The United States has sealed a top-two finish in their group of death in exhilarating fashion. Cole Caufield buried the overtime winner against the Czech Republic in a back-and-forth 4-3 victory in Ostrava.
The final game of the United States’ preliminary play was perhaps the most electrifying win thus far. It wasn’t their best performance in their first four games, but it was certainly one of their most electrifying tilts with plenty to take away from.
Well Worth The Wait
Caufield’s first goal of the tournament could not have come at a better time. After tying Alexander Ovechkin’s single tournament goal record at the U18 World Junior Championships, expectations for Caulfield were nothing short of being this tournament’s most potent sniper.
Yet, he had been held scoreless through three games with just six shots on net. He made his seventh shot count in a wonderful give-and-go play with fellow Wisconsin Badger Alex Turcotte, as his patience was finally rewarded with a game-winner. Now that the monkey is off his back, watch out for Caufield to begin finding a bit more success as the United States looks towards the knockout stage of the tournament.
Trevor Zegras Continues to Dish Dimes
Three games in and Trevor Zegras had already established himself as one of the premier passers of the tournament. Today’s performance by the Anaheim Ducks prospect has fully solidified him as the top playmaker in the tournament pool. He added two more assists against the Czechs, bringing his total to nine assists through four games, all of which have been primary.
He’s perhaps the most dynamic and natural passer that the United States has ever seen in their WJC history. He’s done it all sorts of ways, from spin-o-ramas to between the legs passes, he’s shown his premier talent at dishing out assists to his linemates.
Zegras’ is now just five assists away from tying Doug Weight’s United States’ U20 WJC single tournament assist record. If the United States can advance to a medal game, Zegras should be able to challenge that record easily at his current pace. He now leads the tournament in scoring without a single goal to his name.
Live and Die by Special Teams
Yet another day of the United States struggling on the penalty kill but dominating on the power play.
The U.S. committed two penalties less than a minute apart towards the end of the first period, giving the Czechs an ample opportunity on a five-on-three where they eventually capitalized on with a cross-crease pass to Libor Zabransky as he buried his second of the game. The Czech’s game-tying goal in the third also came on the man advantage as a stickless K’Andre Miller was unable to clear out the front of the net and Petr Cajka buried a loose puck.
The United States is now the most penalized team in the tournament with 20 minor penalties in their four games. They finish the preliminary round with a penalty kill percentage of 65 percent, second-worst in the tournament thus far. They’ve been shorthanded a tournament-leading total of 33:46. The undisciplined play by the United States is shocking, to say the least, especially when their penalty kill is performing so poorly. A drop-off from last year’s tournament-best PK was expected, but this has become an unprecedented problem for the United States.
They’re especially susceptible to cross-crease passes when on the penalty kill. Often times, the puck-side defenseman will lay down in order to take a passing lane away, however that leaves the rest of the ice wide open for the remaining four players on the opposition. That specific strategy also puts the defenseman out of position should the opposition choose to not pass. Zabransky’s second goal was a perfect example of that very problem. Head coach, Scott Sandelin has to adjust his penalty kill strategy as the knock out rounds commence or they’ll find themselves going home early.
Luckily, the United States’ power play has been clicking well. Their 28.57 percent success rate on the power play isn’t great by tournament standards, but they’ve still managed to find the back of the net on the man advantage in each of their four games. The U.S. and Czechs lead the tournament with 21 power plays thus far, however, the latter has only played in three games.
Arthur Kaliyev has been especially deadly on the power play, leading the team with two goals on the man advantage in four games. He and Shane Pinto, who also scored in the contest against the Czechs, lead the team goals with four apiece. Zegras leads the team with his three power-play assists.
What’s Next for the United States?
The United States’ fate now depends on the results of Dec. 31 match between an Alexis Lafreniere-less Canada and the Czechs. If Canada loses in any fashion, the United States will seal the first seed in Group B.
The US should be playing either Switzerland or Slovakia depending on how the preliminary round finishes up. For now, the United States has plenty of momentum to build on as they set their sights on three more victories.