The US World Junior team is off to a very nice start in Buffalo with an overtime victory over Finland, followed up by a dominating win over Slovakia. Here's my take on the two games so far.
USA 3 Finland 2 (OT)
First and foremost, I'll reiterate long-held belief that Pierre McGuire should never be allowed to be on the broadcast for international games. If it is USA Hockey and the NHL Network's intention to try and sell the game to viewers, it's counterproductive to have someone in the booth actively rooting against Team USA. I'm not saying they should find a complete homer, but I can't think of anything positive McGuire has ever said about USA Hockey and it's grating to listen to.
Despite listening to two hours of fantasies about how the US could very easily be losing the game, I was pretty happy with the game that the US played. It wasn't the prettiest effort, but Finland is a very strong team. They were my pick for the bronze medal.
There were a couple long stretches in the first and second period where Finland definitely had the positional advantage, but even when they were buzzing in the US zone, I can't think of too many high quality chances they generated off the defense, which is impressive given the skill Finland has. I thought the US was incredible on defense, which is a good sign going forward in the tournament.
On the other end, the US created some high quality chances of their own and just didn't execute well enough. I can think of at least three semi-breakaways they failed to convert. Some of that is on Finnish goalie Joni Ortio, and some of it is that the US just needs to bear down and make those plays, but it's a huge positive that those opportunities are coming.
USA 6 Slovakia 1
I only saw the first half of this game at a restaurant, but that was enough to get the general picture. It seemed like the entire first half was played in the Slovak zone with the US on the power play, and Slovakia relegated to playing like a bunch of goons.
It's up for debate how much Slovakia's steady decline and how much the US's rise to prominence has played in completely turning the tables for these two countries, but it's pretty amazing that the US has put themselves that far ahead of Slovakia in terms of developing players.
It would have been a great game for the US if they hadn't come out of it with a couple dings from Slovakian cheap shots. I was surprised to hear Jerry D'Amigo returned after being hit in the head in the first period, but it sounds like Jason Zucker could have a concussion which would be a huge blow. The US was already very thin at forward with Jeremy Morin and Brock Nelson getting injured in the first game. Their big advantage in depth at forward takes a hit if they get knocked down to three lines.
We're starting to get some idea on how some of the bottom of the roster decisions are panning out. Chris Brown is delivering exactly what the US hoped he would so far. Jason Zucker's big goal in the Finland was directly set up by Brown chasing down a Finnish defender and the defender completely bailing out to avoid taking a hit. INstead, he turns the puck over to Zucker, who rips a shot into the net. That's exactly what you want; your big guys running around and creating space for your high-skill guys.
The light bulb seems to be going on for Nick Bjugstad as well. I've loved the way he has played so far. His overtime winner was a bit of a cheapie, but it's always been amazing to me how often guys that are making good things happen early in a game usually end up with a goal by the end of the game.
Brock Nelson wasn't doing a lot for me prior to the injury, especially at center. Emerson Etem hasn't done much to help the team, and did a lot to hurt the team with his dumbas tweets about the city of Buffalo. He's like this year's version of Eric Tangradi, who pretty much changed the entire course of the US's tournament by sticking his stick in the face of a Canadian player from the bench a couple years ago. You can start to see why USA Hockey likes to rely on guys with extensive experience playing for them that they can trust.
On defense, Patrick Wey doesn't appear to be logging huge minutes, but he hasn't stood at all on the blueline, which is exactly what they wanted from their seventh defender. The whole group has looked strong, Wey included.
On the other end, the hope was that the returning players and guys with pro experience would be able to carry the load for the US, and so far, I think Kyle Palmieri has really stepped up and been that dominating presence the US needs at forward. Nick Leddy has stepped up on the defense and has looked great too.
They certainly got enough practice against Slovakia, but I've liked what I've seen out of the power play so far. Decent puck movement and really set up their big shooters for bombs from the point. Even if they're not scoring on every single one, they're generating good chances every time and are dangerous enough to make their opponents think before committing an infraction.
So the US is on pretty good pace so far. They've got games left against Germany and Switzerland, two teams that they should beat, but will provide a much tougher challenge than people expect. In any case, the US is looking in pretty good shape to finish first in their group and earn that bye into the medal round.