2013 World Juniors: Team USA and the Challenge That Lies Ahead

Written by Mike Salerno on .

Oh, hello there. If you've found your way back to our site after all this time, well then we're as surprised as you are. It's safe to assume that the majority of our money last year was made on our second-to-none (except for, uh, most) coverage of the 2012 World Junior Championship.

We had wall-to-wall coverage of teams, players, results, you name it. Unfortunately, any money we did make was given to us in Canadian dollars, so we mistook it for Monopoly money and threw it away.

With that in mind and a certain professional hockey organization's unwillingness to budge in a mind-numbing labor dispute, we plan on diving head first into this year's tournament once again. Hopefully we can work on some kind of exchange rate this time around.

There was a lot to be learned from yesterday's game, and surely even more coming in tomorrow's final tuneup against Finland. Head coach Phil Housley (pictured right) will make his final cuts after the game as he and his 23-man roster will fly to Ufa, Russia while three players head home for the holidays.

Now, if you watched yesterday's exhibition game between the US and defending-champion Sweden, there was a lot to get excited about. The Americans pulled out a 3-2 overtime victory despite not dressing their entire first line, two top defensemen or starting goaltender. This team's great, right?

Well, not quite. But we'll know more about their definitive strengths and weaknesses after the final roster is announced. Each player considered to be "on the bubble" has played well, making this decision a tough one. But it's an enviable spot to be in for coach Housley and the Americans. Here are some of the things we learned from yesterday's game:

The IIHF Learning Curve
Both Sweden and the United States took a slew of penalties that slowed the pace of play down considerably as the game wore on. The referees were incredibly strict--yet consistent--in their calls, which gave both sides an insight into how the international game differs from that of the NCAA or CHL. Many of these players were donning the red, white and blue for the first time in their careers, so encountering such straight-laced officials could serve them well. Anything that even resembled a stick infraction resulted in two minutes. This is an area the Americans will need to learn from fast if they're serious about their hopes for a medal.

Lucia stands out
Mario Lucia looked pretty good for a kid who suffered a broken leg just over three months ago. The Wild's second-round pick in 2011 was thought to be a lock for the team prior to his injury, but it's been a long road back to recovery. Lucia showed the tenacity and touch of a top-six forward in the second period, causing a turnover behind the Sweden net and feathering a saucer pass to Ryan Hartman in front, who finished it off to give the US a 2-1 lead. Lucia was constantly around the puck, creating havoc on the backcheck as much as the offensive zone. While it appears he may be safe from the chopping block, what kind of role he will play for this team is still in question.

Defense on the offensive
If the United States finds its way to the medal stand, it'll be on the heels of their numerous two-way defensemen. It's an interesting dynamic considering a year ago the blue line was considered the Americans' Achillies' heel. Although Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones were not in the lineup on Thursday, two of the three US goals still came from the blue line. Connor Murphy, who was easily the Americans most impactful player, got the Americans on the board and nearly got another that would've broke a 2-2 tie late in the third period. Matt Grzelcyk got plenty of time to create opportunities with the man-advantage, but his defensive play at even strength left something to be desired. Against teams with such strong counter-attacks as Russia and Canada, he could be exposed. We're not in Hockey East anymore, Toto.

Speaking of Grzelcyk, here's to hoping Ray Ferraro of TSN can figure out the difference between him and Shayne Gostisbehere, the game-winning goal scorer. He confused them at least four times. Gostisbhere had an up-and-down game as well, and shouldn't be considered safe just yet. He was victimized by the officials on a pair of calls, including one out of necessity after being beaten in front by a Swedish forward.

Skjei on the chopping block
It's incredibly difficult to tell from just one game, but based somewhat on what junior hockey savants such as Chris Peters have reported all through the selection process, it's tough to see New York Rangers' 2012 first-rounder Brady Skjei finding a spot on the team. His inconsistent freshman year at Minnesota hasn't helped his cause, and he looked even more tentative on Thursday. It's not even that Skjei has looked terrible, but rather that he's been surpassed by others around him. All that could change with a strong effort tomorrow, and perhaps, a weaker showing by another defenseman.

Goaltending depth not a concern
Both Jon Gillies and Garret Sparks played very well, making the question of "who's number two" that much harder for Housley & co. Sparks' resiliency after a soft goal just minutes into the action was impressive, while Gillies was beaten only by a near-perfect shot by Rickard Rakell near the end of the second period. John Gibson will likely anchor this team throughout the tournament, but if anything were to happen to him, there are two capable players waiting in the wings.

Thanks again to our fan(s) for reading. We'll continue to enjoy bringing you the latest and greatest from the 2013 World Junior Championship. Follow us on Twitter (@The_Scratches) for up-to-the-minute reaction! Also, be sure to follow @chrismpeters and @USABestHockey for some of the most informative/entertaining WJC thoughts on the interwebs.

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