MALMÖ – No U.S. player recorded more than one point in the opening 5-1 win over the Czech Republic. By the same token, 13 different players got points.
That’s likely representative of how things are going to play out for the defending World Junior champions here in Malmö: scoring by committee. And that means solid defence will be key.
It’s not to say the U.S. lacks offensive talent this year, but the current roster isn’t packed with obvious replacements for the puckhandling wizardry of Alex Galchenyuk, John Gaudreau, or Rocco Grimaldi, all of whom made their mark in the 2013 run to gold.
“We might not have the big names right now, but I think we work hard and play as a team,” said captain Riley Barber, one of just three returnees. “We’re really hard to beat down low. If we bring that every game and play our game, our system, I think we can be really good, really effective.”
The Americans effectively limited offensive opportunities for the Czechs in their first game, with only a deflected power play drive by defenceman Michal Plutnar eluding towering goalie Jon Gillies. Shots favoured the U.S. 33-24.
“Especially with the D-corps that we have and the team defence that we’re committed to, if we score two or three goals, it’s going to be hard for teams to beat us,” Gillies said.
The U.S. knew it wouldn’t have big-name NHLers Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba returning on the blue line. Yet not getting Patrick Sieloff, who would have played hard minutes as a shutdown specialist and might have worn the “C,” was a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old Michigan native, who is now with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat as a Calgary Flames farmhand, has been recovering from a staph infection.
So the defenders that are suiting up in Sweden must get it done as a unit.
Even when you factor in the impressive wheels of Brady Skjei and the NHL-honed power play instincts of Connor Carrick, the fact remains that the U.S. is not going to run and gun its way to another title with D-men pinching willy nilly.
“We’re all very defensive-minded because it all starts from defence and works out to offence,” Barber said. “Coach Don Lucia has stressed that very well.”
It’s not a huge shift in philosophy from what Phil Housley inculcated as the bench boss in Ufa last year. The forwards have to do their part to make life easier on the defencemen.
“I think it all starts with back pressure,” Barber explained. “Our forwards are really fast and we’re all really good, defensively minded forwards as well. When we come back and pressure those guys, our D are able to really step up. If we keep doing that against those skilled players, it keeps them from doing the nice plays through the middle.”
Saturday’s game against Slovakia will offer another read on how well the U.S. players are putting their defence-first philosophy into practice.
While the Slovaks are unlikely to challenge for a medal, they’ve done more damage to the goals-against averages of American netminders at the World Junior level than you might suspect. Slovakia has scored three or more goals in three of its last four games against the United States.