3 Takeaways From USA’s 6-3 Loss to Slovakia

While Team USA started with a strong first period in the Dec. 28 matchup against Team Slovakia, they were unfortunately not able to pull off a win. They were defeated by a score of 6-3, as they faced a few of the NHL’s top prospects and struggled to find their footing amidst penalties.

They Were Outworked

The biggest problem that Team USA faced in this loss was that throughout the second and third periods, they were seemingly outworked by Slovakia. In the first period, they showed some perseverance after Slovakia’s Libor Nemec scored first. They managed to come right back with a goal of their own by Ottawa Senators’ draft pick Tyler Boucher before Gavin Brindley scored at the end of the period, giving Team USA the lead heading into the second.

In the second period, Team USA quickly ran into trouble, as Montreal Canadiens draft pick Lane Hutson took a tripping penalty early on, leading to Slovakia’s first goal by Dalibor Dvorský. They then scored two more quick goals from fellow Montreal Canadiens draft pick Filip Mesar, along with Robert Baco. Team USA struggled to maintain control of the puck, and was unable to answer any of the goals in the middle frame. 

Filip Mesar Montreal Canadiens
Filip Mesar, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Their luck was only made worse by a bad hit by Los Angeles Kings draft pick Kenny Connors that ended up with him being assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct. One of the few bright spots for Team USA was their ability to kill the major, and head into the third period without falling any further behind. However, Slovakia scored twice in the third, and despite a last-minute goal by Boucher, they were unable to find their way back into the game. 

Related: 2023 World Junior Championship Team USA Final Roster

For a team with so much high-end talent, it’s easy to look past some mistakes or weak spots when they’re able to score. However, Slovakia highlighted some of the weaknesses within Team USA that will need to be addressed in order to avoid a repeat of the 2022 World Juniors.

Goaltending Issues

Goaltending remains a weak spot for Team USA. While for the first game they went with 17-year-old Michigan State commit Trey Augustine, this time they brought back 19-year-old Colorado College goaltender Kaidan Mbereko. Mbereko ended up stopping 20 of the 25 shots he faced.

Kaidan Mbereko Team USA
Kaidan Mbereko, Team USA (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The subject of goaltending has been a topic of discussion for some time, especially as the team faced an early exit in the 2022 tournament. Since the designated starter has not yet been determined, Augustine may see more time in net after an alright performance against Latvia that ended in a win for Team USA.  

The Need For Tougher Defense

One of Team USA’s most prominent traits is their skill and speed. Their defensive core is not an exception to this, relying on mostly smaller offensively skilled defensemen. Only captain and New Jersey Devils prospect Luke Hughes and Washington Capitals prospect Ryan Chesley are above 6 feet tall, and it’s possible that when playing against physically tougher teams like Slovakia, they could get overpowered easily. 

Hughes has had a strong start to the tournament, and the team is largely relying on him to provide solid defense. He played 25 minutes against Slovakia, the most of any skater on the team. He currently has one goal in the tournament, scoring against Latvia. Fellow defenseman and Colorado Avalanche prospect Sean Behrens has one goal and one assist so far and received the second-most amount of ice time in the game against Slovakia, playing just under 19 minutes.

Luke Hughes of the USDP
Luke Hughes of the USDP (Photo: Rena Laverty)

By relying on the offensive abilities of defensemen instead of their physical attributes, the scoring will be there against bad teams. However, against better, more physically demanding teams like Slovakia, they need to be able to make up for their weak spots. Against Slovakia, the Americans were simply unable to figure out a way to cover those up, leading to the loss.

Next, Team USA will play Switzerland on Dec. 29, before playing their last game of the preliminary round against Finland on New Year’s Eve.