Three games into the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship, you wondered if Team USA would miss qualifying for the medal round for the second consecutive year. With the seventh-place finish of 2012 still reeking after back-to-back 2-1 losses to their two biggest rivals, the Americans were in playoff mode one game early.
Questions swirled. Is Phil Housley really the right guy for this job? Is he relying too much on his offensive defensemen? Is he pushing the right buttons?
Turns out those questions were a bit premature. The Americans steamrolled Slovakia to get into the medal round, then didn't let up a bit against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. A combined 16-3 score in two games? Well that certainly wasn't the offensively-starved US team we saw through three games.
Housley shuffled his lines, moving a player without a current line, Jim Vesey, to the first unit. The move was drastic, but had wide-ranging effects up and down the lineup. Perhaps the biggest impact was felt on John Gaudreau, who ignited alongside Vesey.
The kid they call "Johnny Hockey" exploded for five goals and an assist in those two games. Vesey had three assists. Good thing Housley chose not to cut him, like it was rumored in pre-tournament play.
Then came the mighty Canadians. In a rematch of one of those 2-1 losses, the Americans started like they were fired out of a cannon. Two goals by captain Jake McCabe had the US out to a 2-0 lead before Team Canada could blink. Both goals that were a direct result of a hard forecheck, a staple of many successful American teams in recent history, and something Housley stressed incessantly.
Then, Gaudreau continued his resurgence with another pair of goals. Before long, thanks in large part to John Gibson's stellar performance, the rout was on.
Housley had left his mark on this team already, heading into the gold medal game against Sweden. This team, who had yet to accomplish their goal of proving Seth Jones right as the tournament's best team, stared in the face of a opposing force that was supposed to knock them off. But the Americans didn't just beat the Canadians. They trounced them. The learning had been underway for months under Housley's leadership, we just didn't know it yet.
On the grandest stage of all, in the gold medal game, Housley's impact was felt again. Rocco Grimaldi, all 5'6" of him, entered this tournament as one of the premiere American forwards expected to produce. After a going scoreless through three games, Housley sent a message to Grimaldi and his team by stapling him to the end of the bench.
Grimaldi mostly watched as the Americans surged to the final, seeing limited time against Canada as the 13th forward. The snakebitten forward was hungry again.
Housley let him loose against Sweden, and was rewarded in kind. The ever-persistent Grimaldi wasn't discouraged when he blistered a snapshot past Niklas Lundstrom that hit both (!) posts but somehow stayed out of the net in the first period, a shot that nearly gave the Americans the lead. But as EJ Hradek persisted, the hockey gods can be as kind as they are cruel.
Grimaldi's sharp-angle shot tied the game at one, but he was far from done. Less than three minutes later, a shot by Jacob Trouba bounced off Grimaldi in front and past Lundstrom and all of a sudden, the Americans were in front. Thanks to a stellar post-to-post save on a wraparound attempt by Gibson, who turned in effort after effort that would make Jim Craig blush, the US stayed in front.
With under a minute to play and Sweden's last-ditch attack intensifying, Housley leaned on his checking unit of Cole Bardreau, Ryan Hartman and Vince Trocheck who had served him well the entire tournament. After Hartman and Tyler Biggs neutralized a Swedish power play early in the period, Hartman managed to get the puck out of the zone, springing Trocheck on a breakaway. With no goalie to stop him, the celebration was on for the Americans with just 16 seconds to play.
Housley, of course, has plenty of experience with USA Hockey himself. He was a member of the US World Championship team six times and won gold at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, arguably his career's crowning achievement. He knew better than most what it would take to overtake a more talented Canadian roster. And he executed his plan to perfection.
Nobody will remember that this team lost two games that pushed them to the brink of elimination. What will be celebrated instead is how their head coach managed to right the ship and find his Midas touch as his team rolled to their third gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships.