The United States opened up their 2022 World Junior Championship schedule with a 3-2 victory over Slovakia. The game was not perfect, there were plenty of ups and downs, but in the end, they found a way to secure three points in the “Group of Death” (Group B). Here are the three biggest takeaways from their opening game.
Special Teams Decides Things Early
The path to the penalty box was one often taken in the opening period of Sunday’s game. The United States began by taking a too many men penalty only a couple of minutes in. After a successful kill, they put themselves right back on the job again, this time for tripping. However, they once again held strong and forced Slovakia to an 0-2 start with the extra man. Now, with just under six minutes gone by, the U.S. finally started to find their game.
To flip the script completely, Slovakia began to take penalties and allow the favorites to control the puck and play with confidence. During a long 5-on-3 power play, Logan Cooley made an excellent pass to Matthew Knies, who one-timed the puck past the Slovak netminder to give his team the lead. Unfortunately for Slovakia, the goal only allowed one player to leave the box. Almost immediately on the ensuing man advantage, the U.S. scored again, this time on a wicked wrist shot by Mackie Samoskevich.
In the first 15 minutes of the contest, the Slovaks stood at 0-2 on their power play, while the United States was perfect at 2-2.
Commesso Strong Early and Often
The biggest question mark for the U.S. heading into the tournament was their goaltending. Would Drew Commesso be ready to step up to the starter’s job after missing last year’s tournament due to COVID protocols? He answered this question early and often.
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On the Slovaks power plays, Commesso stood tall, stopping all nine shots he faced in the first period. Not only did he make the saves but he looked confident and in control throughout. Once his team found their legs, he was able to settle into the game even more and helped to maintain their dominant lead all the way into the third period.
“The guys definitely made it easier for me in the second when I didn’t get as many shots, but that’s goaltending,” Commesso said. “You have to stay mentally and physically engaged. I feel like I did a good job of that in the second and in the third, I was still engaged and ready. It’s nice to get the first win, but now we’re focused on recovering and getting ready for the next game.”
Finishing the contest with 23 saves on 25 shots, Commesso has certainly given himself and his teammate’s confidence moving forward. If he can remain strong in the pipes, this team has a far better chance of repeating as Gold Medalists.
U.S.A Hanging On By a Thread
While the United States dominated much of the game, skating faster and in more direct lines, winning races, and taking a 3-0 lead, the story was not that way during the third period. Slovakia began to win those same races and put pucks on net with a clear belief of making a comeback. While Commesso was strong, he could not remain perfect as the Slovaks tallied their first goal on the power play at 41:03. Although the push continued, Team USA held a 3-1 lead throughout most of the third period and the game felt that it was in control. With just under three minutes remaining, however, Chromiak Martin scored his second straight goal, pushing the U.S. near the brink.
“I thought we were okay,” said U.S. captain Jake Sanderson. “It was kind of a funny game. Drew was super busy for certain parts of it, so it’s kind of on the guys to stay dialed. It’s also a reminder you can’t take any country lightly. We have to be ready every night. But you have to find ways to win. It’s not going to be pretty hockey for 60 minutes. You have to chip away, get pucks deep, and just get to work. That’s winning hockey.”
In the final 2:30 of play, Slovakia pushed hard, pulling their goalie and firing everything they had at Commesso and the United States. Commesso made a few big saves and his teammates helped him with many blocked shots as they held on by an eyelash for their first win of the tournament.
The most important fact here is that Team USA won the game, secured three points in the standings, and gave themselves confidence in how well they can play. There is much work to be done before they match up with heavier opponents but if they can continue to roll on their power play, get solid goaltending from Commesso, and outskate their opponents for large stretches, they are sure to have success throughout.
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Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!