Goalie John Gibson (L) was the top player for gold-medal winning Team USA and tournament MVP at the 2013 World Junior Championships. - Bruce Bennett
The United States under-20 team won the gold medal in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships with a 3-1 win over Sweden. This recap notes how even the game was and highlights several American players in the tournament, including New Jersey Devils prospect Blake Pietila.
The United States have won the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Tournament with a 3-1 win over Sweden. The Americans earned the gold medal in a game where puck luck decided the fate of the scoreboard. Sweden struck first when Filip Sandberg roofed the puck in on a power play after an unfortunate bounce off Jacob Trouba's skate went right to Sandberg in the slot. Rocco Grimaldi equalized on a turnaround shot that squeaked in through goalie Niklas Lundstrom, and he was credited with the go-ahead goal after a shot by Trouba deflected off his body and past Lundstrom. The third goal was an empty netter by Vince Trocheck to ice the game. It speaks to how well Lundstrom and tournament MVP John Gibson both played in net for their respective countries in this game. I was really impressed by both goalies, they brought their proverbial "A" games. A couple different bounces and perhaps I'm writing about how America took the silver medal in Ufa.
While one way to look at today's 3-1 win was that it was essentially a goaltender's duel, I'd say it was an evenly played game. Both teams were even in discipline with four penalties each. Both teams displayed sparks of speed only to be disrupted by the opposition's defense or goaltending. Both teams weren't so crisp in the neutral zone. The Americans led in shots 31-26, but the Swedes made sure there weren't too many dangerous shots. The Swedish team played further back to counter the U.S. speed they displayed in their beatdown of Canada and counter-punched pretty well in spots. However, they were also prone to turnovers by the American forecheck and some spotty passing at times. I'd love to know how many missed and blocked shots there were to get a truer sense of who controlled the game, but I got the sense that no team really dominated. There were definitely times where one team had a few good shifts in a row, but the flow swung back in the other direction eventually. It at least made it for an entertaining game that holds one's attention until the very end. After all, it was a one-goal game throughout the entire third period of a tournament final.
Regardless of how you interpret the luck, the Red, White, and Blue earned the gold and the 2013 team will forever be regarded as one of the top junior teams in USA Hockey history. Gibson was named the best goalie of the tournament and the MVP of the 2013 WJCs. As the IIHF's tournament website notes, he's the first goalie to win the tournament MVP award since
Chris Steve Mason in 2008. His reaction saves were perfect, a rebound rarely fell to a rushing attacker - especially today, and he was unflappable in net. It's fully deserved as he led all goaltenders with a remarkable 95.54% save percentage with only nine goals against in seven games. That level of performance would give any team a chance in a short tournament and Gibson is a big reason why he and his teammates lifted a trophy and sung their national anthem off-key after this game. Today was no different as he denied Sweden on nearly all open looks and the lone goal against meant nothing to him. He was simply sensational and he should be remembered as the star of this tournament.
The defense as a whole will be remembered very fondly by the USA Hockey supporters. They did a good job as the only Swedish player who really piled up the shots were Sandberg (7); they even kept Filip Forsberg fairly quiet. This team's blueline was led by Jacob Trouba, 2013-eligible draft pick Seth Jones, and captain Jake McCabe. Coach Phil Housley went with seven defensemen today, but these three were the jewels of the defensive crown in my opinion. McCabe and Jones was a pairing Housley put together in the middle of the tournament and the duo worked wonderfully together. McCabe displayed his strong shot while keeping things calm coming back on defense. Jones certainly saw his 2013 draft stock rise as he showed the world how smooth of a skater he is given his size, how well he can keep and handle the puck on offense, and how quickly he reacts when he makes his decisions. If that wasn't enough, he was proven right that his team was the top team in the tournament. Yes, it was a short tourney, but I fully understand the Jones hype. As impressive as he was, Trouba was even better. Trouba was a boss on the point on offense and solid in his own end. He led all defensemen in the tournament in scoring with four goals and five assists and deservedly was named the Best Defenseman in the tournament by the IIHF Directorate. Today, unless I'm missing something, his only real fault was a puck bouncing off his skate. That says it all to me. Many Michigan and Winnipeg fans fell in love with Trouba right from the get go and anyone who hasn't will from this tourney, if not this game.
Equally important in short tournaments are special teams. In America's case, it wasn't so much the power play as it was the penalty kill. While the PP was pretty good in the tournament (12-for-41, fourth in the tournament in success rate with 29.27%), the power play wasn't threatening at all against Sweden today. Sweden did have the second best PK success rate in the tournament at 80% (5 PPGA on 25 situations) and they tended to drop back regularly against American attacks, so they certainly planned a defensive game. But America absolutely shined on the penalty kill. Sure, Sweden did convert on one of their three power plays but it was only the third power play goal against the USA in the entire WJC. Also, the shot only happened because a puck took a funny bounce off a skate, it wasn't a breakdown in coverage. The Americans only allowed three power play goals out of 28 opportunities, resulting in a tournament-leading 89.29% success rate. Blake Pietila was a regular on the PK units and he deserves credit for being part of the units that ensured opposing teams wouldn't make the U.S. pay for their penalties.
