HELSINKI, FINLAND - While the Americans have put up some of the best offensive numbers of the world juniors so far, let's not forget about the defense that has surrendered just five goals in four round robin games. Leading the charge on the blueline is Columbus Blue Jackets first-rounder Zach Werenski, a standout sophomore with the University of Michigan Wolverines and the captain of Team USA. He may not be Steve Rogers or Sam Wilson, but Werenski wears the title of Captain America with pride.
The only blemish on Team USA's record in the round robin was a 1-0 loss to Sweden; otherwise they were golden. And though having the last two games of the prelims against minnows Denmark and Switzerland (yes, I'm downgrading the Swiss; they deserve it) wasn't ideal before facing an elimination game against the Czechs in the quarterfinal, the captain wasn't sweating it.
“We prepared well for Canada," Werenski said. "We prepared well for Sweden – it wasn't the outcome we wanted but I thought we played well – and we won our past two games and played well.”
It's that sort of confidence that makes the Wolverines defender a key player in the room, too.
“Like most of our guys he's a quiet leader," said coach Ron Wilson. "He doesn't say much, but he's willing to stand up in front of the room and tell the players what he thinks. He has done that so far and that's what I like about him.”
Defense partner Brandon Carlo echoed that sentiment, noting that Werenski will get on guys if their games aren't up to code. But Werenski's impact isn't just emotional. He's also an incredibly well-rounded weapon who parlayed a sensational freshman campaign with Michigan into a spot on stage at the draft in Florida, where the Blue Jackets were ecstatic to get him eighth overall.
Werenski is an excellent skater and puckmover, with a wicked shot and a solid defensive reputation as well. He and Carlo were also partners at the 2015 world juniors, but now bring a year's worth more of experience and strength to the table. Carlo is a shutdown 6-foot-5 Boston Bruins pick from WHL Tri-City and as often is the case, opposites attract.
“He makes my job a lot easier back there," Carlo said. "I can rely on him, I can get him the puck to get it up the ice, so it's been a lot of fun. We can do a lot of damage in shutting down people.”
A product of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, Werenski knows all about the traditions and lore that go with Stars and Stripes Hockey. This year's world junior squad has been wearing T-shirts with a triangle inside a circle and the words "Obligation, Courage, Justice" within the sides of the triangle. It was inspired by former Marine and special NTDP coach Kirk Culik, who often uses his military background to train and inspire the American players in the program.
“Those three words are what USA Hockey is built on," Werenski said. "You have an obligation to your family, friends and country when you wear that jersey. You go out and play with courage and with justice, you want to go out and do the right thing at all times to help your team win. Those are the three legs to the stool, as we call them. Without one of them, it's not going to stand up.”
Another USA Hockey tradition is a custom chant based off an old military song, which the team sings after tournament wins. Werenski knows it and has captain, he would lead the chant, should the occasion arise in Finland.
"Hopefully," Werenski said, "we get to sing it one more time."