2013 WJC Review: Golden USA squad dominates second half of tournament

By DJ Powers

John Gibson - USA

Photo: Team USA goaltender John Gibson was strong throughout the 2013 World Junior Championship, earning the tournament MVP award for his performance (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The United States claimed their first gold medal at the U-20 World Junior Championship since 2010, and just their third gold medal ever at this event after defeating reigning gold medalist Sweden, 3-1, in the WJC championship game.

Rocco Grimaldi, who had been relatively quiet during much of the tournament, netted two goals, including the game-winner for Team USA.

The Americans’ successful run was due to a combination of superb goaltending, a balanced attack and excellent special teams play. With the exception of goaltenders Jon Gillies (CGY) and Garret Sparks (TOR), every player on the USA roster posted at least one point in the tournament. The United States was also the best penalty killing team in the tournament, allowing just three power-play goals and finishing with an 89.29 efficiency rating. Although Team USA finished fourth on the power-play (29.27%), their 12 power-play tallies were tied for most in the tournament.

Another reason for Team USA’s success can also be attributed to head coach Phil Housley’s willingness to tweak his lines and defensive pairings to find the right combinations. And those changes paid off in a big way for the Americans. After one-goal losses to Russia and Canada respectively in the relegation round, the revamped Team USA lines and pairings collectively stepped up their play and simply got better as the tournament went along. In their final four games of the tournament, the United States outscored their opponents by an astounding 24-5 margin.

The production Team USA got from Johnny Gaudreau (CGY) and J.T. Miller (NYR) made them the team’s two best forwards in the tournament.

It took awhile for Gaudreau to find his groove. But when he did, he was nearly unstoppable. The Carneys Point, NJ native led the tournament with seven goals, highlighted by his hat trick in the United States’ 7-0 win over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. His elusiveness and exceptional hands that have been so evident in his collegiate career with Boston College so far became quite noticeable in this tournament, as well.

As the tournament progressed, so did the play of Miller. His experience both in tournament play and in the pro ranks with the Connecticut Whale paid dividends for the United States both offensively and defensively. The East Palestine, OH native led Team USA with seven assists and co-led the team with nine points. He was particularly dangerous around the net, often wreaking havoc on opposing goaltenders and defenders in battles for loose pucks. While Miller’s natural position is right wing, he was utilized as a center for Team USA in the tournament. The move greatly benefited the team, particularly his linemates Gaudreau and Jimmy Vesey (NSH) due to his excellent playmaking skills and ability to open up space.

The stellar American defensive corps was as good as advertised. Team USA’s blueline was very active offensively throughout the tournament, accounting for 29 of the team’s 91 points (32%). And no defenseman was better for Team USA than Jacob Trouba (WPG). The current Michigan Wolverine finished the tournament leading all defensemen with nine points (four goals, five assists). Not surprisingly, he was also named the tournament’s top defenseman. Trouba was one of Team USA’s most consistent players throughout the tournament, playing both ends of the ice equally effectively. The one area where Trouba really made his mark was on the power-play, where three of his goals were scored.

When John Gibson (ANA) was named the tournament’s MVP and top goaltender, it was a no-brainer. The Pittsburgh, PA native was brilliant between the pipes for Team USA and nowhere was that more evident than in the gold medal game. Were it not for some tremendous saves among his 26 against a formidable Team Sweden squad, the outcome might have been different for the Americans. Gibson’s confidence and ability to elevate his play in big games were vital keys to Team USA’s successful run. Gibson finished the tournament leading all goaltenders in several categories including goals-against average (1.36), save percentage (.955) and minutes played (398:07).

Team USA featured many unsung players, but three in particular – defenseman Jake McCabe (BUF) and forwards Vince Trocheck (FLA) and Blake Pietila (NJD), made significant contributions to the team’s success throughout the tournament that may not have gotten the credit (or as much credit) as they deserved.

McCabe was about far more than just the six points (three goals, three assists) that he posted for Team USA. His leadership, great puck-moving skills and rock solid play on the blueline provided a steadying presence and made him a threat at both ends of the ice for the United States. He also displayed a bit of grittiness in the tournament, an attribute that has become a part of his game at the University of Wisconsin. McCabe is the second Wisconsin Badger to captain Team USA to a gold medal after Derek Stepan accomplished the feat in 2010. McCabe finished the tournament leading the Americans with a plus-9 rating.

Trocheck excelled in his support role on Team USA’s “energy line”, finishing the tournament with six points (three goals, three assists). His empty-netter in the championship game sealed the gold medal for the Americans. The Saginaw Spirit sniper was particularly effective on face-offs, winning 60.31 percent of his draws. Trocheck did an outstanding job in Team USA’s grind game, often frustrating opposing players with his relentless tight-checking style.

Trocheck’s linemate, Pietila, didn’t post a goal for Team USA in the tournament, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Where Pietila made his mark for the United States was on the defensive side of the puck. Since arriving at Michigan Tech in the fall of 2011, Pietila has made some great strides in his defensive game and he successfully carried that into the WJC this year. Where this was evident was in his noticeably improved stick work and transition game. Interestingly enough, Pietila, who is a winger, led Team USA in face-off percentage, winning 62.50 percent of his draws. He finished the tournament with two assists.

Defenseman Seth Jones unquestionably solidified his status as one of the top, if not the top, players eligible for the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft with his play at this WJC. The current Portland Winterhawk more than lived up to the hype. The attributes that have had scouts raving about him, such as his NHL-sized body, excellent skating and elite skill set were all on full display with Team USA. And it wasn’t difficult to see why he is such a coveted, draft-eligible player. Jones finished the tournament second in defensive scoring with seven points (one goal, six assists) and finished second on Team USA’s roster with a plus-8.

One undrafted American that boosted his stock for the 2013 NHL Draft during the WJC is Cole Bardreau. The Fairport, NY native was a key cog on the United States’ penalty-killing unit and was just over 58% on face-offs. He finished the tournament posting three points (one goal, two assists). The Cornell University sophomore is in his final year of draft eligibility. Despite an outstanding freshman campaign with the Big Red last season, Bardreau was passed over in the 2012 draft. This season, he has been able to pick up where he left off last season. That, coupled with his strong WJC performance, will almost certainly make NHL teams take a closer look at Bardreau in his return to the Cornell lineup.

You can follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF