The defending champions learned a harsh lesson just days before the 2022 World Junior Championship starts. Team USA may become the most disciplined team in hockey after a late penalty cost them the game. Team USA was up 3-1 against Finland with just three and a half minutes to play when Red Savage took a match penalty. Finland was on the man advantage for the rest of the game and had all the momentum.
Savage, son of former NHLer Brian Savage, is known for his aggressive play, but it went over the line when he planted an elbow in the face of Joakim Kemell. That opened the door just enough for Finland, who pulled the goalie to make it a six-on-four powerplay. The Finns tied it and won the game in overtime, 4-3.
Undisciplined Penalties are Costly
Team USA head coach Nate Leaman liked a lot of what he saw from his team until the end, “it’s a great lesson about how quickly the tournament can turn for you. We were in complete control of that game. I thought we were playing the best hockey of the game. In these one-game shots, a little turn of momentum like that can be huge.”
Matty Beniers, the second overall pick in the 2021 Draft, was disappointed the game got away from them but relieved it happened before the tournament started. “I think that game was ours, but we learned a good lesson today about penalties; They can kill you and kick you out of the tournament. So it’s good to have it now and learn from it then later in the tournament,” said the Seattle Kraken prospect.
Leaman said there is a lot of video to review before the tournament starts, but the penalty may serve as the most important lesson, “that’s the one thing you hope you can carry out of this. If that penalty helps us become the most disciplined team in the tournament, then you look back and say that was a very healthy thing for us.”
The Full 60 Minutes
It is cliché, but Team USA didn’t show up until about 10 minutes into the first period. The team had to leave the hotel in Red Deer at 6:30 in the morning for the bus ride to Edmonton. The bus legs were evident as Finland jumped out to the early lead, just over three minutes into the game.
“You hope that was part of it. I don’t if it was or not,” said Leaman. “Our start was really slow, and we struggled to get our feet moving,” in fact, the Finns were outshooting Team USA 12-2 at one point in the period. However, before the late game penalty, the shots were 33-14 for the Stars and Stripes.
“We got better as the game went on,” said Beniers. Although the top-line centre admitted there may have been some anxiety to start the game, “in the second and third, we got the jitters out, some nerves, and we started playing some good hockey.”
Berard is Tough
Keeping these young guys healthy is a challenge at this tournament. They are going as hard as they can every shift, and with so much hockey in such a short time, one injury could cost a player a lot of games. Brett Berard, New York Rangers draft pick and a key player in last year’s gold medal win, left the ice after a scary looking leg on leg hit in the first period. Finland’s Ruben Rafkin took a game misconduct penalty. Berard needed help off the ice and hobbled back to the dressing room but returned later to score a goal.
“That hit is just part of hockey,” said Berard after the game. While he is feeling better, the training staff will be keeping an eye on him, “it got better as the game wore on. Just have to take care of that and make sure that doesn’t linger through the tournament.”
Commesso is the Starter
It doesn’t count as an official takeaway because this was obvious. However, with just one pre-tournament game to figure out, Team USA has the luxury of knowing who is the number one netminder. Drew Commesso, the Chicago Blackhawks draft pick, held the fort to start the game. Although, as mentioned, the majority of the team didn’t show up for the first ten minutes, without Commesso’s efforts, Finland could’ve stormed up to a commanding lead.
“Drew is definitely our number one. He will play against Slovakia. That is our plan,” said Leaman. “He played a solid two periods of hockey, and I’m pretty pleased with that.”
Leaman said he did not address Savage directly about the misconduct call but did discuss the penalty with the team. But, he reinforced with his group the tournament format leaves little room for errors. Team USA plays Slovakia on December 26 in Red Deer.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.