The do-or-die games will begin early for the US, as they now must beat Slovakia in tomorrow's group stage finale to advance in the World Junior Hockey Championships. Despite a late game surge, the US fell 2-1 to Canada on Sunday, putting the Americans behind the eight ball.
For the first 2+ periods of play, Canada looked to be in cruise control, with the US able to generate very little offense. Ryan Strome and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored a pair of quick goals early in the game for Canada, which went into lockdown mode shortly thereafter. A few miraculous saves by John Gibson kept the US from being smoked early on.
Frustration built and built well into the third period as the US could create very few chances - and even when they did, Canada goalie Malcolm Subban was solid as a rock between the pipes. With 12 minutes left in the game, the US earned a power play but could generate nothing, and hope appeared to be pretty much lost - but the US got a lucky break a couple of minutes later when Canada picked up a delay of game penalty for accidentally shooting the puck over the glass.
This was finally the breakthrough the US needed. After a mad back-and-forth frenzy in which Gibson denied a shorthanded odd-man rush chance for Canada, Jacob Trouba knocked one home for the US to make it 2-1. The Americans carried that momentum into the next shift, buzzing the Canadian net. Ryan Hartman was denied of a sure goal by a fantastic Subban save, and Seth Jones fired a shot high and wide when he had Subban down and out.
With Canada reeling, the US then self-destructed. Jake McCabe got a little caught up in the emotion of the moment and smacked a Canadian player with a high hit, earning a 2 minute penalty plus a 10 minute misconduct. Another US penalty put the Americans in a 3-on-5 hole for 30 seconds, but the US managed to escape from the whole situation unscathed. But before the US could turn that momentum into some offense, they took two penalties on the same play and had to kill a full two minute 5-on-3.
Once again, the US somehow managed to escape, and proceeded to lay siege upon the Canadian goal. After a Nugent-Hopkins boarding penalty gave the US a power play for the final two minutes, Canada survived a flurry of American opportunities before a Seth Jones bomb from the point hit the end glass and bounced out of the zone, running time out on the US.
It was, unfortunately, another tough game for Johnny Gaudreau, whose frustration appears to be growing. His minutes dwindled a bit in the crucial late-game scramble, as US coach Phil Housley eschewed some of his more highly touted forwards in favor of guys who have been playing better lately.
If the Americans are going to dig out of this hole and win a medal at this tournament, they will need their best players to emerge. Gaudreau, obviously, will need to find the scoresheet, along with Rocco Grimaldi. And Seth Jones will need to be a better blue line anchor; it was not a stellar game today for the man expected to go #1 or #2 overall at the NHL Draft this summer.
The effort, the energy, and the goaltending have been there for the US. The high-end offensive talent appears not to be there, so the Americans will need to grind out some results.
It's not an insurmountable path to a medal for the US. The Americans should realistically be expected to beat Slovakia tomorrow. If they do so, they will finish third place in Group B and face the second place Group A team in the quarterfinals. That slot is shaping up to be a mad scramble between Finland, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland. Despite the US's pre-tournament loss to Finland, on paper the Americans should be better than all three of those teams and would definitely be heavy favorites against the Czechs or the Swiss.
The next (and hopefully not final) chapter in the US's push for a medal comes tomorrow at 5 AM.