MONTREAL – If USA can take find any solace going into its quarterfinal game of the World Junior Championship against Russia Friday, it’s that its young pups can most certainly run with the big dogs in this tournament. And if that realization doesn’t end up helping them in 2015, it will undoubtedly serve them well in 2016.
When the Americans chose five under-18 players for its World Junior team, there were some concerns they might not be battle-tested enough to excel in what is an 18- and 19-year-old tournament. And even though USA coach Mark Osiecki wasn’t completely buying it, that was an enormous factor in his team losing 5-3 to Canada Wednesday night and placing second in Group A instead of first.
Even with team captain Jack Eichel off playing in the NHL next season, the Americans are expected to have 10 returning players in 2016. But all is not lost now. What the Americans could take in terms of positives from the Canadian game was that it refused to go away and provided a very good push back when they were down 2-0 in the second period and late in the game when they narrowed the margin to 4-3.
The U.S. line of Eichel between Tyler Motte and Alex Tuch was going to nose-to-nose with the forward line of Sam Reinhart between Max Domi and Anthony Duclair and, more importantly, the defense pairing of Darnell Nurse and Shea Theodore. Not only did Reinhart demolish Eichel in the faceoff circle, the line couldn’t get much going 5-on-5, but it was not for a lack of effort.
“I thought our guys didn’t get rattled, whether they had success or not,” Osiecki said. “Jack and his linemates didn’t get rattled and they kept plugging away. Their guys did a nice job on them, no doubt about that, but that’s to be expected. When you’ve got that kind of elite profile, you’re going to draw a lot of attention.”
The Americans draw what might be the toughest opponent in the quarterfinal when they face Russia Saturday afternoon. It’s an unlucky turn of events for the Americans, who would have drawn the Czech Republic for the quarterfinal if they had finished third in the group instead. Slovakia will now face the Czech Republic for the right to go to the semifinal.
“We haven’t thought much about who we’re playing,” Osiecki said. “We’re thinking about ourselves. And we talked about that in the locker room immediately after the game. Let’s get better, turn the page and worry about ourselves. I’ve been very impressed with this group. We show them on film one thing and they pick it up like that and you really have to tip your hat to the kids we have in that locker room.”
Osiecki pointed out that it was a great experience for his players to play a team as good as Canada in front of 18,295 fans. It will be good for them both in the short- and long-term.
“I think it’s a great thing for our kids to be able to play a game like this and experience this environment,” Osiecki said. “On Jan. 2 (when they play the quarterfinal) they’ll be much better for it.”