czechs and the Finns.

All teams would be 2-2-0-0 with a 1-1-0-0 record against the other two teams in the three-way tie. Thus, everything would come down to goal differential, the top two teams of the trio advancing.

At the same time, though, the U.S. isn’t yet out of the running to win the pool and earn a bye in the medal round. That, though, would take two regulation wins over the Czechs and, of course, Canada.

Those numbers, though, are for the fans and the media. The team itself, said Blais, is simply focused on playing its best hockey and that — and only that — can help the Americans advance.

“We’re not even going to talk about [numbers],” Blais said. “As a coaching staff, we don’t have to put any more pressure on than is already there. We just have to be mentally tough and get second-effort type of play from the entire team.”