For the first time since 1999, USA Hockey will not be taking part in the knockout round of the World Junior Championships. Thanks to a 5-2 loss to the Czech Republic yesterday afternoon, the Americans will be forced to play in the relegation round, and face the possibility of being demoted to a lesser group in 2013, something that was deemed unfathomable just a few days ago.
The teams entered the third period knotted at two and the US had plenty of chances to take the lead. Josh Archibald deked out Petr Mrazek on a penalty shot, but hit the side of the net. After that, the Americans sustained a shift where they had constant pressure around the Czech net, but could not put one past Mrazek, who made 52 saves.
Defensive breakdowns plagued this US team, as we feared it might, in their loss to Finland on Wednesday, and it was no different on Friday. Petr Holik put home a rebound of a Tomas Sekac shot with just over seven minutes to play to give the Czechs their first lead of the contest. The goal was Holik's second of the game on a play that started with a turnover by the Americans in their own zone.
Just over five minutes later, Czech captain Tomas Nosek stripped Jakob Trouba on the boards and found Tomas Filippi in the slot, who roofed it past a sliding Jack Campbell to double the Czech's lead and the celebration was on.
Charlie Coyle, one of the Americans top forwards, sat out most of the game while trying to fight off flu-like symptoms. He and head coach Dean Blais had differing accounts of how he was feeling after the game according to Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show:
Coyle told me that he'd been awake most of the night throwing up and that even prior to the game he was ill. The flu bug has made its way around the tournament; Canada's Michal Bournival missed the game against Denmark for the same reason but clearly this was a much different scenario for USA and Coyle.
"I'm not feeling 100% right now and that was the reason why coach decided not to play me," Coyle said in the post game interview area. I asked him to clarify if that was coach Blais' call or not, "Yeah. He knew I wasn't 100% so that's what he decided."
Midway through the third period I spied Coyle on the bench calling over one of the team's trainers. A moment later during a stoppage in play the trainer called to coach Blais who turned towards he and Coyle. Coyle said something and then moved from the end of the bench to the middle, apparently ready to get into the game.
Coyle's presence on the ice, even if he was playing at less than 100 percent, could have been the difference in such a close contest. Once he decided he was ready to go, however, it was too late according to Blais:
I asked about the midway point of the final period when Coyle stood up to let the coach know that he was ready to go again.
"Yeah but by then you can't go out," Blais suggested, "If you're going to [say you can play] you have to say right away. As soon as I took him out of the line up he's got to say 'hey bullsh*t, I'm ready to go!', you know?"
For all the talk of the defensive lapses this team had, the play of most of their forwards left a lot to be desired. Sure, they've greatly outshot their opponent in every game so far, but that wasn't without a number of low-percentage attempts on net from entirely too far out to solve any of the strong goaltenders they've faced.
The play of forwards like Coyle, Jason Zucker, Nick Bjugstad and Emerson Etem left a lot to be desired in the last two games. In fact, it was rather surprising to see that a lack of offensive firepower considering the previous few US teams were loaded with great forwards such as Jerry D'Amigo, Chris Kreider and Kyle Palmieri.
One player that did impress in all three zones was New York Rangers 2011 first-rounder J.T. Miller. Miller, who assisted on the Americans first goal yesterday on a beautiful feed to T.J. Tynan, has been most frequently used by Dean Blais in a defensive role. The Plymouth Whalers forward showed an ability to play physical and also stay on his assignments in his own zone, perhaps the only American player we can say that about.
The Americans will take on Canada tonight in what was billed as the best preliminary round game just a few days ago. Now it's meaningless for both teams, as Canada has clinched the top spot in Group B and a bye into the semifinals. Don't expect the US to lie down against their bitter rivals, but I wouldn't expect a win either.
Blais has yet to announce if he will start John Gibson or Campbell in net. The US will also be without the services of Jon Merrill, who left yesterday's game after taking a vicious hit from Petr Straka that resulted in a five-minute major and a game misconduct for the Czech forward. Merrill landed awkward and stayed down for a few minutes with an apparent leg injury.
Today's slate of games features a few intriguing ones, including Russia and Sweden who will square off to decided the top spot in Group A. Slovakia and Switzerland will do battle with the winner taking home the last quarterfinal berth in Group A, while the Czechs and Finns will play for seeding in Group B.