An Uphill Road to Gold

U.S. Faces Russia, Aims To Keep Medal Hopes Alive

The thought of the U.S. Men’s National Team winning its first gold medal in the IIHF Men’s World Championship since 1933 was enough to coax Patrick Kane and several other American stars to travel to Slovakia and participate in this year’s tournament.

 

The U.S. rattled off five straight wins in the preliminary round, sandwiched between an opening loss to Slovakia and being blanked by Canada in the finale. The U.S. finished as the No. 4 seed in Group A, which was still good enough to punch their ticket into the next round. 

 

“You start the tournament wanting to get to the quarterfinals,” said head coach Jeff Blashill. “We’ve done that and now you have to win three hockey games.”

 

Three more wins and it’s gold. One more loss, however and it’s zbogom (goodbye) from Slovakia. For the U.S., It’s time to strap in and survive, by any means necessary.

 

To open the quarterfinals, the Americans face an undefeated Russian team that has outscored its opponents 36-7 to win Group B.

 

Here are five things that will play a pivotal role in whether or not the U.S. fulfills their golden aspirations. 

 

Power Players

The U.S. has one of the more effective special team units in the tournament. There’s an abundance of skill with the likes of Kane and Jack Eichel on the power play, while boasting some prototypical penalty killers such as Luke Glendening, so their success shouldn’t be all that surprising.

 

The U.S. power play has scored on 7-of-16 power play opportunities through the tournament, a 43.75 percent conversion rate that only trails Canada’s 52.63 percent mark. With games getting tighter in the elimination round, a crucial power-play goal could provide the turning point. The addition of Zack Werenski, who made his debut against Canada, will enhance the Americans’ chances with the man advantage.

 

The penalty kill has been impressive too, especially of late. The U.S. have killed off nine consecutive penalties over the past four games and survived 12-of-14 penalties, a 85.71 percent efficiency rate that is third in the tournament. They’ll need to be on their game against a Russian squad that has no shortage of snipers, led by the great Alexander Ovechkin.

 Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel has been one of the most consistent and impactful forwards for the U.S. so far in Men's Worlds. Excluding the shutout loss to Canada, Eichel is the only American to tally a point in each contest.Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel has been one of the most consistent and impactful forwards for the U.S. so far in Men's Worlds. Excluding the shutout loss to Canada, Eichel is the only American to tally a point in each contest.

Keep It Simple Defensively

One of the keys to getting by Russia will be minimizing the opportunities of their dangerous offensive catalysts, such as Nikita Kucherov, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Evgeni Malkin. Limiting turnovers that could lead to breakaways and odd-man rushes is crucial against a team scoring at a clip of better than five goals a game. 

 

The blueline corps of the U.S. is composed of eight defenseman, seven of which are left-handed. Adam Fox, the Harvard product is the lone right-handed option on the backend. This has led to several players being forced to play on their off-side. Managing that adjustment in addition to dealing with the bigger international ice surface has been something the U.S. has struggled with at times. It will be important for the blueline crew to keep things simple and limit the risk of doing too much against an opponent that can quickly cash in on the slightest miscue. 

 

Can Schneider Steal One?

When the goaltenders were named to the U.S. Men’s National Team, Cory Schneider looked like the de facto man in net. The Marblehead, Mass., native has run with the starting role and possesses a 3-0-0-2 record through five games. He has a goals against average of 2.17 and save percentage of .924.

 

Schneider is still finding his way back into form after hip surgery that has limited his mobility. While it’s a tough injury for a goaltender to battle through, Schneider has kept a positive mindset and has rebounded nicely over the past few months. 

 

At Worlds, Schneider has been sound in net, especially early in games as his teammates find their groove.  It’s not unreasonable to think that if the U.S. is going to run the table they will need Schneider to steal a game here or there.

Cory Schneider has been strong in net for the Americans, continuing a late-season stretch of great play in net with the Devils. Over the last two months of the season in New Jersey, Schneider had a .927 save percentage.Cory Schneider has been strong in net for the Americans, continuing a late-season stretch of great play in net with the Devils. Over the last two months of the season in New Jersey, Schneider had a .927 save percentage.

Staring Adversity In The Face

While a tournament forces players to come together quickly, the Men’s World Championship is one of the longest international tournaments on the docket. Now, with every game being an elimination game, it’s time to see what this team is made of.

 

At this stage of Worlds, every team is a tough test and the U.S. will have to play their system and rely on each other to provide the best chance at advancing.

 

Home Of The Brave

We have yet to see an American stars take over a game and will his team to victory, a la Ryan Poehling at the World Juniors. Patrick Kane has 10 points and is now the U.S. all-time leading points scorer at Worlds, while Eichel and Alex DeBrincat have both shown their wizardry with the puck, each possessing eight points.

 

Dylan Larkin has provided timely goals with the overtime winner vs. Finland and a third-period tally against Germany. However, Larkin left the game against Canada after blocking a shot and didn’t return, so his status moving forward remains uncertain.

 

Taking Care of Business

The U.S. didn’t do itself any favors in the preliminary round, but that’s all behind them now. All they can do now is play the hand they’ve been dealt, and that means taking it a game at a time. And that starts with potentially their toughest test so far.

 

The U.S. will need to play a disciplined and inspired brand of hockey, striking early and being relentless on forecheck and limiting odd-man rushes if they are going to keep their medal hopes alive.

 

The IIHF ditched the classic bracket format this year, marking the first time the semifinal matchups will be determined by seedings from the preliminary round. As the 7th seed, the U.S. will likely face the highest-seeded team to emerge from the quarterfinals if they were to advance. The U.S. has reached the semifinal twice in the past three years.

 

If the U.S. can execute these five things over the remainder of the tournament, they have as good of a chance as any country to win. It all starts tomorrow morning at 10:15 (EST) and will air live on the NHL Network.

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