The New Jersey Devils only had one prospect in the 2013 WJCs and 2011 fifth round selection Pietila was it. While he has been lighting it up for Michigan Tech this year, he was utilized primarily in a checking role. He lined up with Cole Bardreau and Ryan Hartman throughout the tournament at left wing and that line's job was to slow down the opposition. Today, he did a pretty good job of that and as far as I can tell, that has been the case throughout the tournament. There were a few shifts where they got pinned back and it didn't generate a whole lot of offense, but given their intended use by coach Phil Housley, I'd say they did a decent job. Pietila was one of the few American skaters to not score a goal in the 2013 WJCs (the others are Connor Murphy, Mario Lucia, Pat Sieloff, and Tyler Biggs) and his offensive production of 11 shots on net and two assists - both in the first game against Germany - certainly isn't cause for celebration. But based on the group games I saw and today's game, I fully understand why he's projected him to be a checking winger at the next level. He showed his capability of doing so in this tournament right from the first PK to defending a 6-on-5 in the game's final minute and a half today. It's function over flash and Pietila has a gold medal for his efforts either way.
While he's not a Devil, there was one New Jersey native on the roster that definitely stood out for his production. The Calgary Flames faithful have to appreciate what John Gaudreau has done all tournament. He led his team and the WJCs in goals with seven, led his team in shots on net with 25, finished tied with Trouba on Team USA in points with nine fifth in overall scoring, and was named to the All-Star team by the tourney's attending media. Gaudreau hails from Carneys Point and went to Gloucester Catholic before heading to Dubuque of the USHL. The Flames drafted him in the fourth round in 2011 and ever since, he's been putting up the points and lighting up lamps for Boston College. The 5'9" winger made everyone in Ufa know his name after he scored a hat trick in a 7-0 crushing of the Czech Republic in the medal tournament's first round. You need players to "step up" in a short tournament and Gaudreau definitely filled that over the last week and a half.
But it wasn't Gaudreau's day as much as it was Rocco Grimaldi's on offense. Yes, his goals were certainly beneficial, but he also put four shots on net. Only Riley Barber can claim as many shots from the Americans today. It's redemption for the dimunitive winger as he was demoted to the fourth line during this tournament for his performance. Today, Grimaldi showed more than that he's just a fast winger, but he played with a purpose. His only real fault was taking a tripping call in the offensive zone, but it was definitely his finest game in the tournament. It was much better than his constant skate-around-and-take-a-weak-shot efforts against Russia in the group stage. Maybe he was really due for some goals and the breaks got him there, but he'll go down as the one who clinched America's third ever gold medal in the World Junior Championships.
Including all of this, what makes this team really impressive was how they got to the gold medal game at all. After a very disappointing 2012 tournament, where the USA ended up in the relegation round and finished seventh, the team had every incentive to get back some respect. On paper, the Americans were one of the more talented teams in play. They had to struggle a bit in the group stages. After pounding Germany 8-0, they lost to the host team Russia 2-1 and then to Canada 2-1. That made the game against Slovakia a must-win and they cruised to a definitive 9-3 win. In retrospect, is it really that bad to lose to Russia and Canada 2-1 each? The Americans weren't really outplayed in either game; they were close games. The U.S. clearly turned out to be better than their 2-2-0 group record indicated.
The Red, White, and Blue made their statement in the tournament itself by smashing the Czechs 7-0 and then dropping an anvil of revenge on Canada 5-1. Unlike their group game, the U.S. controlled the game from the get-go and their lone goal shouldn't have counted. As the Americans marched on to the gold medal game, it was apparent Gibson wasn't going to be beaten easily, the defense would be steady in their own end and supportive on offense, and there were enough weapons at forward to get the goals they needed. Housley's adjustments paid off and the result of all of this was today's game. As well as Sweden did to get to the gold medal game and as lucky as the goals were, the Americans fully earned their result. There were a few breakdowns that led to some odd man rushes and some tough spots, but they also forced quite a few errors from the Swedes and found success of their own. They put in the work, they had the talent, and they reached the goal. The 2013 team achieved the forever glory that comes a gold medal and more than made up for last year's team. You can't ask for much more than that.
Congratulations to Blake Pietila, John Gibson, Jacob Trouba, Jake McCabe, Seth Jones, John Gaudreau, Phil Housley, and the rest of the American roster for their victory in Ufa. It was an entertaining tournament through and through, despite some awful local start times. It'll be a little better next year in Malmö, Sweden. Please leave your thoughts about Pietila, the Americans, this gold medal game, and the entire 2013 World Junior Championships in the comments. Thank you for reading.